Vol. X, No. 3

Winter, 1998

The Lerna Database Experiment

Susan C. Jones
H. Eiteljorg, II

After the Archaeological Institute of America annual meeting in 1996, CSA Director Harrison Eiteljorg, II, and Susan Jones, CSA's other Jack-of-all-trades and expert in frustration tolerance, began work on a database to replicate, as nearly as possible, the catalog portion of Professor Jeremy B. Rutter's book, The Pottery of Lerna IV(The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton, NJ, 1995). We did this to provide an example of a pottery catalog in computer database form, in response to the session on pottery catalogs held at the 1996 annual meeting of the AIA. (See "A Catalog is Note a Database.") The result was demonstrated at the workshop hosted by Mr. Eiteljorg at the 1997 annual meeting.

The point of this experiment was to compare a standard paper catalog with a database designed to serve the same functions. Therefore, we tried very hard to construct the database to reflect, as accurately as possible, the organization of the author, Mr. Rutter. (We should make it clear that there is much more in the publication than the catalog. The hard intellectual work is in the organization and the discussion. The database does not, cannot, replace either. It is only a competitor to replace the catalog portion of this or other scholarly works.)

We had neither the time nor the resources to duplicate the entire catalog, but we did create a catalog of the first 364 items (all the items from Phase I).

In the paper catalog there are, in addition to the basic catalog entries, several tables that define terms for morphology, decoration, and the like. For any catalog entry, then, some of the terms are defined in the subsidiary tables, and users must either refer to those tables to understand individual entries or commit the tables to memory. For instance, the rim-handled tankard is defined in the morphology table, and the term appears, without definition, as the basic shape definition for items in the catalog. If one does not remember the definition, one must refer to the morphology table to recall the shape.

The tables included in the publication contain information about morphology, basic decorative approach (e.g., light-on-dark painted ware, plain burnished ware), decorative patterns, decorative schemes (the manner in which decorative patterns are distributed on portions of the vases), and so on. There were also tables with chemical analyses, findspots, and other ancillary information.

To use the catalog effectively, a user either becomes familiar with the tables that define the terms and inform the discussion or keeps markers in the book so that the tables may be consulted when required. Of course, most users will do both - become familiar with some of the terms and refer to the tables for others. At any rate, the individual catalog items cannot be fully understood without the information from the subsidiary tables.

The database version of the catalog is very similar. It consists of many computer tables, one of which is the catalog entries in tabular form. The others are tables for morphology, basic decorative patterns, decorative schemes, and so on. Each may be called up and examined on-screen, and the result is little different from the paper publication. The individual catalog entries can be examined; so can the subsidiary tables. The connections between them are implicit, and a user would know to look, for instance, at the morphology table to find the definition of the rim-handled tankard.

Potential for a better representation of the information is built into a good database management system. The connections between the items in the object catalog and related information in the subsidiary tables can be made explicit so that the appropriate subsidiary information seems to a user to be part of the object catalog. Thus, the definition of rim-handled tankard, for instance, can be placed on screen with each catalogued rim-handled tankard, just as if the definition were a part of the catalog entry. Similarly, information about decorative patterns used (including drawings of the patterns), decorative schemes applied, and so on can be called up with every appropriate catalog entry. So can drawings and photographs of the catalogued items. The result is a catalog entry with much more information automatically related to it; in addition to the information about the individual item, all the necessary subsidiary information about morphology, decoration, chemical analyses, and so on can be seen at the same time, as if all the subsidiary information were a part of the catalog entry.

Computer database systems are even sophisticated enough that individual users can decide which pieces of subsidiary information are needed for their specific purposes; they can design the appearance of the catalog for their own needs. Such design changes affect only what appears on screen or on paper, not the data or the underlying structure of the data.

The system so far described is superior to the paper catalog in the sense that it can provide more information at once about any catalogued item, and it does so in a way almost impossible to do on paper. However, there are other advantages.

Items in the database can be found by catalog number - or by any of the recorded categories, even by looking for partial entries like "-handled" to find rim-handled and shoulder-handled variations of a shape. In addition, users can look for items that share more than one specified entry, thus tankards from a specific context or items that were chemically analyzed and were assigned to a specific chronological group. When more than one item is found in response to a search request, the individual catalog entries can be viewed one at a time.

Those searches that result in multiple finds can also generate new tables with only the entries found - with any selection of details and even with statistical information about the entries. In other words, the analytic tables created by Mr. Rutter as part of his analyses of the pottery could be generated by the computer. We performed a few such searches to be sure we could duplicate those analytic tables, and we also created a table that Mr. Rutter had no need for but that we thought other users might want - a list of items published elsewhere complete with the publication references.

We created the database with the program called Accesstm, Microsoft's database management system that is supplied as a part of Office 97®. We chose that for a variety of reasons, including the fact that we had considerable experience with it. We were able to transfer the data and to duplicate the system in Filemaker Pro®, one of the few database systems that runs on MACs and PCs. Though we created only a few of the analytic tables with Filemake Pro, it seemed clear that we could have accomplished in Filemaker Pro everything that we did in Access.

In summary, the catalog in database form is a more sophisticated version of the paper catalog. The basic information is displayed in better ways and with ancillary information that simply cannot be included in a basic catalog entry. In addition, analytic tables are easily generated from the data.

One analytic table demonstrated a significant difference between a database and a paper catalog. We asked for all tankards with lozenge patterns on their shoulders, a listing shown in Mr. Rutter's book (Table D.70a, p. 581). One example did not appear, hough it was in Mr. Rutter's table. We checked and found the following description of the missing item: "Shoulder: Multiple triangles partially preserved . . . but here framed below by an ancillary zone of lozenges . . . ." All other uses of lozenges on the shoulder used the unambiguous designation of the Roman numeral assigned to all lozenge patterns (XI), because the lozenges were the primary pattern element on the shoulders of those pots. We had searched for that Roman numeral to find lozenges. When we changed our search so that it would find both the Roman numeral and the term lozenges, the computer did, indeed, find all instances. Used on this particular pot as they are, though, the lozenges are not the primary pattern on the shoulder; thus Mr. Rutter discussed them separately. Our initial search did turn up all the examples of the lozenge as the primary decorative pattern on the shoulder. Understanding the possibilities for data complexity, though, we could also find all the examples of lozenges on shoulders of tankards but not used as the primary decoration there.

This database could serve either of two purposes. It could serve the scholar studying the pottery - to generate the catalog, the subsidiary tables, and the analytic tables when and as needed. It could also serve other users in lieu of a paper catalog. There is no doubt in our minds about the utility of this database for the scholar analyzing the pottery. For others wanting to study the material, however, the millennium has not arrived. The data cannot be used to the fullest extent without the software used to create the data tables or some added computer work on the part of the user, and a solution for this problem is not in sight.

For those who may wish to know more and to see how the system functions, the data may be downloaded from the CSA Web site. Mr. Rutter and the publisher of The Pottery of Lerna IV, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, have agreed to permit this. Both the Access file and the Filemaker Pro files are available, in compressed form. DBF and ASCII files are also available. Comments and reactions will be appreciated by us and by Mr. Rutter and Ms. Kerri Cox, Editor-in-Chief, American School of Classical Studies at Athens Publications. We do ask users to remember that the data have not been reviewed for accuracy by Mr. Rutter, and the system is not truly comprehensive. It was as nearly so as we could make it in time for the AIA meetings, and we believe it illustrates well the potential of a database management system for this work. However, it is not a completely finished work.

-- Susan C. Jones
    H. Eiteljorg, II

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