Putting the 'e' into archaeology

November 24, 2000

There will be a substantial shift to e-publishing within archaeology during the next decade which will have a profound impact on teaching, research and the public dissemination of knowledge about the past. Internet Archaeology has set itself up as a flagship for the journal element of this development, proudly announcing itself as the first fully refereed internet journal for the discipline. It has been published biannually since 1996, so there are now eight issues to review. As a whole they illustrate some of the immense benefits to be gained from e-journals, as well as some of the pitfalls. They show both individuals and the discipline struggling with this new medium, exploring, evaluating and experimenting with it, attempting to understand how it should best be used. Sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.

The editors have been sensible by keeping its home page as simple as can be; one link to several pages of information about the journal, and eight others to each of the separate issues. There is plenty of background information - editorial policies, instructions to authors, its own externally commissioned evaluation, statistics on access, reassurance to potential contributors that publication in Internet Archaeology is acceptable for research assessment exercise purposes.

The editorial policy is immensely broad and ambitious: the journal imposes no restriction on geographical area or chronological period; it is happy to consider articles ranging from excavation reports to analytical studies and theoretical discussion, and seeks to appeal to academics, government agencies and members of the public. It lives up to this broad remit by having an immense diversity of articles, more so than in any other archaeology journal I can recall. Issue five, for instance, contains two lengthy excavation reports, an analytical study about how ancient tuberculosis can be detected in human bone, a discussion of how HTML and web tools can be used to create an archive, and the assessment report for West Heslerton, an Anglo-Saxon settlement in Yorkshire excavated between 1985 and 1996. This latter report runs to more than 222,000 words and there is an acknowledgement that it was prepared as an internal English Heritage document and would not have otherwise been published. The internet is indeed an ideal medium for making such reports available, but the rationale for placing it within Internet Archaeology might be questioned.

Some may find such diversity a strength - in these eight issues there is at least one article to interest each member of my own department, as diverse a group of archaeologists as one is likely to find. But not one of us could confidently turn to any particular issue expecting to find something relevant to our own interests.

Both of the excavation reports in issue five run to almost 50,000 words (the whole issue is almost 350,000) even though one of the sites is little more than a tiny scatter of stone artefacts. The internet has many advantages over hard-copy publication for such reports when detailed description is essential and direct access into artefact catalogues desirable. As Barry Cunliffe notes in his foreword to the journal, the division between a site publication and a site archive breaks down within this medium. Moreover, now that hard-copy excavation monographs are so expensive to produce, and will only ever be found in a few libraries, the potentially global accessibility to site reports online is a valuable development. But one weakness in these current examples is that many of the line drawings, especially of stone artefacts and archaeological sections, are of such poor quality that they are inadequate as the published record for a site. This is a feature of many articles throughout the eight issues.

Whereas the relaxation of word constraints within e-journals is to be applauded for some types of articles, for others it is unfortunate. Many within these eight issues seemed far too long and wordy, such as those by Mark Gillings and Glynn Goodrick on "sensuous and reflexive GIS" and Mark Edmonds and Graham McElearney on "Landscape archaeology and the internet".

The possibility of publishing far longer articles that can nowadays be found in hard-copy journals is just one of the advantages of the internet. Others include the ease of searching for topics, of indexing, of instant cross-referencing and of sending comments to the editor. These are all nicely illustrated in many of the articles, together with the linking of texts to very substantial databases that provide valuable resources. There are, for instance, major pieces of work on clay tobacco pipe kilns, Roman amphorae and plant remains from British sites (issue one) and a massive gazetteer of sub-Roman settlements in Britain (issue three). But equally there are several other articles that could just as easily have been found in hard copy. Issue six was devoted to digital publishing. Several authors discuss their experiences using the internet to publish their material. Ian Hodder reflects about the about the Çatal Höyük web pages, which contain a vast amount of information regarding the current excavations. His main concern is whether these are democratising access to information or simply creating a new academic elite, those with access to the internet.

In fact, this elite goes beyond access to the net itself as many software additions are needed to make full use of the material with in this journal. I could not view several video clips because my version of Quicktime was too old or I lacked software called CosmoPlayer. I was rather shocked that within Martin Evisons article on virtual 3D facial reconstruction in issue eight, a link led directly to the web page of the company selling that software Speed is another issue I was fortunate to read Internet Archaeology on a machine with fast university direct connection via ethernet; attempts to read it at home using a modem might have been very tedious (as a colleague confirmed).

Cornelius Holtorf is also reflective in issue six about his experiences of submitting a PhD in hypermedia u a useful piece, but too long and self indulgent. The theme of self-reflection continues in issue seven with Caroline Wickham-Jones evaluating her excavation report on the mesolithic site of Fife Ness (issue five), arguing that with hindsight she sees how internet publications need to be planned in a quite different manner from traditional formats. There is indeed a lot of self-critique and worry about the dangers of internet publication and the new technology. In issue eight, Harrison Eiteljorg II ponders the "double-edged sword" of 'compelling computer images", such as reconstructions of buildings that attain a photo-realism. This may, he claims, overpower the viewer's normal scepticism. But the risk here seems not to be for professional archaeologists, whose scepticism rarely knows any bounds, but for the lay person or student.

Several of the articles make use of so-called "virtual reality" to try to provide the experience of being at an archaeological site. Vicky Cummings (issue eight) has some nice 360° spins around Neolithic cairns on South Uist to view the whole of the surrounding landscape, which I enjoyed. But I cannot see what use they are to anyone engaged in academic research on such cairns.

Some papers carry a lot of nonsense about the value of the internet for archaeology. A prime example is the contribution by Paul Basu (issue eight), in which he writes about the internet's "inherent capacity to address the post-structuralist critique of discourse".

This comment is directed to the internet's claimed potential for turning readers into writers, allowing each to navigate their own way through the maze of possibilities that e-articles provide. Some articles attempt this explicitly, such as Jeremy Huggett and Chen Guo-Yuan (issue eight), whose "experimental presentation attempts to combine a tradi- tional liner paper cast in a hypertext frame- work with a more dynamic document that responds to the reader's chosen pathway through it". I got utterly lost and confused within a couple of minutes.

The problem here is that such authors are simply making too many demands upon their readers. It is difficult enough to find time as a university academic to read any journal, even more difficult to read an e-journal when the time one has tends to be when stuck on trains or at airports. New technology such as e books is unlikely to be a suitable aid for many years to come. So when time is limited, the request to find one's own path through an article, to construct one's own knowledge from the text and images, to cope with the many interruptions as images are downloaded and when your software additions are put to work, is altogether too demanding.

The editors of Internet Archaeology undoubtedly have set themselves an enormous task - to cover the whole thematic, geographical and chronological range of the discipline within their journal. A flagship e-journal for archaeology is essential, and they seem to be providing a fine balance between the more creative use of the new technologies and the traditional publishing formats with the additions of databases and more visual material. Whether the shift in empha- sis to the first of these in the three latest issues is policy or simply chance in terms of what submissions have been accepted is unclear.

Perhaps the severest challenge the editors face is the continuing predilection of readers for downloaded hard copy, and the excellent use now being made of the internet by many traditional journals as a means for authors to supplement their relatively short hardcopy texts. That combination of hard copy with internet supplements seems at present to be the more successful medium than an internet journal alone.

But perhaps times will change, and these first eight issues of Internet Archaeology show that there are many benefits for archaeology from electronic publishing. For professional archaeologists, these are per- haps mainly in the provision of site publica- tions linked to what is traditionally thought of as archival material; for the lay person it is perhaps the enriching of their studies by the use of virtual-reality material.

Those who seem to be least well served at Those who seem to be least well served at present are the students. We normally assume that these are gaining most by having access to a far greater amount of material on the web than their tutors ever had when studying. But t fear it may be the students who become too overwhelmed by the compelling computer image to develop appropriate levels of scepticism. It will be the students who will suffer most from reading the less disciplined prose styles and editing that e-publications allow at a time when they need to hone their writing skills. And students may find it yet more difficult to appreciate the need for structured arguments with well-defined beginnings, middles and ends, rather than a maze of pathways and multitude of digressions that are the strengths of an internet publication and the weakness of many a student essay.

But these problems are not, of course, solely those of Internet Archaeology .

There is a long way to go before archaeologists learn how to make the most effective use of the internet. The editors of Internet Archaeology are facing this challenge head on and making an invaluable contribution to the discipline, one that goes far beyond the provision of their journal alone.

Steven Mithen is professor of archaeology, University of Reading.

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