Articles in Vol. XXVI, No. 1
Digital Data and the Ur of the Chaldees Digital Archaeology Project
Rethinking CAD Structures — Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabia
Website Review: Penn Museum
How Often Must We Reinvent the Wheel?
Data in the Future — Archived or Locked?
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Website Review: Penn Museum
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Penn Museum: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology website is very large, large enough to have complicated and slowed my reviewing it. The museum is one of the largest museums specialised in archaeology in existence, with varied collections. The museum celebrated its 125th anniversary on December 6, 2012. It is not possible, or useful, to review in detail all of the pages dedicated to the casual visitor or those concerning the administration of the museum; the focus of this review is on research and collections.
Fig. 1. One version of the Penn Museum website home page. (Click here
The home page is neat and very effective, and it uses a 'tile display' that will be familiar to users. The coding is done very well; the simple slide effects work on modern browsers without requiring additional plug-ins. The background is white, the colour of the font is mostly black, with occasional uses of other dark colours, all of which boosts readability. The first impression landing on the home page is one of invitation to the physical museum. There are two menus, one just above and one below the title, the lower one more prominent and in a larger font. The choice of sections to include seems random; labels for about, educators, blog, press, shop and contact are together in the upper and less prominent row, while visit, programs, exhibitions, research and collections share the lower, more prominent row with give/join and rentals. The internal search engine is displayed prominently, but it uses a customised version of Google, leaving lesser control on how the results are displayed. The only problem, if it may be so addressed, is that what the museum is about, archaeology and anthropology, is displayed in light grey ("University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology," the official name of the museum before it was renamed the Penn Museum as an effort at "branding" — a change in name of little interest outside the Philadelphia area); visitors are greeted only by the "Penn Museum" label. There are pictures enticing visitors to the permanent collections and temporary exhibitions, and only one of the five sliding/rotating pictures in the first and largest introductory image suggests that the museum is also involved in explorations. Just below the large picture, there are small image tiles with text saying Plan Your Visit, Event Calendar, What's on Display and Search the Collections. Further below, there are small spaces named Visit Us (with access to practical information and social media), Upcoming events, and a larger image for Featured section. Further below is a row for tiles News & Announcements, Membership and Signup for E-Newsletter. One row down, and the more interesting contents begin: a video celebrating the 125th anniversary (replaced by a lecture series before this review was completed) is followed by access to Expedition Magazine and Teacher Resources The last row of tiles presents another video (also subsequently replaced), Philadelphia Connections, and Rent Our Space. Apparently this row of tiles is aimed at locals. The credits are at the very bottom, between icons (with links) to TripAdvisor and the Philadelphia bureau of tourism. All in all it is a very effective home page, but there is no immediate clarity about the type of collections conserved for casual visitors not already familiar with the museum.
I shall describe the website focusing more on some sections than others, but I will try to mention all of them. About leads to a typical introductory page with basic information and a mission statement. Two one-liners describe archaeology and anthropology at the bottom of the page. They would have been more useful on the home page. A vertical menu, black font on cyan background, opens to the left. There is much administrative information to be found, and within that section there is a Director's welcome that is not very prominent.
The Educators label brings us to the relevant section, itself a sub-section of the ill-defined Programs section. The educators section is squarely aimed at K-12 educators, and art history is the very first voice. Suffice it to say that there are many activities run at the museum or by museum staff. Workshops, lectures, distance learning and the possibility for handling materials are all opportunities that are less likely to occur frequently for students at that age and are therefore worthy of attention by educators. My favourite is the Loan Box, the very last one. There are activities for all tastes. The left menu replicates the same choices (probably to provide access to all pages from any subpage), but their order is changed.
Press is a simple section where all press releases are collected. This section goes back to 2002 and therefore proves that older materials have been carried forward with the latest refresh. This is good. Sections Shop (leading to a separate store on a different domain) and Contact conclude the uppermost menu. The lower top menu begins with Visit, a page where it is possible to purchase entrance tickets and find the museum hours, as well as information about unusual scheduling changes (which was not up-to-date on April 5, 2013, when examined in the course of this review).
Programs is the following menu item. Following the tiles, Educators (see above) is the first choice. Next is a series of organised events for kids and families, among which is a summer camp. There are also events for adults (mainly films), local students (the highlight is participation in field projects), organised tours (including virtual tours) and a series of lectures. There are two virtual tours, one is accessible only through iTunes, and one is available through YouTube and is in sign language. Both are free and consist of short videos. I do not understand the decision to place one tour in a locked repository (iTunes) accessible only through some specific software and another in an open repository. Storing both tours on some website accessible to all would have simplified the management and boosted accessibility of the tours to all kinds of devices (HTML, the language of the Web, is ideal to produce intreactive multimedia contents). This seems an area of experimentation that has not find yet a suitable long-term approach.
The Blog is a mine of information, but here it is also an excuse for posting on disparate subjects in total randomness. Posts are generally exhaustive, well documented and richly illustrated. Topics range from excavation reports, short articles on individual exhibits (mostly done as a running series of one object each day during 2012), museum news, research news and a few reports on looting across the world. The variability of topics in posts is unavoidable if the blog is not limited to one topic. The reader has a full menu specific to the blog, and a search form enables readers to search the blog. This is an independent search feature from the main one, and it uses an in-house search engine.
Fig. 2. The blog page on the Penn Museum website. (Click here to go
Then there is a long list of categories, followed by tags and RSS links for all posts and all comments. I believe the tags are inefficient in the way that they are used. They ought to be author-chosen and be part of a list of keywords identifying the main topics that are accessible and used by all authors. Instead, the tags have been generated by the system, apparently according to frequency of searches for specific terms, with those terms displayed with variable size fonts depending on their frequency, so that the largest tags, which should be the hot topics, are immediately visible. Using this technology with an academic or educational website is usually bad practice. The result here is that the hot topics of the day are "Penn Museum" and "archaeology."
There is also a top menu (different from the standard website menus, though its appearance suggests otherwise) that provides access to some groups of posts, different from the listed categories shown on the right-side menus. It also provides access to the posts grouped by author (and, not in all cases, information about the author). This is a case where too much is bad: a few choices would make it neat, and some improvement would be welcome because the blog is rich in quality contents. The only way to navigate back to the main museum home page is to click on the Penn Museum text within an image on the right side of the window. The Home link in the top menu just goes to the opening blog page. Such an important link should be much more clear and obvious.
The blogs often have high quality posts, but contents are sparse and this causes some problems. It is relatively easy to find a post of some interest, but the lack of structure and organisation make it very much a repository of random contents. Further blogs are found scattered in many sections, strengthening the general impression of a lack of organisation and direction.
Section Exhibitions introduces the substantial educational contents that the website has to offer. The landing page is What's On Display, a mix of current, past and future exhibitions and a somewhat confusing mix of access links. There is a menu on the left leading to Changing Exhibitions, Long-Term Exhibitions, Upcoming Exhibitions, Traveling Exhibitions, Past Exhibitions and Online Exhibitions. But there are also tiles for In the Artifact Lab, Imagine Africa, Making and Unmaking Race, Lod Mosaic from israel, Egypt (Sphinx) Gallery, Egypt (Mummies) Gallery, Vaults of Heaven, Amarna: Ancient Egyopt's Place in the Sun, Japan Gallery, Canaan and Israel Gallery, Islamic Near East Gallery, Etruscan Italy Gallery, Human Evolution, Greece Gallery, Mexico and Central American Gallery, Iraq's Ancient Past, North American Gallery, Rome Gallery, What in the World?, China Gallery, Africa Gallery and The Egyptian Mummy. Since all of these individual exhibitions appear in the other groups as well as on this page, one wonders why they are here. What unites them so as to require that they appear here?
Fig. 3. The landing page of the Exhibitions section of the
Each exhibition presented in the body of this page takes the reader to an introductory page, which then allows the reader to continue to a separate website, but there is no consistency between menus once one reaches the level of the website-within-the-website. In the Artifact Lab explains the current work of the lab, or in the staff's words "Conserving Egyptian Mummies," via a blog with its own Twitter account. (Here, as in several other internal blogs, the criticism about automatic keywords does not apply and for this reason, there is no justification for the main blog being inferior.) The texts are highly professional, and the lavishly illustrated articles show the materials well; it is possible to enlarge images by simply clicking on them, and there are no scripts or watermarks to impair the reading and looking. Anyone visiting this blog will learn something new, be it something more general about ancient Egypt or the very latest research. There is also a FAQ (frequently asked questions) page, often cited in the articles, to avoid leaving readers baffled about technical terms.
The following exhibition as listed in the tiles is Imagine Africa, a twelve-month project investigating the readers' thoughts on Africa. It offers live events and opportunities to engage in discussion online, as well as a small video section and a visual blog (i.e. one picture or video for each post).
Year of Proof: Making and Unmaking Race is an odd page, clearly for a future exhibition: there is the opportunity to take a survey, but the only other link is to the same page.
Ancient Egypt is a crowd-pleaser, and the website returns to it with a page titled Egypt (Mummies) Gallery. A let-down at first, it is only a landing page following the prescribed format. From here we go to an old website. The old website is an archival version of the previous website with pictures of old expeditions, a short tour of the galleries and an interactive feature on Egyptian gods. There are some interesting contents, and some gems too. There is also a sitemap, a glossary and a timeline. (A users' tip: zoom in when encountering this kind of website, using your browser tools. Pictures become blurred, but at least the text is readable without squeezing your eyes on a tiny portion of your screen.) A digital "restoration" program is underway; many old websites that were part of the Penn Museum website are being modified to avoid broken links and substantial problems with the graphics. I have seen the first website before and after restoration, and I can say that while the restoration does not change the contents or improve on the outdated graphics, it is nice to see that there is a determination to keep old contents alive. Whilst in the Internet recent contents are usually preferred (following Google's determination to favour more recent contents and fast-changing subjects such as technology and the pure sciences), there are also many valuable contents that do not become dated as fast and may remain relevant many years after being written.
We move on to Egypt (Sphinx) Gallery with an article that is a little more engaging and informative, one broken link and a link to the same website just described.
The last tile on the page, The Egyptian Mummy, leads to a similar page. At the bottom of that page is a link to a webpage mislabelled as Write your name in cuneiform. There is a simple sixteen-letter box that enables readers to type their names (or any word) in a box. A transliterated version in hieroglyphs (correctly labelled here) will then appear. Of course, an ancient Egyptian would not be able to understand it, but it is fun.
Vaults of Heaven: Visions of Byzantium is a page about an exhibition no longer open, with little in terms of contents.
The Canaan and Israel Gallery provides a link to another very old website (1999) that is rather complex. The Islamic Near East Gallery is largely empty.
The Etruscan Italy Gallery links to another old website, this one focusing on the Etruscan World. A poor choice of background makes much of the text difficult to read. There are some uncertain statements here, such as "The ancestors of the Etruscans had lived for centuries by tending crops, herding animals, spinning and weaving cloth, crafting bronze and preparing for war." (www.penn.museum/sites/worlds_intertwined/etruscan/earliest.shtml, last accessed 12 April 2013), and "By the 9th century BC, Etruscans had mastered mining and the working of bronze and iron. . . . Metal crafting and pottery continued to thrive." (www.penn.museum/sites/worlds_intertwined/etruscan/technology.shtml, last accessed 12 April 2013). This website then links to another contemporary website, World Intertwined, featuring the Graeco-Roman world. This is how it explains Roman Emperors: "The Roman Republic had a representative form of government that divided power between the Senate and two consuls presiding on an array of lesser magistrates" www.penn.museum/sites/worlds_intertwined/roman/emperors.shtml, last accessed 12 April 2013. Five sentences later is the roughly one-line-long statement that the Roman Empire had fallen. The website is from a time when the Internet was not treated seriously. The landing page for the Etruscan Italy Gallery also provides a link to The Real Story of the Olympic Games Website, which is interesting and informative reading, though the connection with Etruria is to be found nowhere. In fact, the Etruscans participated to some Olympic games, but the reader may not know. The last suggested link from the Etruscan Italy Galery is a feature (read: old website) on Glassmaking in Roman Times. This is an illustrated feature, with a bibliography at the end of every page. It misses a section on glassmaking in the northeastern corner of Italy (that spurs the Murano tradition of glassmaking and borders Etruria); so the connection with the Etruscans is just not there. Otherwise, it is a useful introduction to glassmaking in general and glassmaking in Roman times particularly, though it is too simplistic for real use in teaching.
The next tile is dedicated to Human Evolution, but Charles Darwin is not even mentioned. It consists of five short videos concerned largely with genetics, but it could have been so much better. The next tile brings us back to the Greek world and a further one presents a short essay based on the artefacts exhibited in the Mexico and Central America Gallery. As a curiosity, the scholars digging antiquities are labelled as excavators in relation to Egyptian antiquities, archaeologists for the Classical Mediterranean and anthropologists for American antiquities. Many names, one profession.
The next tile leads to Iraq's Ancient Past, and from the introductory page to another older website. Here we encounter the feature Write Your Name in Cuneiform. This website, though not part of the re-make of the museum's website, is not so old and is highly interactive and very informative. It barely touches modern happenings, but it finds some room for looting. Some interactivities make use of external services, such as the omnipresent Google and Flickr.1 The oddest blog I have ever encountered concludes this section on Iraq; it has zero posts and yet 395 comments. Those commenters spoke to each other about the exhibition, revealing that it was the visitors to the museum that left the comments in some sort of digital guestbook. This is another case of a misused blog.
The next tile brings us to the North America Gallery, all concerned about Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, and Apache Native Americans. Do not expect to find much on this page about them.
What in the World brings us in the world of multi-disciplinary artist Pablo Helguera. China Gallery is a let-down, while Africa Gallery at least has a longer article presenting it, with some interesting facts. It could be a student essay, without obvious mistakes. A bibliography would have been nice here, and there are many other places where a bibliography should have been supplied.
The Exhibitions section menu leads to Past Exhibitions of which little memory is preserved. More recent ones (e.g. Maya 2012) are more likely to have some multimedia contents preserved. The Maya exhibition micro-site in particular contains several videos, though most touch in one way or another on supposed Maya predictions of the end of the world. A more rewarding experience is offered by the micro-site of Secrets of the Silk Road, where readers may find some curiosities and explanations of the relevance of such research to our understanding of the present-day world. There are also educational resources, a timeline and a one-man blog (with interesting posts) presenting a Ph.D. project. Another interesting page is offered by the Polynesian Gallery, which is no longer part of the physical museum.
The Online Exhibitions link leads to a variety of micro-sites and old websites and pages, among others an essay on Therapeutic Narrative in Cosmetic Surgery, which is really about body modifications. Traditional Navigation in the Western Pacific is a simple but informative website. It is here, for instance, that I found out about navigators as ritual specialists. Nice bits of knowledge that prompt readers to learn more. Applied Sciences is a large (compared to the others) website providing a good overview of archaeological sciences, including many case studies. Although technical, the many case studies bring the discourse to life. The Penn Museum has a long tradition of applied sciences; among the many discoveries are the chemical identification of the earliest Royal Purple, the famous dye of the Phoenicians (sadly not commented further), and the identification of the earliest grape wine as well as the earliest barley beer. An entire website is dedicated indeed to the Origins and Ancient History of Wine. This website is not very informative due to being outdated and without the technical information necessary to define the basics of the methodology, but it still contains a few facts that the occasional visitor may wish to read.
Research at the Penn Museum has been a key component of its activities since 1887, and that legacy can be seen in this section. An interactive Research Map & Timeline precedes the usual tiles. This is the necessary tool to appreciate fully the breadth and width of the research carried out by museum staff. All inhabited continents are represented. The map can be explored either by selecting a region and then a time, or by selecting first a time and then a region. Either way, the reader will be presented with a choice of archaeological sites represented with a single picture, project dates, principal investigator, period studied and a short introduction. The following discussion is based upon what can be found from this map/chronology interface; I will return to the basic Research page in due course.
Fig. 4. The map and timeline page for the Research section of the
Sometimes a minimalist introduction is all that is offered, but in many cases a more link is available with supplemental materials; often these are scholarly publications freely accessible as PDFs. These are for the most part scans of Expedition Magazine articles. A few projects concern specifically anthropology (e.g. dental maturation of school children in Philadelphia), but most are archaeological excavations. Some of these projects are very old, but, archaeology being a destructive discipline, archaeological reports sometimes are all that is left of archaeological sites, and the reports often are the definitive reference to determine the contexts of found artefacts. The value of some of the reports available here is therefore not purely historical; there are fundamental reports here. Among the highlights is the excavation of Burnet Cave in Clovis, NM, which yielded projectile points eventually named for the town of Clovis, a selection of which is accessible through a link, though only images and very short descriptions are available.
Guatemala is well represented, and the Tikal Archaeological Project is represented by three articles and a selection of videos at the (Tikal Archival Film Collection). These are substantial videos, not short YouTube clips, and are hosted externally by the Internet Archive. In some cases the linked papers have not been published in the museum's magazine (e.g., "Changing Perspectives on Caracol, Belize").
Archaeological and anthropological projects are mixed at the Penn Museum website, and this leads to some awkwardness due to the interface. For instance, the archaeological description of the Cashinahua Expedition, in Peru, an anthropological linguistic project, contains the following metadata: "Project Dates: 1964 - 1966; Period Studied: 1964 CE - 1966 CE, Modern." Chronology makes no sense in this context, and such projects would be better served by being grouped together with a separate, more sensible interface. Some projects are understated, such as the Amazon Expedition, which leads to a fine selection of 473 indigenous and ancient South American ceramics collected on location. Filed under Brazil, the materials really encompass regions found in a few different countries, from Brazil to Peru.
Europe is split in two: Europe and the Mediterranean area. Sites such as Pech de l'Azé IV and Roc de Marsal in France (Middle to Upper Paleolithic) link to separate websites written at the time of the excavations and containing useful information in the form of preliminary reports and many colour images (often missing from scholarly publications). The latter site has yielded a Neanderthal burial, which led to debate about the possibility of its showing evidence of symbolic thoughts in Neanderthals. This is cutting-edge research that only serves to prove how influential the research at the Penn Musem has been and how important the publication of the museum's research on the Web truly is.
Another important site represented with a good scholarly report is Ischia-Pithekoussai, which is the oldest Greek settlement in the western Mediterranean. Greece is represented with two major excavations, Gournia (with a full report of the work then carried out) and Priniatikos Pyrgos, which has a link to the project website, consisting of an illustrated introduction and a full preliminary report (accessible via a link to excavation).
Further interesting projects in the area include Turkey with the Gordion Archaeological Project, with an extensive website published by the museum, and the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck, one of a handful of Bronze Age shipwrecks recovered so far. Gordion was the capital of the Phrygians and is a very important archaeological site with evidence stratified from the Bronze Age to modern times, with several hiatuses. The history of the site is outlined in its own section, with a series of short articles, each focusing on a different key period, though the link to this further information is effectively buried in the introductory page. Worth mentioning is the Gordion Furniture Project, one of many sub-projects, which only achieves a tantalising description of the work carried out in the form of a reconstruction of an apparently devastated assemblage. It also seems worth mentioning that one of the articles (concerning the great tumulus MM, the so-called Midas Mound) has been written in Turkish, and there is no English version presented. The Galleries (two of which are memorials to deceased members of the Gordion staff) should have been a great opportunity to showcase the project photographically, given the use of digital technologies during the field work and post-processing. Yet, there are only "slideshows of some of the thousands of images from the Gordion Archive . . . not . . . selected or arranged according to specific scholarly rubrics, . . . to be enjoyed for their own sake." This is a disappointing decision aggravated by the complete lack of captions, which makes this section seem as pointless as it is beautiful. The bibliography is also incomplete, accounting only for reports published by the museum itself. The final product here is, in my opinion, worse than most preliminary reports available online.
Egypt is a treasure trove. Penn Museum staff has worked in the country since 1907 and is still involved in research there. Among the sites researched are Giza, Memphis, Dendereh, Thebes, Abydos, Marsa Matruh and Saqqara, which are all major archaeological sites widely known. Apart from the usual articles in the museum's magazine, there are a few linked pages from one of the old websites and a couple of full-length lectures published on YouTube.
The rest of Africa is bundled separately, and here the highlight is Kenya, where the Laikipia Archaeological Project is looking at human origins. A blog is provided by some posts in the official museum blog, which form a travelogue. Plenty of pictures are available in Flickr, each with a caption but few with much value for archaeology or anthropology. A set of videos on Africa, mostly borrowed from Imagine Africa and an illustrated leaflet of ten pages are hit-and-miss on the topics of the project.
For the Near East, Sarepta in Lebanon deserves a mention because this is the place that triggered one of the scientific successes of the museum, the chemical identification of the organic origin of the Royal Purple dye. Here can be found an article published in Analytical Chemistry in 1985 that documents the discovery. The bulk of research concentrates however in Iran, with the highlight being the site of Hasanlu. The project has its own website, produced between 2006 and 2008 but never finished. There is a good bibliography, and there are a few articles, including a detailed chronological (stratigraphic) sequence, but most contents are missing. Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan is also featured in this section.
Moving on to Asia, Vijayanagara in India represents one of the highlights of the museum research activity on the continent. An old (2005) website shares the technical defects of the Egyptian one, but it puts to shame more recent ventures. It is a sound preliminary report, with its own bibliography.
Laos is the home of the Middle Mekong Archaeology Project, which has its own website. Linked are full reports and preliminary notes. Databases of skeletal data and metal data are readily accessible; readers can download the data and use their computers to analyse them as they wish. The databases have been translated in several formats (some text-based), providing the opportunity for researchers to access them in years to come regardless of the software used.
Ban Chiang in Thailand is another project that has produced its own website, sharing its principal graphic layout with the Middle Mekong Project website, which is very valuable. Skeletal data are published here too. There are a bibliography, search engine, full articles in PDF format and a good overview of the archaeological site with map, chronology and a statement of its importance. There are useful galleries of pictures (hosted by Flickr) about all categories of artefacts and evidence, each with its own caption and available in a large format. Burials, ceramics, crucibles, metals and other artefacts are all present. A newsletter is also published regularly and archived in PDF format. Videos and a slideshow complete the offering with multimedia contents. Importantly, most publications produced are not only listed in the bibliography, but also published as PDFs. I cannot ask for more from an archaeological website.
Oceania is not forgotten, and, although no websites have been produced specifically for those projects, the articles from the magazine are satisfactory.
Returning to the landing page of the Research section, the many tiles each detail one of the geographic areas present in the research map with the addition of three categories: Babylonian Section, Historical Archaeology and Physical Anthropology. These additions group together some of the anthropological projects, which makes sense. However, not all the projects appearing on the map are found here, while additional projects are included here. The linked resources are also different, with particular attention to the Expedition Magazine articles that are largely missing using this interface. The final result is that most information is split between two interfaces, instead of archaeological projects being collected in the chronological map and anthropological ones in the tiles.
I return now to the Research page to review briefly some of the contents not discussed in the previous section, though there is some duplication. Projects are here grouped according to the "section" of the museum and museum staff overseeing them. In the American section there is a project on Pre-Columbian Monumental Earthworks of the Amazon with a link to a page leading to a set of publications accessible in PDF format, and there is a link to a magazine article. There is a page about the Louis Shotridge Digital Archive, which has a separate website. This is a database of 4,000 artefacts, pictures and documents concerning Southeastern Alaskan Native history and culture. The design of the website is neat and functional, and all items are pictured and captioned. A selection of objects, photographs or documents is accessible from the home page, but to access the full database it is necessary to perform a search. There are also introductory notes, a timeline, a zoomable map, some sound recordings and anthropological and ethnographic information about the Alaskan Native culture. All of Shotridge's Publications listed are also accessible as PDFs, and there is a supplementary bibliography with modern publications.
Fig. 5. The landing page of the Research section of the
In the Asian section the Ban Chiang project adds a link to the Southeast Asian Archaeology Scholarly Website, which contains a bibliography and a vocabulary for the archaeologist working in south-eastern Asia. The Middle Mekong project adds a freely accessible and illustrated article published in Antiquity. There is a longer and more recent article on "The Earliest Alcoholic Beverage in the World," which also contains a link to an abstract of a recent paper.
The Babylonian section links two major websites, The Cuneiform Digital Library (an external website to which museum staff has contributed) and The Electronic Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary (ePSD), which is an online lexicon of Sumerian. The latter is hosted by the museum and, although graphically simple, it is highly specialised. The Egyptian section adds new projects, but no new materials except for the short outlines/introductions in the landing pages of the individual projects. The Mediterranean section also leads to different projects, and it seems largely a showcase for recent research by local staff, with the exception of the Roman Peasant Project, which adds a new website containing many preliminary reports in PDF format. The Naxcıvan Archaeological Project (Near East Section) has its own website, again very useful and containing an illustrated preliminary report. Paradoxically, the anthropological projects that would be best served by this interface contain only minimal additions and basic contents.
The full archive of Expedition Magazine, the museum's own lavishly illustrated scholarly magazine publishing shorter research articles, is also accessible from the Research section. Each volume is accessible in PDF format, excluding the most recent issues. There is a PDF index and a customised Google search within all issues. I noted that the intended audience of the magazine shifted through the years from scholars to amateur or non-professional archaeologists. This trend towards an illustrated magazine broadly accessible does not diminish the value of this archive.
Overall this section is overwhelming, given the large amount of information it contains, the multiple interfaces and the duplication of substantial contents. The map and timeline in particular suffer greatly by being incomplete. The key criticism is that each project should only have one home page, accessible through one interface, and all contents, including project websites ought to be listed there.
The project websites are particularly valuable, and because they have been preserved intact, they make it possible to do some "digital archaeology." Looking at the many archaeological websites, mostly dating between 1996 and 2012, but probably spanning two decades, it is possible to notice how very early websites seemed to be aimed at schoolchildren or the general public. Interestingly, several were designed as finished products, with a clear idea that they would never be updated or expanded, or as single pages containing random contents.
There are plenty of websites dating to the last decade that target the general public and scholars alike through the publication of preliminary reports. These are most valuable, but the vast majority of websites present in the Research section promises much to deliver only a fraction of those promises. In fact, many of these websites-within-a-website have been abandoned as soon as the associated project came to an end, not even publishing preliminary reports of the last seasons. Very recent websites have included databases and multimedia, but overall very few websites have reached some maturity, despite publishing valuable contents of some kind. In general, entrusting the website to single individuals, perhaps the geeks of their respective teams, produces more homogenous and abundant contents. Collaborative efforts seem to end up in apathy and lack of care for the website, which appear to be a "labour of love" in the most effective cases.
Finally, a new collaboration with The Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR) is resulting in the publication online of further documents. It is too early to judge the effectiveness of this program. It is splitting the contents even further and, most dangerously, handing over some contents to an external archive. Despite tDAR being an archive designed for long-term preservation of digital data, I feel that the Research section after being better structured in terms of access and the interface should be preserved as a whole body of contents, while also adding and updating data. It is an exceptional archive that should not be dismantled but rather used as a test bed for producing guidelines for digital preservation.
I have noted the use of external services in this review specifically to make the reader aware of how much content can disappear if any of those websites disappear or change. Whilst there is an immediate interest for some of the contents, the archive is also important to display the development of archaeology and the shifting interests of both the public and scholars. For instance, the "educational" websites of early times have been all but abandoned in favour of lavish illustrations and accessible texts (both in the magazine and some recent websites), suggesting that the general public wishes to be informed through the Internet, rather than spoon-fed textbook quotations. It also shows that archaeologists have yet to embrace the Web seriously for publishing and exchanging data, with most thinking that a PDF with a preliminary report is the best use of the Web.
Collections is the last section of the website of interest, and it consists mainly of a sophisticated database presenting a selection of the artefacts conserved at the museum. The landing page includes a link to Search the Collections and a series of links to the several sections into which the museum is divided, which match the those of the Research section. The linked pages will be of use only to researchers planning to visit the museum as they shortly describe what is available. Slightly more information is provided in the American section (with a list of highlights) and in the Physical Anthropology section, which includes a complete database listing of CT scans (opening in a micro-site that includes a fair introduction, but the actual database requires a password), one paper and one magazine article. The restricted database is not a problem, as working with human bones should be controlled, and such a database is only useful to specialists. The search interface is particularly sophisticated, enabling the tracking of a selection of favourite objects (Add to My Finds feature) and constant access to the highlights from the top menu. The search results page enables users to preview the objects, but a picture was only available for a few of them. It is possible to access the full records, which unfortunately still have no pictures in many cases. The metadata and descriptions are generally exhaustive, but, as expected, there is great variability in the information available for individual artefacts. There is sometimes a bibliographic reference pointing to the publication where the artefact was first published, and there is a feature that enables grouping all artefacts described in the same publication. These are nice touches that simplify the life of researchers and provide great control to users. The database is clearly a work in progress, but what is available is already valuable. According to the website, "329,000 object records representing 665,000 objects with 67,000 images illustrating 25,200 object records" are available. The ratio of pictured artefacts to records available is 1:13 (one pictured object for every 13 records).
Fig. 6. The landing page of the Collections section of the
A similar database is available for the collections of the British Museum, and that one seems more mature. Catalogued there are 2,050,441 artefacts, and 722,262 of these have one or more images, with a ratio better than 1:3 (1 picture for every 3 artefacts). The British Museum claims to add 2,000 records every week whereas the Penn Museum plans to add 3,000 records every six months. It is to be hoped that the digitisation process continues, and that eventually all exhibited materials will be catalogued and pictured, with a selection of materials from the storage rooms included. It should be noted that, as technology improves, the final result may end up being outdated. Given the pace of such databases, the time they require to be built and the pace of technological progress, perhaps the collections database will always be a work in progress, and for this reason such monumental efforts should be open-ended.
The Penn Museum website is truly a large and multi-layered effort, which embodies the concept of a "work in progress." Almost nothing has reached the stage of readiness for archival preservation, and this is an encouraging sign that research is alive and that more contents will be added in the foreseeable future. I congratulate the curators for their decision to preserve older contents in their original forms, and I think that maintaining separate websites for many projects is not bad, even if the interfaces change frequently. Yet few people will access this website for a comprehensive reading; most will find it effective to access particular materials and will come repeatedly. The historical value of some contents is also of great importance.
Maintaining granularity while easing access to individual projects ought to be the top priority. Reconsidering the role of the blog, and either splitting it into multiple blogs by theme or moving some posts to proper pages would be appreciated and is certainly a suggestion that I would make. I can only wish for the website to grow and expand, as it has done since its inception. I have doubts regarding the use of separate online services for hosting contents (pictures, videos and some project websites), and I hope that rather than "archiving" this website or some of its parts, the curators will provide it with the room to expand, perhaps mirroring it within some museum or library network. All contents should be carried forward because a project may end, but research never ends.
Several project websites have been criticised for being incomplete or leaving the reader wanting more. In these conclusions regarding the whole website I acknowledge the efforts to publish some contents on the Web throughout the years, and I recognise that the curators and project directors are still determined to engage interested people through the Web. Overall the results are often poor, but generally not any worse than the average archaeological websites and often better. I just hope that eventually new websites will succeed in being truly useful and presenting much information. The South Asian websites such as the "Middle Mekong Archaeology Project" give me cause for optimism, but there is no doubt that this is not a final assessment.
Although I cannot refer to other reviews of such large websites, I have enough knowledge of similar websites to say that I consider The Penn Museum website generally of superior quality to the one for the Smithsonian Museum, although the Smithsonian site more often has basic bibliographies. The British Museum website, another mammoth website, is also aimed at a general audience, with limited texts for researchers. They do produce some valuable research, but some of their production is simplified, including some of the printed volumes. I appreciate that the Penn Museum does not attempt to be attractive or understood by everyone at all times. There will be aspects of research that may interest only a few and be understood by them only; however, it is for the reader to decide what interests them and how much they wish to go in depth on some arguments, and it is wrong to suggest to people that everyone can understand everything, because this is simply not true. Readers are better served by deciding themselves how much they want or can understand, perhaps encouraging some to learn some more. Within the Penn Museum website, readers may find themselves exposed to real, unadulterated research, and this is an extremely positive aspect of this particular website.
It is also possible to suggest ways to improve the website. More consistency in the presentations and some balance between texts for general audiences and pure research are required for the future. Producing well-structured texts with bibliographies such as those published in the Smithsonian Museum website would be an improvement. For the research materials, I would recommend a look at Sardegna Cultura (literally "culture of Sardinia"), an Italian website that also focuses on a few disciplines (the Penn Museum focuses on archaeology and anthropology). This website publishes consistently on each landing page a series of links to materials in PDF format ranging from cultural guides aimed at the general public to research articles and even full monographs, becoming in this way an online library. Each topic can be explored in increasing levels of complexity. It is for the reader to decide at which level to stop. It also publishes all materials individually, ensuring that all contents are always accessible. Sardegna Cultura is a website that was conceived and financed as a large repository, unlike any of the museum websites mentioned, but that does not mean that they cannot adapt by restructuring their contents.
To conclude, I enjoyed reading through the Penn Museum website, and I very much appreciate their difficult choices of publishing online research materials, despite their readership being primarily a general audience. However, the website would benefit significantly from some restructuring that ought to provide access to research and educational materials through effective interfaces. As it is, most of the incomplete projects and the fragmentation across some interfaces (e.g. tiles and time map) gave me the impression of a haphazard website, which is disorganised and where finding contents may depend, to some degree, on chance. (Indeed, I was obliged to debate with Mr. Eiteljorg, when he edited this review, because there were web pages I referenced that he could not find and pages he found that I had missed.) Preserving contents is not good enough, they must be also be made truly accessible. The extreme fragmentation across the projects must also be reigned in, and efforts must be made to categorise different materials and make them accessible through some consistent interface. The research value of many resources is so great that these kinds of improvements are very important.
-- Andrea Vianello
1. Should Google one day decide to pull the plug on their business (or simply have "technical problems"), so much of the Internet would disappear. Relying on external resources should never be done lightly for key contents. Return to text.
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