Vol. X, No. 1

Spring, 1997

Perseus 2.0 - A Review

H. Eiteljorg, II

Perseus 2.0 is now available from Yale University Press. This new edition can be obtained in two versions. The Concise Edition ($150) consists of a single CD ROM containing all the text and descriptive information but only a portion of the drawings and photographs; the Complete Edition of four CDs ($350) adds many photographs and drawings. Both versions are available for the Macintosh only. The master disc for the complete edition is the only disc for the concise edition; so the two really are the same core but with many added images for the complete edition.

Perseus 2.0 is a major update of the original. Both more images and information about more objects are available. The core data have been expanded, but the core data are not on the disc(s). Instead, the discs have the data in forms appropriate for the presentation system. The core data have been stored in the most machine-independent and standardized ways available, and that far-sighted notion of how to maintain the core data is one of the Perseus Project's most important decisions. The data will remain available for re-use in new systems for a very long time.

Perseus 2.0 is to me somewhat of an enigma. I have trouble determining the most appropriate audience, as I did when the first version was released. The master disc contains ancient texts in Greek and English translation, an historical overview, biographies, essays on several topics, a catalog of vases from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, bibliographies (two - one of works cited and another of ancillary works), drawings, and photographs These materials range from interesting but necessarily superficial treatments - e.g., the historical overview - to straight-forward scholarly material such as the pottery catalog. Such materials are obviously not meant for the same audience; so it is hard to determine the primary audience, if there is one. I have concluded that the aim seems to be to appeal to academics with the extent of the underlying data and the general public with the approach and the easy access to both general and more specific information.

I assume that the readership of this Newsletter consists mainly of scholars and advanced students, so it seems to me that the question at hand is the utility of Perseus 2.0 for them. There is here, of course, no intention to provide new scholarship; so one must ask whether the material collected here and its presentation are of use to scholars and advanced students as a resource.

There is an enormous quantity of material in Perseus 2.0 , and selections can easily be printed out for consultation away from the computer; so the potential is real. There is, however, a clear problem for the creators of Perseus 2.0 . Some important material cannot be included because of various copyright and access problems. Other material can be included but is not particularly important.

The texts available are said to represent "two-thirds of the surviving literature up to the death of Alexander the Great," and having so much available in one place - in searchable form - is a major benefit. Furthermore, the other text items are regularly keyed to the texts so that the reader can quickly and easily call up the ancient sources.

There are also morphological tools for ancient Greek, and the intermediate-sized Liddell-Scott lexicon is also included.

For archaeologists, though, the potential of Perseus 2.0 lies in the information about the objects - pottery, sculpture, coins, and structures - and the photographs and drawings. Unfortunately, both the information and the illustration are disappointing.

As with any general collection of material like this, there is a tendency to simplify. It shows up in many ways, but a couple of examples will suffice here. The descriptions of the two wounded Amazons of the Sciarra type, one from the Metropolitan Museum and one from the Antikenmuseen in Berlin, make no mention of the possible meaning of there being two marble iterations of this figure. They are dated, with no qualifications, to 430 B.C. The Munich replica of the Diadoumenos, while titled replica, is dated and described with all the certainty of one of the Parthenon metopes. These assertions without qualification make all others suspect. (I should note that the description of the Apollo Piombino was more nearly what I expected.)

I was prepared to forgive all for the sake of large numbers of good images. Alas, the quality of the images was so erratic that I finally concluded that, in the attempt to include so much material, the editors had decided to tolerate too many sub-standard images. This is true of both the drawings and the photographs, though the architectural drawings are, in my view, more uniformly mediocre. The architectural drawings are too small, and they are bit-mapped images (raster, not vector images - see the article in this Newsletter, "Raster and Vector Images - An Important Decision" for a discussion of the differences); so they cannot be effectively enlarged with other programs. They can't be enlarged at all with Perseus 2.0.

The photographs, on the other hand, vary widely; many are excellent, but many are quite poor. Some are not well focused, and many are much too light. Many of the objects had to be shot in museums under poor lighting conditions; so the results cannot be as good as they might under better conditions. But the depth of field is often so shallow that one sees the whole image as out of focus. The decision to accept such a trade-off, a mediocre image as opposed to no image, may be understandable in those cases, but the use of many outdoor images of marginal quality or worse is not. I looked at many images, and unevenness was found everywhere I looked. (I must comment that our own experience with scanning suggests that taking images from film to computer from is not a trivial matter, to say the least. However, it must be done well or not done at all, and it can be done well.)

The presentation of the material in Perseus 2.0 can at best be called dated. In the first iteration of the program the novelty of so much data in one place - at least for me - overshadowed any concerns about the presentation system. Furthermore, the possibilities were then more limited. Today, however, the complete separation of text and graphics elements in Perseus 2.0 seems more than dated; it projects a bias toward words and against images. But with such visual material, this should not be the case. The two sources of information should not simply refer to one another; they should be inextricably linked. That can be done with other presentation systems, though it cannot with the system used in Perseus 2.0 . This may be an unfair criticism; after all, the creators were building on the earlier product. However, it seems to me to have made the presentation so clearly oriented toward words rather than images that I found it objectionable. Despite the dominance of text, the individual text windows are too small, and the user must navigate through too many windows to get the complete story about most objects. First comes a summary, then a detailed description, then images (chosen from the summary window).

Perseus remains slow - very slow if you want to see an image from one of the CDs not currently in the player. (Speed can be improved by moving the images to a hard disc, but that of course assumes that one has an empty hard disc to devote to Perseus.) The speed exacerbated the image quality problem, since waiting for a poor image was especially annoying. Potential users should also know that Perseus 2.0 required that twelve MB of RAM be dedicated to it to run properly on my MAC. But from my perspective none of the other things matter so much as the images - their uneven quality. Having so many in one place seems to me the greatest potential reason for buying Perseus 2.0. The potential was not realized. However, the potential remains, because the far-sighted data storage system used enable any future version to use all the data already obtained plus new material. I remain hopeful for the future but disappointed in the present iteration.

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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