The Archaeologist Undeceived: Selecting Quality Archaeological Information from the Internet

Article excerpt

Introduction

Finding and identifying information of high quality from the Internet is arguably one of the most significant current problems across scholarship, teaching and information work. The Internet has been likened to "a huge vandalized library" (Gorman, 1995) and a fire hose (Rettig, 1995) gushing with information. Champion (1997) likens the ephemeral "here today and gone tomorrow" sites, as "crop marks in the fields of the Internet." This is clearly unsatisfactory in a data-intensive discipline such as archaeology. Scholars bring a lifetime of immersion in their discipline to any resource, analogue or electronic, but the expenditure of time and mental energy in making the necessary distinctions can be considerable. The student, whether taking a formal programme of study or approaching the subject as an amateur enthusiast, is at a considerable risk from the imperfections and tendency towards misinformation that comes with the Internet. For information professionals (librarians, museum curators or information managers) to facilitate the work of the scholar or direct the student towards information that is reliable and helpful is far from straightforward.

This paper makes a tentative exploration of the potential of evaluation tools to assist both information professionals and end-users of archaeological information from the Internet. The authors are information professionals, both of whom have a long-standing interest in the problems presented by archaeological information and, in the case of one (Griffin), extensive experience of practical archaeology. The paper takes an approach derived from the established practices and traditions of information and library science, on the grounds that these meet the needs of archaeology as a discipline in an appropriate and effective way. The starting point in the argument for this approach is that there are reasons for treating archaeology as a distinct problem-area.

First of all, it is clear that there are not only substantial resources of archaeological information on the Internet, but they have a distinctive character, closely related to the modes of research and communication peculiar to the discipline. Resources derive from a range of providers including university academics, museums, government departments, special interest groups and amateurs. They fall into many different categories, including directories, learning and teaching sites, abstracts and indexes, personal, commercial and university sites. The information may be presented in database form, as a free or subscription journal, as a catalogue or as a generic web site. It may contain previously unpublished data and grey literature, such as theses and the content of card indexes, material previously published in print format or prepared specially for Internet distribution, or a synthesis of some of these. Particularly important in a discipline such as archaeology is the presence of 3D reconstructions and modelling, and multimedia applications, such as Quick Time VR, integrating audio, video and animation.

Secondly, the subject is one of those, like health, politics, business and law, that is particularly susceptible to misinformation. The popular appeal of the subject material, coupled with the complexity of the issues, allows those with an agenda other than the discovery of objective truth to spin seductive webs of fantasy and selective presentation of data. A striking example of this is the very selective use of archaeological data to support the argument that astronauts from another world introduced the arts, myths and social organisation of civilisations such as that of ancient Peru. The astronaut theories of Erich von Daniken have been around for over 30 years and are systematically demolished in Websites such as the Skeptic's Dictionary (Carroll, 2002), but there are other sites that promote the idea and similar attractive eccentricities. More currently, we could look at the discovery in 1996 of human remains, subsequently dated at 7300BC, at Kennewick, Washington State, USA. …