Every paper is built upon some assumptions, some principles that the author must take for granted in order to proceed. These are mine.
I start from the position that communication with the public is an essential element of contemporary archaeological praxis, and from the observation that the World Wide Web can be an exceptionally powerful medium for this purpose. I also assume that online public archaeology should not be solely the domain of large teams of specialists collaborating to deliver a sleek website which shows pictures of attractive artefacts and relates a few key facts about them. There is a place for that, but the Web can and should have a larger repertoire for public archaeology. In terms of authorship: archaeologists working on small projects without specialist assistance should be able to create simple but highly effective websites for the interested public. In terms of readership: the public should be looking at information that is not needlessly difficult to understand, that offers interconnection between the individual fact and the larger framework, that is presented with degrees of ambiguity that are appropriate to the particular subject, and that encourages them to think about archaeology and the past in a way that is meaningful.
These goals seem basic, but they are not easy to achieve. Therefore, in this article, I suggest that more knowledge about those mythical online Readers, and how best to present information to them, will help archaeologists significantly as they continue to create websites for the public.
This suggestion will not be earth-shattering to many professionals who work daily on archaeological computer applications or online museums, some of whom have a strong interest in human-computer interaction. Nor will it be mind-blowing for those who work primarily in archaeological research or teaching, but also want to build a public website once in a while, and find that in so doing, they constantly have to extrapolate and guess, to estimate the level at which they should write, which illustrations to include for nonspecialists, etc.
However, there are several good reasons to dwell on the obvious, including:
Publications regarding new media use in archaeology are predominantly about new options for authors/creators. By comparison, our collective knowledge of reader reception of online archaeology is not developing as quickly. This echoes the broader computer industry's unfortunate pattern of paying more attention to creating new information technology than to considering basic knowledge about the user's cognition, preferences and habits — a pattern which has resulted in the dominance of inherently flawed user interfaces (Raskin 2000).
'Digital divides' can work in many ways, affecting both content consumers and producers. Less discussed than the problem of interested public individuals without Web access, but also important, is the problem of archaeologists who have something to say online, but do not have enough information about how to say it effectively. This information is increasingly the domain of specialists like multimedia developers and human factors analysts, and is changing at a startling rate. Those who are first and foremost archaeology specialists simply cannot keep up with all the design trends and authoring software, let alone the research into usability or instructional design. Many archaeologists with an interest in their public cannot and do not go to specialist conferences like Computer Applications in Archaeology, Museums and the Web, or International Cultural Heritage Informatics, where such issues are gaining some attention1. And indeed, they should not have to participate in those specialist circles just to learn how to make a decently usable archaeology website. It would be better if that guidance was easily available not only to specialists but also to those with a miniscule budget, a rather average set of hardware and software, and just a few days a year to work on their websites. Website authoring is, after all, becoming a fundamental literacy — and if online archaeologists take that as seriously as we take the hope that the WWW can foster informed dialogue about the past, then that literacy needs to be nurtured and encouraged.
In my view, this should be a collective endeavour within archaeology, both because of the particularities of our subject matter (about which more below), and because the speed of change in the medium is too fast to trust that our usual methods of ensuring reasonable communication skills will work for much longer. On the whole, we've assumed that all practising archaeologists will be traditionally literate. This assumption is largely justified because they have completed a certain amount of schooling, in which they have learned how to write in conventional forms, like essays, that others can understand. Obviously — but crucially — at the moment, electronic literacy is not generally achieved in the same way. The vast majority of archaeologists learned to read and write before the Web gained much prominence, and those who have developed skills in writing for the Web have done so through individual professional development. Even those in school today may be receiving no education in Web authoring, and will have to go through the same individual skill-building process. This aspect of our disciplinary development may well need a jump-start. Instead of each of us struggling along in independent efforts to learn what works — or trying to adapt general advice about computer-based communication to specific needs — a more collaborative and systematic approach would accelerate our progress. So, I suggest that archaeologists continually need to teach each other what we know about our public's understanding of what we present to them online, and how we can communicate with them most effectively2.
For all its emerging flaws, the Web is still an astonishing opportunity, and more widespread discussion about how best to use it is needed.
As will be discussed in more detail below, representing archaeological information online is not a standard task in website creation, and the challenges are complex. Most often, we want to do more than create an attractive, navigable site for our readers — we really want to share something about archaeology and the past — but it is easy to lose track of ultimate objectives when progress in digital representation is outpacing crucial conversations about what the technology actually accomplishes. Thus, constant critical discussion of current trends in online archaeology is needed to ensure positive future developments.
In this discussion, it is essential to have participation across disciplinary and professional lines. Just as it is difficult for someone who teaches postcolonial archaeological theory to keep on top of the latest developments in usability, it is difficult for someone who specialises in VRML, database heuristics, logistic regression in GIS, or Flash, to maintain connections with public archaeology's concerns and needs, or stay abreast of theoretical debates concerning archaeological discourse, or the role of archaeological heritage in our rapidly changing world. Some do manage, and are to be commended for it. But it is simply too much to ask that specialists in archaeological informatics be wholly responsible for broader disciplinary concerns too; this is a responsibility which should be widely shared.
© Internet Archaeology
Last updated: Wed Jan 28 2004