Vol. VIII, No. 4

February, 1996

Exploring Ancient Cities - A CD Review

by Richard Ellis
Bryn Mawr College

(Scientific American, Exploring Ancient Cities: Crete, Petra, Pompeii, Teotihuacan. Sumeria, Inc., San Francisco, CA., 1994, $49.95.)

My first problem with this CD was getting at it. Since my office computer does not have a CD drive, I tried it on my wife's computer at home: 486, 8M RAM, 75 MHz, VGA, 2X CD drive. It worked, but the graphic rendition was terrible, and the action very slow. Then I tried it in the CSA office, and after some problems with drives, it proved to work very well on a Macintosh Quadra 900, and equally well on an IBM-compatible 486 (25MHz) with 4X CD drive, though the latter machine lacked a sound card, so that it could not access all the features of the disk.

The potential buyer who operates on Windows, therefore, is advised to try it out on his/her own computer, or on a closely similar one, before deciding. The CD can be run straight from the drive, without any installation, but there is also a small installation file which is said to make it run a little better. When I tried this option on my home computer, it did not seem to make much difference, and I did not try it again. The folder that forms the cover of the CD box includes only production credits and operating instructions.

Each of the four sections of the disk deals with one city (or, in the case of Crete, a group of sites) and consists basically of: a text taken from a Scientific American article, a recording of the same article being read by Rod McKuen, and a collection of about 100 color "slides" - images apparently derived from still photographs, and presented one-by-one in various patterns. In addition, there are ancillary elements, such as city plans, a time-line showing the chronological relationships of the sections, and brief "movies" showing movement through part of a site or a series of objects in sequence.

An ingenious feature of the disk is the number of different ways one can access the information, starting with a screen of contents that offers several routes. The most flexible of these access patterns shows a set of windows on the screen. On the right is a page of text including 15 lines and about 100-110 words, and arrows to allow one to advance or retreat. On the left is a small slide image, and below the slide buttons that can be clicked on to show the relevant city plan and sometimes a brief movie. As one advances through the text, many key works and phrases are underlined in red; clicking on the red line displays a related slide in the screen. In addition, "up" and "down" arrows below the slide screen allow one to go forward or backward through the series of slides. Clicking on the slide itself results in a full-screen version of the same image; another click reduces it again. The text about each city occupies 40 or 50 screen pages; on the CSA windows computer it took about three seconds to advance from one page to the next; on my home machine it took eight or ten, with some halts of a minute or so, while the computer was doing something that my limited expertise does not allow me to guess at. This method of going through the material is somewhat like reading an article with illustrations in the text, though you cannot see more than one picture at a time, and going back to a previous picture requires that you click through the sequence, rather than flipping a couple of pages. Another way of seeing the images is provided via a menu that appears when the cursor approached the upper edge of the multi-window screen. One of the choices is "Slideshows," with a selection that, depending on the city, can include "Architecture," "Tomb facades" (for Petra), "Frescoes," "Sculpture," individual buildings, and so on. Clicking on one of these results in a series of four to about a dozen full-screen images, shown for seven or eight seconds each, with short captions in a corner. Also available is the "Grand Tour," of all the available slides. Specialized slideshows are also available from the initial contents screen; sometimes they are not identical to the ones accessed from the multi-window screen. And finally, choosing "Visual Overview" from the initial menu gives you the voice of Rod McKuen reading the text of the article, accompanied by a full-screen slide show, and lasting 25 to 30 minutes.

How good is all this? The texts are those of Scientific American articles. They were written by recognized experts in the fields, and the information is accurate and set in social and cultural context, but it is not new. The authors and dates are:

Crete: Peter M. Warren 1985
Petra: Peter J. Parr 1963
Pompeii: Amadeo Maiuri 1958
Teotihuacan: Ren Millon 1967
Only in the case of Petra is any recognition given to the passage of time and the accumulation of knowledge. One of the menu choices at the top of the Petra multi-window screen is "Sidebar," which provides a movie of an interview with Patricia Bikai, Assistant Director of the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, about the recent work of ACOR in the Byzantine church at Petra, and the discovery of papyrus scrolls of the 6th century CE. Several other slides, for instance those of the "Temple of the Winged Lion," show buildings referred to neither in the text nor the sidebar. In the text itself, the work of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem at Petra is referred to as "recent" and "current." Not only are these expressions no longer true, but they sound curious in view of the fact that since 1967 Jerusalem and Petra have not been under the same jurisdiction.

The pictorial part of the presentations is very attractive; when the proper equipment is used the slides are clear and well composed. The movies, however, are grainy and jerky; they were evidently not designed to play any important part in the presentation, and they do not in fact contribute much instruction or enjoyment. As attractive as the images are, however, they are not well integrated with the text. As far as I have been able to tell none of the plans or maps from the original articles have been used, and the color pictures were not taken explicitly to illustrate the text. While all four sections include photographs of objects, most of them seem to have been taken in museums, and few are equal in quality to the outside scenes. The software intended to provide the proper labels for the slideshows sometimes failed; in one instance the facade of one of the major tombs at Petra was identified as "Replicas of Roman coins."

As is often the case with popular productions like this, some of the ancillary features seem to have been prepared by assistants with little experience of the subject. The Time Line, for instance, identifies 689 BC as the destruction of Babylon, and 605 BC as the Babylonian conquest of Egypt. It is true that Sennacherib of Assyria destroyed Babylon in 689, but it was rebuilt with the aid of his son and grandsons, and flourished under the Chaldaean Dynasty. In 605 the Babylonians defeated the Egyptian army, but did not enter Egypt, much less conquer it.

My general judgement of this CD is that it is too awkward to be very effective as entertainment-with-instruction; a video tape would be better for that purpose. The technical features, allowing one to switch freely from text to pictures, is one that could be useful for teaching, if the information were more current and copious, and if the text and pictures made a better match. As it is, this product is interesting and ingenious, but does not really fulfill any major purpose.

For an index of other CD and Web site reviews available on the Web pages of the CSA Newsletter, see the review index.

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