Vol. XVII, No. 3
CSA Newsletter Logo
Winter, 2005

Access to Archaeological Resources on the Web

Susan C. Jones

A web portal is a site that offers an entry point or guide to material on the web. It may be either a single page or an entire domain that gives its visitors access to on-line resources within a specialized area of interest such as archaeology. A portal provides a starting point for the exploration of the topic on the web by both the initiated and uninitiated. With the ever-growing complexity of the internet, such portals have become increasingly popular short-cuts to the more generalized search engines such as Google because someone has already screened and organized sites by topic. Portals also guide users to relevant resources even when they do not  know the appropriate keywords.

Since many readers of the CSA Newsletter are educators who maybe called upon to provide guidance on web sites to their students, an examination of archaeology portals should be useful. Students need information presented in a manner that is appropriate for their level of education, from elementary to graduate level. Teachers will want to send their students to sites that give information and interpretations that are accepted by the mainstream scholarly community, but the students do not necessarily have the background knowledge to judge the contents of a particular site.

The use of portals has both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, the existence of portals makes news about new archaeological finds easy to locate and may stimulate interest in them. But on the negative, important on-line resources ignored by popular portals may not be explored by the uninitiated. For the initiated, the "old-boy network" usually works to spread the word about an important resource, but this does not work for the new-comer. Regardless of their overall effects on the public's awareness of archaeological matters, portals are now an inescapable part of the educational experience. With this in mind, I have chosen to examine three popular archaeology portals, all based in the United States and concentrating on concerns of the archaeological interests of the American public: archaeology.about.com, yahoo.com/Social_Science/Anthropology_and_Archaeology/Archaeology/, and archaeology.org. I will examine the organization and assets of each portal and comment on them and the implications for using portals as an entry point for web resources. I suggest that while you read the following review, you open the portals in separate windows.1

An Overview of the Portals and their Organizations:

A frequently visited portal, archaeology.about.com is one of many portals operated by About.com, which operates a large set of portals as a commercial enterprise supported by advertisers. Because different portals attract different users, advertisers can target their ads to specific classes of customers through "sponsored links;" these links are clearly labeled and appear in several areas of the home page and auxiliary pages. Organizations ranging from eBay to the Archaeological Institute of America have sponsored links on this portal. In addition to the sponsored links, other ads are liberally scattered throughout the pages and appear on multiple pages. The number of ads is typical for a commercial site, and the specific ads here are less intrusive than on many sites.

This portal seems to be addressed primarily to students at and above the high school level and to the general public, rather than to the professional archaeologist. There are extensive pages and links on homework help, colleges, graduate schools, jobs, etc. It also contains numerous ads from companies that offer replicas, artifacts, and tourist trips. There is also at least one ad aimed at professional archaeologists, one for a high-tech archaeological survey company.

The appearance of the portal is straight-forward with side-bars and a top navigation bar that displays where the current page is within the portal's hierarchy. Every About.com portal is maintained by a "guide," an independent contractor who is paid by the number of visitors that the portal attracts. Guides control the links and information content of their portal by writing online articles and selecting pertinent, topical links. Kris Hirst, the guide for archaeology, has strong credentials with extensive experience in both academic and CRM field work.2

Ms. Hirst does an outstanding job with day-to-day maintenance of the portal. She culls missing links quickly and adds new links and dedicated articles almost on a daily basis. Therefore information on the portal is always timely; she also has exercised editorial control over which sites to include. I will return to this point below.

A similar archaeology portal occurs at Yahoo.com. This portal is also a publicly-owned commercial enterprise supported by advertisers. It emphasizes breadth of coverage over the more selective approach of Ms. Hirst. There is no "expert" named on the portal to whom questions or comments can be addressed. The personnel equivalents to the About.com guides are anonymous and seem to be employees of Yahoo.com rather than independent contractors. The portal is maintained primarily by automated software. There are few articles specifically written for the portal, and someone must submit a website to Yahoo.com for a link to be included. Submitted links can be either considered for free or "fast-tracked" for a fee. (I could find no policies for inclusion or exclusion of links listed, only a submission form.) This is a fundamental difference in philosophy from About.com's.

There is no evidence of a human intelligence directing the contents of the portal. Only a lack of human oversight could be responsible for the confusion between the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA to its members) and the American Institute of Architects (also AIA to its members). Links to web pages originating from both organizations are freely intermixed. Confusion also seems to exist among the advertisements. Sites for tickets to Aztecs NCAA Football and for car dealers with Pontiac Azteks are the most prominent commercial links on the portal!

Judging by the content and ads, the audience again appears to be primarily students at and above the high school level and the general public. The actual links, however, include the Archaeological Data Service (a British site aimed primarily at professionals), a business-to-business category that lists archaeological services and CRM firms, and grade school projects.

The organization of the portal is clear -- a central frame, sidebars, a search mechanism, and a top navigation bar that shows you the Yahoo.com hierarchy.

The last portal that I examined is in a slightly different category. It is the web site associated with Archaeology Magazine, the popular bimonthly publication of the Archaeological Institute of America. Although still very much a commercial site with advertisers, archaeology.org has a narrow focus (providing a web presence for the magazine) and is therefore less complex than either About.com or Yahoo.com. Archaeology Magazine's readership, however, overlaps with users of archaeology portals, so its portal covers much of the same territory. Since the magazine has a wide audience, archaeology.org may be the first portal that the readers of the magazine browse.

There is human oversight -- the editorial board of Archaeology -- and their names and email addresses are available on the site. They select links for the portal following the guidelines of the magazine and those of the AIA.3

The contents of the portal reflect the current print issue, with access to on-line versions of the features. There are also external links through a series of pull-down menus across the top of the page. A major difference from both Yahoo.com and About.com is that the search mechanism is limited to features in past issues of Archaeology.

Pluses and Minuses

Of the three portals, only archaeology.org is simple to navigate. Its off-domain links automatically open in new windows so that you can always return to the archaeology.org portal at your point of departure. This may seem to be a trivial matter, but this simple task is not always possible with Yahoo.com and About.com. In these two, as with any large site, retracing your steps can be somewhat difficult. With both, there is a banner across the top of the page that gives a hierarchic path within the larger domain; for About.com, this banner reads something like "About>Homework Help>Archaeology>Ancient Civilizations>Roman Empire."4 These banners reflect the heirarchy of the page you have opened. As long as you remain within the archaeology portal, this banner is correct. If you leave the archaeology portal for another, the banner will reflect the new portal's heirarchy. To continue with the example, you then click on a link that leads to the ancient history portal. The banner now reads, "About>Homework Help>Ancient/Classical History>Ancient Rome," and you have the lost previous heirarchy for the archaeology portal. About.com and Yahoo.com repond differently if you leave the larger domain completely. About.com provides an optional banner with a link that will return you to the last About.com page; Yahoo.com does not. Since Yahoo.com's portal contains almost exclusively external links, this is a major inconvenience.

With Yahoo.com you can arrive at a subpage by multiple paths. For example, to bring up the subpage with Egyptology journals, you can navigate "Archaeology > Egyptology > Journals" or "Archaeology > Journals > Egyptology." Both paths bring you to the same subpage. With both about.com and archaeology.org, there is usually only a single path to get to a given subpage within the domain. The simplicity of archaeology.org makes it unnecessary to consider multiple pathways. For About.com the single pathway restriction is more problematic. It does not inflate the apparent number of active links as does Yahoo.com's multiple path approach. (Yahoo.com will count two links to the same page as two resources, not one.) However, the single path approach may also require that you do more backing-up to be sure that you did not miss a link.

An alternative to travelling up and down seemingly endless hierarchic pages is to use the search function to find links. This function is invaluable for the two complex sites, About.com and Yahoo.com. For both portals, the search function will return the subpage with links to the search term. Once you know a link exists within the portal, the search function is the best way to find it. For a first attempt to trace a given topic, it may be better to wander down a few paths to get a feel for organization of available links. Within archaeology.org, the search function is only valid for the archives of its own on-line articles.

The organization of links into categories on each portal is idiosyncratic, as you might suspect. For archaeology.org the organization of internal links is by magazine volume/issue, while for external links the organization is, with few exceptions, geographical. For the other two, the organization is by an eclectic mix of geographical, topical, and chronological categories. For example, About.com has a page devoted to "ancient civilizations," whose links are further categorized as ancient writings, Islamic archaeology and Maya archaeology, while its page devoted to "world archaeology" has categories of temporal, regional, and topical studies. Similarly, Yahoo.com has pages devoted to "mummification," "Middle Ages," and "methodology."

The difference in organization makes it impossible to compare the depth of coverage between About.com and Yahoo.com for any given category. The overall count of links under each category is listed on both portals, but comparing the two numbers is like comparing apples and oranges. It is impossible to make valid comparisons both because the hierarchies are too dissimilar and because multiple links are counted.

Each portal gives a brief description of the contents of the site along with the links to it, but the author/sponsor of a link is seldom supplied. Archaeology.org does the best job of providing such information, especially for links to North American archaeology. Both Yahoo.com and About.com are more lax. This may seem a trivial complaint, but the scholastic level of a site is very important for users on both ends of the educational spectrum. Grade school students and undergraduate college students require different levels of expertise for adequate research. Especially with Yahoo.com the expected audience for a given linked resource is impossible to predict without visiting it. Authors range from acknowledged scholars to grade school children. Each individual link is a potentially great resource for some, but for students at any other level it would be inappropriate. With both about.com and archaeology.org, the level of scholarship for external links is more even, generally at or above a high school level.

None of these portals gives publication dates beside its links, whether they are internal or external links. This may be too much to expect for external links over which they have no control, but not for internal links. About.com does usually date-stamp its internal articles, as does archaeology.org; Yahoo.com has few internal articles. Yahoo.com does, however, have "new" flags for the latest additions. These flags mark the latest links to be added, not the latest publication date among the linked resources.

Prominent commercial links in the side-bar of Yahoo.com include "term-paper-for-sale" companies. I realize that these are legitimate businesses, however, as a teacher, I find such merchandizing particularly loathsome. About.com has similar links, but they appear only if a specific search is conducted. Similarly, advertisements for antiquities dealers exist on both Yahoo.com and About.com, but they are less prominent on About.com. I found no examples of links of either of these two types on archaeology.org.

Possibly the most surprising result of my study was that the three portals had fewer than expected links in common. Of course they shared some links, such as the major professional organizations like the SAA and AIA; but when it came to other resources, each portal had a good selection but there were few overlaps.

Coverage of Archaeology
All three sites do a reasonable job with links to the popular archaeological concerns of the moment (looting in Iraq, the latest finds, etc.) and the perennial favorites (mummies, southwestern cliff dwellings, etc.). They differ in their coverage of areas that are controversial or that are not currently making headlines -- areas such as excavations of the slave quarters in various sections of the US or the general deterioration of historical landmarks not threatened with eminent destruction by developers.

All three devote links to pages that discuss ethical concerns, although their approaches are somewhat different. About.com links to national professional organizations' statements, numerous authored articles, and news items; it also has pages that deal specifically with the issues of development versus preservation and the rights of indigenous peoples. Yahoo.com's links on ethical issues are presented under various categories -- looting and stolen art, preservation, etc. Archaeology.org has links to its own numerous articles on archaeological ethics, available through a search on "ethics," and links to the AIA (Archaeological Institute of America) web site with its policy statements.

Yahoo.com has many links to fundamentalist "Bible-as-historical-fact" sites under its Biblical Archaeology category, a separate category from the Ancient Near Eastern. It also has links to institutes whose mission statements express goals of providing archaeological evidence for Christian theological positions. The other two portals, About.com and archaeology.org, do not have a category for Biblical archaeology as distinct from those of the ancient Near East. Ms. Hirst's list of non-traditional archaeology sites appears under "Weird Archaeology," a subcategory of "Controversies." Her link to the website of the Convenant Keepers (supporters of Ron Wyatt's efforts to find various Biblical relics) is the only About.com link to web pages in this area of archaeology. This and other non-traditional archaeology like the search for Atlantis are grouped together under the menu as "Crackpots."

The coverage of local archaeology is somewhat spottier. The portal at About.com does not have a specific page with local clubs listed, but it does have several articles about finding local groups of avocational and professional archeologists. Several searches of About.com with words like local archaeology, societies, sites, and clubs gave mixed success with finding local resources. On the other hand, Ms. Hirst has written several articles on State Historical Preservation Offices (SHPOs) and has links to individual SHPOs through a sister portal on About.com.5 Yahoo.com, on the other hand lists some state societies on its organization page, but the coverage is spotty. Searches for Pennsylvania and New Jersey produced only the website for The Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology, but not for the New Jersey Archaeological Society. Both societies use Yahoo.com as a host for their web sites and chatrooms. Archaeology.org has a page of links for North American archaeology that contains links to popular sites like Jamestown, to National Park Service sites, and to several excavations run by U.S. universities.

The coverage of non-English web-sites is minimal on all portals. There are a few non-English sites listed in the regional archaeology pages of About.com, but I found none on Yahoo.com or on archaeology.org. I would have expected a few, at least in Spanish, for the Mesoamerican region. This is a major oversight and leaves the impression that all worthwhile archaeological web pages are written in English.

The current state of the art

I found that all three portals were helpful aids for locating links on archaeological topics that are part of the national consciousness. All were relatively easy to navigate and provided a variety of links on whatever topic I chose. I found few links that were common to all three or even common to the two larger portals. This lack of commonality means that all three sites should probably be searched to provide a more exhaustive list of links for any given topic. Of course, an exhaustive list may not be the goal of most individuals who use portals.

It is obvious that the two portals under more direct human control, About.com and archaeology.org, have fewer links to unrelated sites and sites with unstated agendas. This raises an important issue. Is the advantage of having an editor worth the censorship? For the typical beginning American archaeology student, the answer is probably yes with the proviso that the editor is qualified, as is the case with Ms. Hirst and the editorial board at archaeology.org. For Yahoo.com, no statement on the portal identifies the editor or even specifies editorial policy. For the more knowledgeable researcher, the issue of editorial policies is problematic.

The other troubling issue is the commercial aspect of the portals. All three are supported by the advertisements, and how advertising revenues affect their selection and presentation of links is not obvious. Editorial decisions made at these portals will affect the number of students that link to any given archaeological resource and consequently the potential desemination of important information. Control over the contents of portals equals control over the visibilty of resources and the ability of those resources to place data and ideas before the public. Sites that go against the biases of the editors (or advertisers) may not be listed and may not come to the attention of the portals users. Using multiple portals may help but the small number of portals for archaeology makes this problem potentially critical.

Susan C. Jones

To send comments or questions to the author, please see our email contacts page.

1. Navigation of complex web sites is becoming more of an art and very dependent upon individual browsers and the particular personal preferences that either you or your computer guru have selected for you. For this article I used primarily Mozilla 1.1 with occasional checks on Internet Explorer 5.5; neither is state-or-the-art, but both are functional. I also tried several different settings for opening pop-ups in new windows. I found that, without suppressing the opening of new windows, my screen rapidly became awash in small windows filled with unwanted, unrelated information. Return to text.

2. Her on-line vita is at http://scribaltraditions.com/k-kris-hirst-vita.htm;, accessed 1 Oct 04. Note that no date after 1999 appears on this page. Return to text.

3. Private communication with Amelie Walker, the on-line editor.Return to text.

4. The archaeology portal at About.com apparently belongs to a group of portals since the hierarchic banner that appears when you access archaeology.about.com starts with "Homework Help." Return to text.

5. http://usparks.about.com/cs/histpreservation/index.htm, accessed 1 Nov 04. Return to text.

For other Newsletter articles concerning the uses of electronic media in the humanities, consult the Subject index.

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