Review of Perseus 2.0: Sources and Studies on Ancient Greek Culture [CD-ROM]

Reviewed by Harrison Eiteljorg, II

Director, Center for the Study of Architecture Bryn Mawr, PA 19010, USA . Email: neiteljo@brynmawr.edu

Cite this as: Eiteljorg II, H. (1997). Perseus 2.0: Sources and Studies on Ancient Greek Culture CD-ROM. Internet Archaeology, (3). Council for British Archaeology. doi:10.11141/ia.3.5

Available for the Macintosh on four CD-ROMS or concise version on one CD-ROM. For further details, including price and how to order, see: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/

I have a love-hate relationship with the Perseus Project. Since I first learned about it, when it was still a plan more than a project, I have been impressed by its audacious scope. I have also been very impressed by the far-sightedness of the project directors as they have made certain that the data they store - not necessarily the data they put out on the commercial CDs but the underlying data stored on disc at project headquarters - have been stored in the most sophisticated and neutral formats possible. They have, for instance, used SGML for text and complex databases for other information. They are also storing mapping information in GIS format.

On the other hand, I have found myself unimpressed with the CDs produced, both the original one in 1992 and the most recent version, Perseus 2.0, which was released recently.

There is much in the new version to admire, much that impresses. Unfortunately, though, there is also much that is worrisome or ineffective or simply not of good quality.

Perseus 2.0 is very much enlarged from the first version, and it now fills four CDs (and there is a Concise Edition which consists of only a single CD; about one-quarter of the images are on that single CD). Those CDs contain ". . . information on 1420 vases, 366 sculptures, 384 buildings, 179 sites, and 524 coins [and] . . . two-thirds of the surviving literature, up to the death of Alexander the Great, in Greek with English translation." (from the user's guide). Along with the descriptions of sites throughout the Greek world, there are maps on which to locate them. A series of essays on the history of Greece is included, as are many short biographies (which I found both interesting and thorough) and short essays about individual painters of pottery. Two lengthy essays have been added, one on pottery (actually a catalog) and another about Greek sculptors. They seem an afterthought, as if the material had been made available and added because it could be. Two bibliographies are included, one of works consulted and another of additional works. The material is intended to cover the period from the end of the Bronze Age to the death of Alexander the Great.

An accompanying user's guide contains the necessary information about setting up the computer (Macintosh only, of course), navigation processes, other tools available to users, an overview of the data on the discs, and ways to make the material more useful to teachers. It also has an Introduction that indicates future development and general information about the system. Oddly, it has no index.

I am assuming that the readers here are scholars who would use Perseus in one of two ways: as a resource for texts or images of objects and sites (assuming that they have less need for the descriptive materials) or as a place to begin research on something outside their normal reach. In the latter instance, the interest would be mainly in basic information and bibliography.

If I am correct in the foregoing assumption, those who are looking for specific resources need, first and foremost, to feel confident that the quality of the material they will find is good. They also need to know what is in Perseus so they don't waste time looking for materials that aren't included.

In terms of text, these scholars will be pleased, perhaps delighted. It is easy to determine the authors whose works are included; a full list is provided in the user's guide. Searching is possible, as is cutting and pasting into other documents; in addition, English translations are provided. There are notes, mostly appended to the English translation; the notes are mostly from Loeb translations, though other sources have also been used. There are also morphological tools and even the Liddel-Scott Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon.

Archaeological data are another matter. Approaching Perseus in the guise of one using it as a resource for images, I found it difficult to use because I did not know what to expect. Though I thought the architecture and sites coverage was reasonably complete, only two coin collections are included, almost no examples of vases of the earlier periods are included, and there are no terracotta or small-scale pieces of sculpture. In addition, important and diagnostic pieces may or may not be there.

Quality of images is another problem. Photographs and drawings are included, as well as maps. The drawings are all small and bit-mapped; so enlarging them is not helpful (and not possible with Perseus itself). They are about as useful as the small drawings one finds in a handbook and not nearly so helpful as a drawing from a more detailed publication. (See, for example, a plan of the Erechtheum and a plan of the Parthenon.)

More distressing and surprising to me is the low quality of many of the photographs. I had expected to want to own the discs simply for the photographs. However, I found that, time and again, the object photos were simply not good enough. It seemed to me that they had been taken under lighting conditions that obliged the photographer to use a very large f/stop and, as a consequence, to accept a very limited depth of field. Therefore, many of the images seem to be out of focus. Technically, they are not, but the minimal depth of field gives that impression. In addition, the lighting conditions again seem the likely villain in producing photographs that are often very low in contrast. That accentuates the sense of unsharpness. Some of the object images are quite good, but so many are not that I lost confidence in the quality control system. I found the sculpture to be the most problematic, but there are no images of sculpture available on the Perseus Web site to illustrate the problem; some vase photos may serve instead (see for one good example and one poor one of the same vase, also from the Perseus Web site).

This loss of confidence was heightened when I looked at some of the photographs taken out of doors that clearly had not been taken specifically for Perseus. Among these contributed photographs were many that had been improperly exposed and, in my opinion, should not have been included. Examples of those may be found at the Perseus Web site (see a photo of the steps of the North Porch of the Erechthem and a view of the ceiling of the North Porch).

I should make it clear that I could not - and did not try to - look at hundreds of photographs. I did look at what I thought was a representative sample. Many were very good indeed, but too many were not. (Checking was made difficult by the system; I had to use Photoshop to be able to view many images quickly.) I should also point out that my own experience with scanning slides has taught me that converting slides to digital images requires considerable care and patience. Nonetheless, the conversion can be good, and it should be in a resource like this.

For the person looking for illustrative material, the absences from Perseus make it difficult to rely on Perseus to provide the resources one expects. Since it is slow, one is certainly not likely to use it to search for a single item or two unless one can be certain they are there. Finding the objects poorly illustrated compounds the difficulty.

Those who may be looking for basic information, a starting place, have different needs. Assuming that such a person is knowledgeable about archaeology but not Greek archaeology, I would find it difficult to recommend Perseus. Interesting details are there, such as the essays about individual painters of pottery, but there are no introductions or general discussions of architecture, sculpture, vase painting, coins, or, indeed, anything else. There is, for example, a short section about music, but it contains only descriptions of the instruments used, nothing about music.

The historical overview does not contain such discussions either. In fact, it is rather interesting, consisting of short sections on individual topics like the development of the city-state and the reasons for colonization. But it is not a linear history. Furthermore, it seems uneven, though its coverage reflects the modern preference for more than political and military events. Discussions of slavery and gender roles, for instance, are included.

There is another problem for scholars who come to this resource; they would, I think expect a level of sophistication in approach that is lacking here. This is illustrated in the screen shot below. The object shown is a Roman copy of a Greek original, but it called a Classical piece and dated to c. 438 BC. The full description (not legible here) includes the information that the head reflects both the Nike sculpted by Pheidias for Athena Parthenos' right hand and the Nike of Paionios. Yet the piece is treated as if it were a Greek original, as if it were, without doubt or need for discussion, an exact copy.

Another example. Included are three Roman copies of Amazons - two of the "Sciarra" type and one of the "Sosikles" type. Though they are Roman copies, they are not so labelled. They are treated as Greek originals dating to c. 430 BC and are called "Classical." There is nothing in the description about their origins, but there is a pointer to the text of Pliny's discussion of an ancient contest for sculptors, and these Amazons are thought to be copies of two of the entries in that contest. From the Pliny reference one can get into the text of the document on sculptors, where one finds a hint that these are copies. That treatment of these pieces seems to me to be much too simple.

This entire issue, the relationship between Greek original and Roman copy, is simply not on the agenda of Perseus. It should be, not only for scholars but for anyone with a serious interest in the material.

There are many other resources included, and some of them are both interesting and useful, but they would offer rather little benefit to the scholar trying to use this as a first-stop resource for Greek archaeology.

Unfortunately, the Perseus interface does not rescue the resource from its other problems but adds to them. Perseus uses HyperCard and, flexible as it may be, HyperCard is thoroughly dated. The implementation here accentuates that fact. Small windows are used, and the user must navigate through too many of those windows. Indices in one window lead to catalog entries in another; they, in turn, lead to longer descriptions (in another window) and images (in other windows), if there are any. Furthermore, the summary and description windows are often too small for the amount of information in them; so one must scroll through them. (Printing such a window also yields a printout of only that portion of the text that fits in the on-screen window; so a lengthy description may require multiple pages of printout, though the text would easily fit on a single page.) One of the virtues of the system is that many photos can be viewed at once if the user's screen is large enough. Unfortunately, the labels on the photos do not relate to anything the user can see elsewhere; so, once on view, the photos cannot be identified.

Screenshot of Agora marble head of Nike, Athena Parethenos type from Perseus Project

Here is a screen image showing the system at work (supplied by the Perseus Project). Three windows are open, one with the sculpture catalog entry, one with the object description, and one with the photograph. Not showing is the window with the photo credit which comes up automatically with the photo (often on top of it)B. To get to this screen, a user would have started with the browser or sculpture index (a different window), selected the item to get the catalog window, clicked on description to get the second window, and selected one of the images from the bottom of the catalog window to get the illustration. Each selection generates another delay as well as another window. (A navigation window also shows in the lower right.)

Screenshot of Athens, Partyhenon architecture from Perseus Project

This second screen image (also supplied by Perseus) shows the description window with a photograph. In this case, the photo credit shows. The catalog entry had to be called up first to get each of the windows shown; the catalog window must be closed to obtain this screen. (Alternatively, the system may have been set to replace the catalog window with the description window; this is a user-selectable option.)

Both this screen image and the previous one illustrate the small size of the description window. In neither case could the discussion fit in the window, and the windows cannot be enlarged.

On my MAC the system was not only slow, but it required all the available memory, leaving me unable to take advantage of the cut-and-paste possibilities. My PowerPC 7500 has 16 MB of RAM, and the program will run with as little as 5 MB devoted to it, but not if one wishes to use all the disks and to shuffle them as required to see whatever image one desires whenever appropriate.

I started out using the indexing windows to find objects but later discovered that the newer access system, called a browser, was much more effective. In fact, it seems unnecessary to have both the old indices and the browser, since, so far as I can tell, the same indices are available with more sorting possibilities through the browser. Unfortunately, the indices are not always accurate. In one case, a list of the buildings in Athens showed fewer than half the total actually in the system. In another, a list of propylons showed only one, but I am aware of at least four in the system.

I would like to conclude on an optimistic note. I still think the aims of Perseus are laudable. Fortunately, the use of HyperCard will stop; the next iteration of Perseus will be available for Windows as well as the MAC. One can hope that a new interface will improve the usefulness of the product in significant ways. However, the problems I found make it difficult for me to retain my optimism. The illustrations - plans and photographs - represent an enormous investment of time and money; I cannot imagine that they will be redone, though the plans surely exist in better forms. More significant is my sense that the addition of all the new material in Perseus 2.0 made it possible to ignore the problems in the original. Instead of many new images and all the new essays, I think we needed a more sophisticated approach to the material in Perseus 2.0.

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