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1.0 Introduction

This paper (oh, that print-based metaphor) is prospective rather than retrospective in nature. It represents an early stage of my inquiry3 into the general question: How does the WWW's medium affect the reception of archaeologists' messages?

This terrain has been scouted out before by a few archaeology scholars over the years, including for example Sue Thomas (1996), Ruth Tringham (1996), Ian Hodder (1999a; 1999b), Cornelius Holtorf (2000-3), Carol McDavid (1999), and Rosemary Joyce (2002), and I too have ventured into it before, albeit with rather naïve enthusiasm (Denning 1996; 1997). But the exploration has not been complete, and can never be, and the landscape bears a closer look.

As the readers of this journal well know, archaeologists have been publishing online since the Web's early days, and there are many thoughtful proponents of public archaeology on the WWW (e.g. Hirst 2001, as well as the authors mentioned above). Because of my own encouraging experiences with early incarnations of Assemblage and with teaching a course that dealt extensively with archaeology and the Web, I share their optimism about online public archaeology.

Valuable discourse has been emerging about best practices in online archaeology and allied disciplines (e.g. VISTA 2001; STOA Project 2001; HEML Project 2001). But still, archaeologists have written comparatively little about how new media actually affect the reception of their messages. This is not surprising. Many work in online archaeology because of their commitment to openness and accessibility of archaeological interpretation, not because of an intimate familiarity with information design issues. After all, for most archaeologists, their job is teaching, talking, writing specialised documents, and, of course, actually doing some archaeology too. It seems impossible for us to stay abreast of specialist knowledge about the reception of hypertext and multimedia — and yet, this knowledge is essential to our success online.

For the moment, I am focusing on hypertext and the information structure of hypermedia, completely setting aside the topic of graphics. (Others are ably addressing questions of virtual reconstructions (Eiteljorg 2000) and related aspects of visualization (contributors to Internet Archaeology Issue 8).)

My ultimate goal is the production (not just by me!) of syntheses that distill pertinent information about perception and understanding of hypertext, and suggest guidelines for using this knowledge in online public archaeology. But this brainstorming paper deliberately refrains from actually beginning such syntheses and guidelines; instead, it merely attempts to step back far enough to see the problems and consider how to approach them.

In the previous section on Foundations, I suggested that if we are to have effective online archaeology for the public, we need:

Taking these as points of departure, the rest of this paper:

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