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Avoiding the Driest Dust that Blows:
Web Site Reports

John W. Hoopes

Maiden Castle, Excavations at Jericho, Olduvai Gorge, Casas Grandes, The Prehistory of the Tehuacan Valley, Urbanization at Teotihuacan, In the Land of the Olmec--these are examples of classic site reports, publications that strive to document the minutiae of archaeological fieldwork for posterity. Each presents the results of thousands of hours of field and lab research, sometimes stretching over several decades. Because most archaeological fieldwork is destructive and non-repeatable, a good site report is expected to include all of the elements necessary to reconstruct--within reason--the totality of the scientific field experience. While journal articles synthesize and interpret the meaningful (and interpretable) data, an ideal site report documents even those details whose utility is not immediately apparent. It should be a dense repository of information that not only supports interpretation, but provides fuel for critiques, alternative interpretations, and future investigations. Archaeological site reports are arguably the most important publications of our discipline--especially because they preserve data that can only be collected once. However, because they are often oversized and packed with maps, level plans, profiles, and artifact illustrations (not to mention pages of tables and even computer-coded data files), these multi-volume works are hideously expensive to produce, often requiring massive financial subvention and ongoing institutional support. As university monograph series decline or disappear in the face of increasing production costs and diminishing budgets, and as academic publishers become increasingly wary of projects that are unlikely to show a profit, lavish hardcopy site reports are in danger of extinction. Fortunately, the Web provides an attractive alternative that may eventually transform the publication of archaeological data.

There are several good reasons to publish a site report on the Web. The process can be both quick and cheap. Even the most expensive paper publications rarely include four-color illustrations or multi-megabyte data files, each of which are readily distributable over the Web. Online documents can be made available instantly and updated from any location with Web access, making them a versatile form of field reporting. Other advantages are inherent in the medium itself. How many of us have balked at the prospect of re-entering artifact frequency data from hardcopy tables to test or extend a quantitative analysis? How many hours have been spent thumbing through a multi-volume site report to find every reference to textiles, shell ornaments, or a lens of yellow sand? Web documents can be readily downloaded, reformatted, searched, indexed, and used to generate concordances. Search engines can provide immediate cross-references to information in several different documents. Web sites also can provide access to other documentary material that would be prohibitively expensive to print on paper. Fieldnotes, record forms, correspondence, transcripts of interviews, complete sets of plans and profiles, photographs from multiple angles taken at different times in the excavation, images of artifacts, bones, shells, seeds, and so forth--all of these constitute valuable data. There is no reason why the ultimate goal of archaeological documentation shouldn't be the presentation of every relevant piece of information that has been obtained about the archaeological record. Someday, for many archaeological sites and regions, this will be all that survives for future colleagues to investigate.

In addition, the Web also offers new possibilities for providing multiple interpretations of the archaeological record. Ruth Tringham at the University of California-Berkeley has been experimenting with the presentation of archaeological data in hypermedia documents that reveal the subjectivity of constructions of "what happened" in the past and actively engage individuals in the creation and testing of alternative views. A reading of any of classic report, from Jericho to Olduvai to Casas Grandes, reveals the effects of the principal investigator's particular interpretation in shaping the presentation of evidence. Web documents can be constructed in such a way that there are alternative choices in how the reader is "led" through the data, facilitating and encouraging active critiques of specific interpretations and participation in the construction of knowledge.

Permanence of the medium is a legitimate concern. After all, one can still consult an original copy of Schliemann's Troy and its Remains (1869) to interpret what was found (and to guess at what was trashed). However, any document that can be presented on the Web also can be stored on a CD-ROM or DVD. While neither of these is as permanent as high-quality, acid-free paper in a durable binding (the current estimates for CD-ROM shelf-life are about 30 years), any archaeologist knows that the ubiquity and reproducibility of an item of material culture is at least as important to its survival over time as the durability of a given example. Digitized documents can be copied and duplicated quickly and easily. A usable copy of "Casablanca" is likely to be available on DVD or some other digital medium long after the last celluloid copy has crumbled to dust.

One example of what is possible is Archaeology of Teotihuacan, Mexico archaeology.la.asu.edu/vm/mesoam/teo/, created two years ago by Saburo Sugiyama at Arizona State University. This Web site provides a thorough description of the Teotihuacan, Mexico, with descriptions of the major architectural features, photos, and eight QuickTime movies of the major structures, features, and excavations. It provides a chronological chart, maps, and a bibliography together with Teotihuacan Notes, an online journal edited by Sugiyama and Debra Nagao. The first number (January 1998) contains five online articles on Teotihuacan iconography. The award-winning Feathered Serpent Pyramid pages (last updated 8/15/97) are the most extensive, with detailed information and abundant photographs of this structure and the excavations that revealed extensive burials beneath it. Most of these images have not been published elsewhere, making this an indispensable supplement to hardcopy publications. The Moon Pyramid page has not yet been updated with this past season's discoveries, but this information will fit neatly within the site's existing structure to make this an even more valuable online resource. There are no interactive features (other than the email addresses of the authors), so in this sense the Web site represents an online version of what might otherwise be offered in a paper publication.

Web Reporting as Postprocessual Methodology

Çatalhöyük: Excavations of a Neolithic Anatolian Tell
(catal.arch.cam.ac.uk/)

The ongoing Çatalhöyük project, directed by Ian Hodder, provides a radically alternative model for the future of Web-based site reports. The project Web site, currently maintained by Anja Wolle, is not only an attempt at the construction of an online site report, but is an exercise in a postprocessual, reflexive, multivocal methodology (I. Hodder, 1997, Always Momentary, Fluid and Flexible: Towards a Reflexive Excavation Methodology." Antiquity 71: 691-700), that seeks to redefine the relationships between the excavator, the archaeological record, and the various audiences--both local and global--that are consuming the results of interactions between excavators and the excavated. (Several theoretical justifications for this approach are available online, including a valuable paper by Adrian Chadwick published in the online journal Assemblage at www.shef.ac.uk/~assem/3/3chad.htm). The project is producing not only traditional excavation data, but video documentation and virtual reality modelling, both of which will eventually become available online. A CD-ROM resource has already been published, and it is likely that more will be forthcoming as additional digital resources are created.

Although the site is not as image-rich as the Teotihuacan Web site, an enormous amount of information is available online. This includes a bibliography of research at Çatalhöyük, Archive Reports for both 1996 and 1997 seasons, seven artifact distribution plots from excavated floor surfaces (with detailed phase information), and the texts of papers presented at a conference in 1996. There are four newsletters (January 1995, April 1996, December 1996, and December 1997), each of which constitutes a detailed preliminary report. The following table of contents from the 1997 Archive Report gives an idea of the nature of other substantive online content:

  • Introduction and Summary (Ian Hodder)
  • Mellaart Area (Shahina Farid)
  • The excavation of Building 1, North Area (G. M. Lucas)
  • Summary of new phasing for building 1, North Area (G. M. Lucas)
  • Bach Area (Ruth Tringham)
  • The Summit Area (Kostas Kotsakis)
  • Archive report on work by the Kopal team 1997 (Jamie Merrick, Peter Boyer and Neil Roberts)
  • Report on sampling strategies, and analyses of the microstratigraphy and micromorphology of depositional sequences at Çatalhöyük, 1997 (Wendy Matthews)
  • 1997 Lithic report (James Conolly)
  • Pottery report 1997 (Jonathan Last)
  • The human remains (Theya Molleson and Peter Andrews)
  • Archaeobotanical archive report (Christine Hastorf and Julie Near)
  • Animal bone report (Louise Martin and Nerissa Russell)
  • Bone tools (Nerissa Russell)
  • Figurines (Naomi Hamilton)
  • Grave goods (Naomi Hamilton)
  • Stamp Seals (Ali Türkan)
  • 1997 report on experimental archaeology at Çatalhöyük, manufacturing bricks for the house replica (Mirjana Stevanovic)

    The Çatalhöyük database provides access to extensive excavation data. Its features include the Excavation Diary (recorded by the excavators in the field) and Excavation Data (the excavation records resulting from the field season). An additional feature, Find Data, provides summary information for materials such as animal bone and lithics from multiple units. Data from the 1998 season is still incomplete (only 1/3 of all excavation units have been entered so far), but information from previous seasons gives a good idea of what one can expect.

    The Excavation Diary features 235 entries from the 15 different participants in the fieldwork. One can generate a list of all entries from 4/8/96 to 10/9/98, retrieve all of the entries made by a single person, or retrieve all of the entries made by each member of the crew on a single day. As far as content goes, the excavation diary is like, well, reading someone's field notebook! The records are far from complete. Some excavators have contributed only a few entries while others were admirably consistent. One person provides only technical data about the units on which they have been working, while another includes personal comments about their own health and motivation level. There are grumbles about the ineptitude of the local laborers, the length of time it takes to process sieved material, and typical frustrations of supervisors with excavation teams. At one point, Hodder even comments on how the theft of a bead during a "press day" jeopardized the continuation of the project, writing, "I feel very sad, sorry, angry, let down." Thankfully, there also is optimism and even exhilaration when things go well. While the text is abundant and often painstakingly technical, the multiple perspectives of the excavation presented here come closer to representing the reality of archaeological data collection than any publication I have ever seen. If the goal of a site report is to allow the reader to vicariously participate in and reconstruct an actual excavation, this method is extremely effective. Any project director who has been faced with the task of gleaning valuable data from multiple sets of field notes in different states of completeness knows that their interpretation can be a major headache. However, in this case, anyone can see and critique the raw data from which the excavation narrative must be constructed.

    The Excavation Data page makes it possible to search on excavation units and features by numbers. Currently, there are 2,742 excavation units listed in 64 different excavation "spaces." Each has a basic description form listing information such as location, dimensions, excavation dates, stratigraphic relationships with other units, sieving volume, and linked cross-references to lists of samples (flotation, pollen), "X-finds" (objects retrieved during excavation, not sieving), and bulk finds (from sieving procedures). The unit forms make it possible to link them to plans and profiles as well. The Feature Data Table lists 183 features, ranging from walls to burials, pits, caches, and even bucrania (cattle skulls). Each is linked to an individual form, which (ideally) contains more detailed descriptions and cross-references to relevant excavation units. The Find Data page allows one to search individual units and retrieve descriptions of bone and lithic remains that were recovered.

    Using a combination of the Excavation Diary pages and the Excavation, Feature, and Find Data pages, one can actually undertake a detailed reconstruction of the Çatalhöyük excavations. While this is unquestionably a tedious process, it allows for the type of cross-checking and confirmation that is required for validation of archaeological interpretations presented in the general reports. There is much more that could be done to facilitate this process. For example, the artifact distribution plots should be image-mapped with links to information on specific units and features-and vice versa. Profiles and a clickable Harris matrix also would be helpful, as well as links from the excavation diaries to unit and feature records (all of which is possible on the Web).

    In addition to providing technical excavation data, the project strives to situate itself relative to a broad audience. There is a translation of a prizewinning essay from a Turkish citizen on the significance of Çatalhöyük. Another "postprocessual" feature is an online dialogue that began in January 1998 between Ian Hodder and Anita Louise, a member of the "Goddess community"--an international group of followers of the writings of Marija Gimbutas and others who follow Mellaart's interpretation of Çatalhöyük as a focal point of ancient goddess worship. Hodder writes:

    "Some have said `but we are not interested in your interpretations; they are already biased; we want to make our own interpretations.' This is an important challenge to archaeologists. We cannot assume that the provision of `raw data' is enough. This is because the data are never `raw.' The data are immediately interpreted by the archaeologist. And it is quite possible that someone from the Goddess community would interpret the `primary, raw data' differently. There is a need for archaeologists to contribute to a scholarly dialogue with the Goddess community. Because of the need for this debate, we have started to provide as much data about the site on the Web. I know you have looked at our Web site, and we plan to add a lot more data to that. Obviously it is impracticable to expect everyone in the Goddess community who is interested in the site to come and develop their ideas at the site itself. So we want to make the site data as accessible as possible on the Web, and to make the data easily understandable and useable. We hope it will be possible for people to add their own comments and interpretations at the Web site."

    The Çatalhöyük Web site is currently open for comments, but so far only six have been submitted. (The comments are provided in tabular form rather than as threaded discussions--the latter are likely to be more stimulating and productive). They reflect a diverse audience, ranging from tourists to a Ph.D. student and a retired professor. I'd like to encourage all SAA members to record their own thoughts on Hodder's ambitious venture in reflexive methodology. It may well shape the future of archaeology!

    Conclusions

    As Mortimer Wheeler wrote in Archaeology from the Earth (1954: 13): "Archaeology is a science that must be lived, must be `seasoned with humanity.' Dead archaeology is the driest dust that blows." Hodder's conception of the online "site report" transforms a traditional mainstay of archaeological knowledge into an active vehicle for ongoing interpretations of the past. While the medium is new, the concept may not be. The best of the "classic" site reports (found in the finest of archaeological libraries, although the librarians will hate me for saying so!) are those that have been modified again and again with handwritten corrections and annotations, underlining, highlighting, exclamations of approval or disdain, and occasional cross-references scribbled in the margins by generations of dedicated students. At a time when the costs of traditional publishing might have spelled the end of classic site reports for most researchers, the Web offers abundant potential to bring new life to this essential form of archaeological documentation.

    John Hoopes, associate editor for the Networks column, is associate professor at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kansas. He can be reached by email at john@hoopes.com, web john.hoopes.com.

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