5. Discussion

Download the Seeing Beneath Stonehenge KMZ (view using Google Earth)

The outcomes have demonstrated that even for a large-scale archaeological project, Google Earth provides a quick and relatively simple to use platform that can integrate a number of different datasets and media formats. In addition, 3D models and landscape tours provide additional interactive features that further the experience of the user. It is clear that this form of informative application can be successfully embraced by a 'mass audience', and is a positive example of how Google Earth and associated software and websites can be used to encourage public engagement and facilitate the dissemination of large quantities of information gathered during archaeological field work. The approach is perhaps extremely well suited to the presentation of large-scale, complex and geographically dispersed research. However, despite the seemingly obvious attractions, Google Earth has not yet been fully embraced by the discipline in this way. The potential reasons for this and the future for archaeology and Google Earth are discussed below.

5.1 Software and resources

In common with many disciplines, archaeology is still struggling to keep pace with technological change and the technological literacy that by default accompanies it. However, the complexities in building a similar Google Earth application to Seeing Beneath Stonehenge are now much reduced and could be carried out almost entirely using open-source software (see section 3.2.1). The only exception is the inclusion of Gigapan images, but panoramic photographs can be taken from cameras and mobiles and easily uploaded. The only loss here would be the high-resolution and display properties of the former alongside the active community that engages with this product. Online tutorials, support documents, and communities are also now readily available to help both new and more experienced users find their way. Recent work with teachers and school children by the Seeing Beneath Stonehenge team has also indicated that these skills can be easily learnt and developed with very little additional support. In addition, the next generation of archaeologists will have generally experienced improved training and awareness in GIS, Google products, and related software.

A greater challenge may be the time required to build a Google Earth application. Seeing Beneath Stonehenge was funded, allowing the employment of additional staff to develop it. Without this, it would have been extremely difficult to achieve. In addition, while it is now technologically easier to construct an application, unless initial thought and consideration has been given regarding how the data are collated additional time may be needed in development. If Google Earth is not considered at the start of a project, then it may become viewed as too challenging to create later on, and the likelihood is that a way of achieving dedicated time to do so may be difficult to access

It is also important to note that since the beginning of this project, other online tools have been developed to share and display spatial data to non-specialists. Indeed, Esri now provides a special offer for those wishing to transition from Google to Esri products. Specifically, Esri has produced ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Explorer. The former is a web-based application where user-generated content can be shared within an organisation, or the wider public. Points, lines or polygons can be embedded within a basemap selected by the creator, or end user (e.g. a satellite image or a thematic map), and attribute information can be accessed via an 'Inquire' button. Hyperlinks can also be made to other online resources and images. ArcGIS Explorer is a downloadable app for both mobile and desktop devices designed to link to ArcGIS Online and display map packages similar to the one created as part of Seeing Beneath Stonehenge. Point, line and polygon layers can be interrogated and their attributes read. Raster datasets can be viewed, and 3D models can be rendered.

These new online tools and products could be seen as an effective alternative to using Google Earth. However, even with the potential subscription requirements in mind, the functionality of the tools, and the ease of use need to be developed much further to make them viable options, and comparable to Google Earth. For example, the ability to create a landscape tour is not yet available in ArcGIS Explorer. A search for 'archaeology' within the publically visible layers available on ArcGIS Online returned 59 UK-wide datasets with 122 in total from across the globe. Of these, many were 'test' layers, indicating that while users are willing to try and create maps via this route, they are perhaps not yet being developed to their full potential. In addition, both products may take some time to be understood and adopted by the public, as the perception of a 'Professional' application and the associated reticence with respect to 'new' technology may detract from their uptake. Google, in comparison, already has an established reputation for creating easy to use, free, accessible software and is therefore likely to be adopted more readily by the non-specialist.