Vol. XXIII, No. 1
CSA Newsletter Logo
April, 2010

Website Review: Archaeological Atlas of the Aegean

Andrea Vianello, Intute
(See email contacts page for the author's email address.)

Archaeological Atlas of the Aegean

Background History

The Archaeological Atlas of the Aegean was originally conceived as a printed atlas with maps and a gazetteer; the volume was published in Greek only in 1998 by the Greek Ministry of the Aegean. To celebrate the Greek presidency of the European Union (EU) in the first half of 2003, a series of cultural publications was sponsored by the Greek government including the digital version of the Atlas, which was adapted from the original printed format into an interactive website and at the same time translated into English.

The attempt to produce an interactive website from a printed text is evident from the introduction, a short QuickTime video simply showing the Greek and English words of a passage from Aelius Aristides' "In the Aegean Sea" as it is read in the background by a Greek speaker. It is very brief and simple but also effective. Since the video is not essential, the fact that it opens unnecessarily in a popup is a minor quibble. Today's browsers automatically block popups, but in 2003 this was not the case.

Description of the Website

Figure 1 – Screen shot of the home page of the Atlas in a browser window.
Note that the outline, barely visible at the top, marks the
edges of the active portion of the page. The active portion
begins at the top of the page and is centered side-to-side. The
dark blue color fills the remainder of the browser window.

The home page is very neat and easy to understand, but the active portion of the page is only a small part of the browser window, 771 x 516 pixels, with the rest of the window simply colored dark blue, like the active portion. It imitates a schematic diagram with all the key sections represented by a title and a thumbnail view of the linked page; special technical requirements are clearly listed at the bottom of the active portion of the window. The HTML code is written using XHTML 1.0, and all pages appear to obey the standard, reducing the differences in rendition among browsers. The clarity of the page gives a sense of confidence, especially with the names of the publishers (Ministry of the Aegean and University of Athens) immediately visible and no complicated menu. The title is centrally positioned.

The options available from the home page, clockwise from the top left, are:

Further options displayed as text only are: Introduction (the simple video); Credits; Illustration Credits; and access to the Greek version of the website.

The Credits section is thorough and lists many names, though specific parts of the site are not credited to individuals. Illustration Credits is a long list of detailed credits for all images contained in the website displayed in alphabetic order but without - here or elsewhere - any indication of the what image from the website is related to what image in this list. The only serious criticism on the layout of this website concerns the decision to display the contents inside a table with fixed width and height, which at 770 x 430 can appear really small in modern high resolution screens and cannot display as much information at one moment as a typical browser window would permit.

Figure 2 – Screen shot of illustration credits list

The layout is composed of a page title centered on the top, a navigation column on the left listing the same key pages shown on the home page (plus "Navigation Map," which turns out to be the Home page), the contents section and JavaScript-controlled arrows to scroll the contents section. All these parts are encoded in a single HTML file preventing the browser from displaying its own scroll bars as would be the case if HTML frames had been used. Because the illustration credits page is long whilst the window is small and the scrolling using the arrows is slow and tedious, it takes some time to reach the end of the credits. It is not possible to jump easily to any part of the contents. It is however possible to use the browser search capabilities to find and display a specific word rapidly.

Figure 3 – Overview of Maps

Overview of Maps is the entry page to the maps. The layout is the same as for the credits, but the visual contents here fit exactly the space. The Aegean Sea plus parts of mainland Greece and of western Turkey are subdivided into several areas identified by small square; hovering the mouse over any square will display the area covered by the individual map with the number of that area. It is easy to select the region wanted, and one click on the square loads the chosen map.

Figure 4 – Example of Map (Crete)

The maps accessed through Overview of Maps are the same that can be accessed directly by clicking on Maps on the homepage. The only difference is that the map opened through the overview is the one selected whereas the Maps section always opens on the top left corner of the first map, and navigating from that point is not simple. Selected maps are also opened starting from the top left corner. Accessing a quadrant with water may be puzzling at first look because the Aegean Sea is represented monochromatically; therefore, the page may appear blank. The navigation tools provided seem, however, sufficient to continue the consultation of the atlas without feeling lost. Just underneath the map there is a set of four arrows, also using JavaScript, which allow panning across or up-and-down the map by simply hovering the mouse on the appropriate arrow. To the right a compass rose allows access to neighbouring maps, and only those directional choices that will produce a new map are dark, indicating the viable choices. Underneath the rose there is a link to the legend of symbols (Maps-Key), which pops up in a separate window leading to multiple pages of symbols and explanations; further underneath is a schematic view of the Aegean Sea with a red square indicating the current position. It is possible to click on that view to jump to the Overview of Maps.

The maps are displayed at very low resolution and there is also evidence of pixelation around the names. The writing remains sharp and readable in all cases. Roads are displayed in red, with major roads being marked in thicker red. The atlas uses maps showing contour lines, which are often difficult to follow. The main geographic names are given. The archaeological sites are marked using a progressive number in black and a variable symbol, defined in the pop-up window with the Maps-Key.

Figure 5 – Example of map of smaller island (Santorini)

Spotting the symbols on the maps and clicking them to access the entries in the gazetteer is easy enough, but the editors have made their own system unreliable when it comes to smaller islands such as Santorini. Archaeological sites of smaller islands are properly identified by a name and symbol on the map, but only one entry of the gazetteer has usually been made for the whole island and that is normally accessible by clicking the name of the island and not any of the symbols for individual sites. The sequential number of sites as used in the gazetteer that appears in thick black on maps (plus the shape of the cursor as it moves) is the only safe identifier of clickable areas on the map. This is counterintuitive, and it would have been much better if all the symbols covered by one entry of the gazetteer would have been linked to the same entry so that each symbol for a site could be clicked to produce information.

Figure 6 - Screen Shot of the first page of the legend

The first page includes the symbols of the archaeological sites, which are categorised as follows:

The second page includes the symbols of towns and roads; the third page focuses on contour lines and elevations; the fourth page provides the historical names of the main lands and islands bordered by the Aegean Sea. The legend suggests that maps at different scale have been used. The second set of maps is accessible by clicking just outside the map square underneath "Maps-Key" in some views. It is evident that the maps being used are scanned from a printed version and anyone using current services such as Google Maps or Bing Maps will notice immediately the lack of some features such as the possibility to zoom in or out, the possibility to add or deselect layers and satellite views. Yet, this is how printed atlases were just a few years ago, and ultimately there is a question whether certain features are really needed. If the website had been produced in 2010, I would find hard to explain the lack of some features, which we all have come to expect as users. However, that would have meant that the website would rely on some external company to maintain its key functionality, and the pages would be much larger in size and richer in scripts and functionality to prevent "jumping" from a map to the other fast. Indeed, as the navigation tools suggest with that small clickable map in plain sight, the website is an open invitation to discover the Aegean rather than concentrate on small areas. Despite some evidence of overloading, the website succeeds in doing that. It is tremendous to see how many archaeological sites are included in the atlas, which covers only part of Greece and part of Turkey. It is almost a guilty pleasure to click on a symbol, read the first line of the gazetteer for that entry, then jump back to the map, then click another symbol and so on and on. Pages load fast, the website is snappy and it allows one to concentrate on the texts of the gazetteer as much as on the maps.

Direct access to the gazetteer is provided through the Index of Sites, which lists all archaeological sites by number or alphabetically, and through the Archaeological Sites section, which allows readers to browse sequentially all sites in numeric order (but includes no mechanism for selecting a specific site, either by name or be number). In the Index of Sites it is possible switch between the sorting modes, and the numbers of the maps in which each site is present are shown. The arrows to scroll the lists are as ineffective here as in the Illustration Credits section, but here there is a search box (which never returned any results). [Note: The author and the editor tested a variety of browsers on Windows and a MAC. Safari, Opera, and Chrome scrolled this list too fast for it to be even marginally useful; FireFox, scrolled at an appropriate speed, and Internet Explorer under Windows was slow.] Fortunately, it is possible to use the browser's search tool (which worked just fine). In many cases multiple spelling options are given for some sites, improving the chance that there will be a match in a search.

The entries of the gazetteer are usually descriptive and very short; they list major findings from the archaeological site and its immediate surrounds. The names of the museums holding the main collections are often given. For major sites a few low-quality images are typically displayed next to the text, for other sites instead a fixed placeholder will become visible. Clicking on images will open a popup with a larger picture, clear enough for a computer monitor. Clicking on links in red will display images in the column next to the text, blue links instead point to glossary entries. While displaying entries of the gazetteer the compass rose is replaced by a fragment of the map with the site being displayed; clicking on it will display the map, though it will not be centered on the site displayed, nor there will be any sort of highlighting.

Figure 7 – Example of entry of the gazetteer (Knossos)

The home page suggests that more than one video is available across the website. However, none of the major archaeological sites that I checked had a video and the only one that I could find is for the entry of Samos. The video appears very small on screen with a window measuring just 112x84 pixels; it lasts about 2 minutes without sound. It looks more like an "Easter egg"1 found in DVDs than a feature, and so it should be treated. This is a missed opportunity to add multimedia capabilities to the atlas, which remains heavily anchored to its printed roots. However, videos are not essential to the atlas, and their absence does not diminish its value. Overall the website is clearly designed to minimise the volume of data being transferred, and it is likely that a multimedia-rich website would have overloaded the server and possibly attracted casual tourists wishing to see a "preview" of their holidays.

The texts of the entries of the gazetteer are therefore the core of the website. As descriptions go, students are warned immediately that they would not find prepared essays on the most important ancient sites. Instead, there are compact descriptions approximating a list of monuments and features, in strict chronological order and by area for larger sites. Where the descriptions excel is that they are thorough and detailed in mentioning the key monuments and features as well as recent research. They are very dissimilar from anything that could be found in tourist guides, which can be fairly detailed (e.g. the Blue Guides) as they attempt to mention only key facts and monuments. They appear updated (considering that the website was published in 2003), mentioning recent important discoveries and excavations in some cases (e.g. for Athens the discovery of parts of the Lykeion under Rigillis Street and the discoveries found while constructing the Athens Metro).

The information packed in the compact texts should not be underestimated: they effectively catalogue all important monuments, features and facts at any one site. They are a boon for students and more advanced archaeologists in that they can point anyone with access to an academic library to specific monuments or key facts of interest. Of course, for sites and periods that one knows well, the texts hardly add anything, but in the case of minor sites or areas less well known by one consulting the atlas, finding out about monuments of a specific type or period can be extremely easy. It is worth noting that not all sites included in the gazetteer can be visited, at least not without permission, and closed areas at major sites are also included. The texts summarise all archaeological evidence known from the area, regardless of whether it is published, visible, or can be visited.

Unfortunately, the entries of major sites still considered under excavation suffer from being covered with less thoroughness. For instance, sites such as Mycenae and Tiryns, being open to the public, are treated fairly well, but other sites such as Galatas (a Minoan palace on Crete) and Kommos (an important harbour and settlement in southern Crete) are poorly treated considering the wealth of information available.

The choice of pictures and their captions augment the texts in places but not necessarily to great effect; for instance in the entry for Chania the important Master Impression appears as the third figure, but the caption only describes it as a clay sealing and nothing is said about it in the text. Individual artefacts are, however, mostly ignored, for instance the Palaikastro kouros is not mentioned in the entries of Palaikastro (where it was found) or Siteia (where it is conserved). As a result, the atlas is thorough only for architectural structures. The so-called Keros hoard containing Cycladic figurines, which has been targeted for additional research only after the publication of the website, is also not mentioned and instead the text referring to it reads, "thousands of fragments of Early Cycladic figurines, many of them belonging to rare types, have been found."2 The Antikythera mechanism is mentioned in the entry for Antikythira as an astrolabe, but its current display location, National Archaeological Museum of Athens, is correctly given (http://samos.ypai.gr/atlas/thesi_uk.asp?idthesis=425).

The sheer amount of archaeological evidence from the Aegean area is not easy to present in a concise format, and the omission of some features or data in the present atlas should not be immediately seen as strong criticism. This is not the only atlas available online and a brief comparison seems appropriate. Digital Crete (at http://digitalcrete.ims.forth.gr/index.php?l=1) is another such atlas, albeit limited to Crete only. That project has unified several regional projects within Crete, and it is the outcome of archaeological research. Several interactive maps have been produced (section G.I.S. Maps), as well as a sort of gazetteer, a database of projects (section Archaeological Atlas). The maps lack any background, and the sites are represented by simple dots, without any label. The atlas instead lists information on multiple research projects, but lacks any summary or descriptive information. Whilst that project has its merits, it makes evident that gathering the amount of information necessary to produce a viable atlas is not a trivial effort. The atlas being reviewed here contains 630 entries in the gazetteer, but on the map there are many more symbols positioned to indicate archaeological sites (e.g. sites in smaller islands), and most entries summarise several sites that are considered separately in the archaeological literature.

Figure 8 – Time Chart

The Time Chart is next in the home page, and it is accessible from any page thanks to the menu on the left. The layout is consistent with that of the gazetteer, having four columns, left to right: site menu; text; picture; access to maps. There is a lower bar that can be scrolled to select the periods; the colours used here are also present in the entries of the gazetteer and identify the major periods. The texts here are longer (the first and longest one is just over 1,000 words), and each one focuses on an extended period, namely the Prehistoric Era; Historical Era; and Early Christian period. It is possible to click on sub-periods, but only the picture changes unless the sub-period chosen is in a different extended time period, in which case the text changes as well. The texts are fairly updated and can be used by first-year undergraduate students or anyone not focusing on Aegean or Greek archaeology as reference.

The texts are clearly structured and worded for an academic audience, undergraduate or graduate. Their historical perspective includes archaeological and historical evidence; the history of philosophy is also not ignored. There are specific sites mentioned and plenty of uncommon terms, but these texts appear separate from the rest of the website because there are no links to either the sites or the glossary. In addition to that, these kinds of texts would have benefited from bibliographic references, and students would be able to use them as reading essays. Considering that these are helping aids for an atlas, they are impressive. The English language used is very precise, and some terms such as "old salts" are taken from very specific vocabularies (for this example, the language of naval services personnel has been used), adding a further level of difficulty. Albeit short, these texts are far above the level typically expected from first-year students; they condense material and require some previous knowledge of the ancient history of the Aegean as well as of the archaeological methods to be properly understood.

The Glossary uses the same layout, but instead of scrolling text it contains a list of entries, selecting any one will result in the definition appearing where the picture is usually located. Whenever an entry of the gazetteer mentions a keyword present in the glossary, a link is given, so that the glossary is fully integrated with the rest of the website. Once again, using the JavaScript arrows to scroll all entries is very slow. There is a search box here, and this one works. Many entries would benefit from some drawing or illustration, but none could be found. The entries in the glossary are very concise, but correct and undoubtedly a welcome addition given the many technical terms used throughout the atlas. The choice of terms includes architectural terms, terms related to artefacts (e.g. vase forms), terms specific to Greek and Roman archaeology, ancient regions, ancient peoples, historical terms, and a few uncommon terms.


The Archaeological Atlas of the Aegean is a complex website that required the work of a substantial editorial team. It is the adaptation of a printed volume written by specialists for specialists. Although it is an atlas using some not-so-impressive cartography for today's standards, it is an excellent reference tool for students and researchers alike. It is important to remember that this is an atlas, and as such its main purpose is to show the distribution of archaeological sites across a vast territory. Considering the amount of information, some being still unpublished, and the number of local authorities for which some degree of collaboration was necessary to obtain information or just the permission to publish the photographs, only a government could attempt such a project. It is not the only archaeological map in existence, for instance, several volumes of the "Carta Archeologica d'Italia" have been completed since its conception in 1881, but these are usually inconsistent and still incomplete. Currently there is nothing comparable to this atlas for its scale that is freely available online. The atlas is useful for cultural tourism, for students and also for researchers who may be interested on an unfamiliar territory.

The gazetteer is hardly complete as it focuses on architectural structures dating from the Neolithic to the early Christian period. Yet it provides a concise and updated list of archaeological monuments that can be useful. Its difference from a tourist guide or any other publication aimed at the general public is that the importance of monuments is determined strictly by archaeological consideration rather than their accessibility or fame. Reading the individual entries of the gazetteer for a territory provides a clear understanding of the known patterns of settlement and activity of the territory during the key periods considered. This is ultimately the key point that determines the success of the atlas.

The inclusion of additional tools such as the Time Chart and the I>Glossary adds value to the website, providing further reference tools that can be useful, especially to students. There is no doubt that at postgraduate or research level most information provided by the atlas should be known. Furthermore, anybody researching a specific area should gain a far more detailed understanding of the territory than what is available from the atlas. Undergraduate students approaching the complexities of the ancient history of the Aegean region for the first time will benefit most from the website. However, anybody else who simply needs a quick reference tool about an unfamiliar site or area will find the atlas a good starting point.

The targeted audience has not been stated explicitly, and although the title "archaeological atlas" might suggest that it is aimed at archaeologists working in the Aegean, clearly such people will not need to consult the atlas except on the odd occasion. Schoolchildren and the general public may find the language and style far too technical, with most of the entries requiring access to a substantial academic library to follow up. As a result, serious students appear the most obvious audience, especially considering that many of the editors involved in the project are involved in scholarly work.

The website has some shortcomings, such as the lack of essential bibliographic references in the gazetteer, texts that could be expanded and multimedia features that could be added, but none prevents the use of the atlas for what it is or impairs the achievement of its key purposes. Anything more daring would probably have ended up being a project in the making for far too long, and rising expenses might have jeopardised its completion. Thus, we can be grateful for what is available, and ultimately I have to conclude that what has been published is useful and ready to use.

The Archaeological Atlas of the Aegean is derived from a printed publication, and it seems appropriate to include a short assessment of how successful its adaptation to a website is. The printed origin of the materials is evident in the maps, which are scanned. The texts, with the exception of those contained in the Time Chart section, make use of the hyper-textual links that facilitate the browsing and navigation through the site and definitely curtail the time needed to reach the information desired. Menus and navigation tools are constantly present, empowering the reader with all information contained in the atlas. The layout is simple and consistent, and the underlying HTML code is standardised. The use of absolute pixels for the space occupied by the contents instead of a flexible percentage that would adapt it to the screen only causes some problems in the few longer texts. Perhaps accidentally, the current layout makes the website suitable to be browsed from smartphones and small devices, which may be an advantage. Other users may simply prefer to lower the resolution of the screen. Simplicity and standardisation pay off as browsing the website is easier than consulting an atlas, and it will be also possible to update it in the future. The original printed version was available in Greek only, and the decision to offer an English version increases the audience.

This is one project that has been well executed; this is a polished and fully functional website. Many other large projects, including some reviewed in the CSA Newsletter,3 have suffered from being published before they are ready and have not been updated in the following years. Many research projects simply have no money left when it comes to final publication, especially for the preparation of a website, and this is a good example of how Internet publishing may be vastly superior to printed publication for some projects that can benefit from a large enough audience and hypertext documents (i.e. any document that is not meant to be read sequentially to be understood). Funding bodies should start considering Internet publishing on a par with printed publishing for suitable projects.

Nowadays the commercial sector is concentrating on eBooks, but these do not break the format of printed publications; they are books conceived for printing that are best read on paper. Reference books instead are particularly suitable for hypertextual adaptation,4 as the atlas reviewed here demonstrates, and future ones should be conceived specifically for Internet publishing. As a result, my personal hope is to see many more completed projects fully published on the Internet. Governmental agencies should be at the forefront of such a change in publishing to reduce printing costs, increase visibility of their publications, and provide a system ideally suited to continual updating.

The atlas has not been updated since its publication in 2003, despite the clear advantage of Internet publishing to keep contents updated. Most websites, including single-authored ones, appear either to remain static, as the atlas has, or only to add fresh contents. In the future it is to be hoped that (along with the understanding that at least major cultural websites should have an archival policy) at least a few will have also an updating policy.

-- Andrea Vianello


1. "Easter egg" is a term applied to small files put on CDs or DVDs or in software by the creators and intended only for the amusement of their creators and those who find them.   Return to text.

1. From http://samos.ypai.gr/atlas/thesi_uk.asp?idthesis=359, last accessed 8 April 2010.   Return to text.

3. For instance refer to the review of The Ancient Agora of Athens website and the many problems found in it or the The International Dunhuang Project website and the conclusion that "The implementation of the database is in its infancy".   Return to text.

4.The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online is an example of a reference tool having found new life in its online version.   Return to text.

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

An index by subject for all CSA Newsletter issues may be found at csanet.org/newsletter/nlxref.html.

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