Dig in at the interface

Now readers can excavate their own truth as archaeology data goes electronic in a new interactive journal, writes Simon Dennison
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Archaeology is a surprisingly visual science. The results of digs at sites are usually presented as sets of photographs, while maps and diagrams are also vital to understanding the relevance of excavations. Now archaeology is to be the subject of the first fully interactive electronic journal in Britain.

Internet Archaeology, to be published by the Council for British Archaeology, will integrate text, maps and diagrams with video clips of excavations, visualisations of what sites might have looked like in the past, unlimited colour photography and complete excavation databases. It will also give access to the software originally used by authors to analyse their material.

This changes centuries of scientific practice during which the printed word was the only respectable form of academic publication. Only when an argument was "in writing", it was thought, could the conclusions be properly assessed. But print cannot cope with modern types of evidence such as video material and dynamic computer graphics, or with the sheer volume of data now produced by scientific experiments. Academic books and journals have, as a result, had to publish arguments backed up by only a selective sample of relevant evidence.

The new journal, to be launched next summer, will enable readers to re- examine excavation evidence at their own computer terminals, apply their own hypotheses to the same material and reach new conclusions, says Mike Heyworth, deputy director of the CBA. "A lot of presentations in print hide a prior manipulation of data which the reader doesn't know about," he says. "We will allow readers to strip that away."

One example of this is geophysical survey, which is produced by ground- penetrating equipment and gives an idea of what is below the surface without excavating it. "What you see in these diagrams is a picture of the data put through a filtering process to emphasise certain aspects of what lies below ground," Dr Heyworth says. "The journal will allow the reader to apply a different filtering process and produce a different diagram. That would not be possible in print."

Internet Archaeology will be available through the World Wide Web, with some sections available free and others protected by a password which will be issued by the CBA on payment of a subscription. The new journal is being set up with a pounds 185,000 grant from the UK Higher Education Funding Councils. When the first issue arrives, it may also solve a crisis in archaeological publishing, says Dr Julian Richards of York University, who chairs the project's technical committee. Excavators are morally obliged to publish the results of their excavations, he says, but reports are expensive and have print runs of only a few hundred. "They are also only read by about 20 people from cover to cover," he says. Typically, an annual subscription to such journals costs around pounds 36.

The journal will not only contain more information than a printed report but will also be cheaper to distribute. It will contain a built-in interface to all software used by the authors of articles, so readers will need no equipment (beyond a 486 PC and access to the Internet) to make full use of it.

The writer is editor of 'British Archaeology'. The CBA is at Bowes Morrell House, 111 Walmgate, York YO1 2UA, tel 01904 671417.