The Online Lab Manual:
Online Type Collections
So you've returned from the excavation with a huge collection of materials:
projectile points, potsherds, bones, and soil samples. Your laboratory is
well-stocked with monographs, manuals, and even a few dissertations that have
always been helpful for identifying objects you can't recognize immediately. If
you're working with historic materials, compilations of makers' marks, and even
some vintage Sears Roebuck catalogues might come in handy. If you're near a
museum, you can look at collections of objects from related contexts. Is there
any reason to think it might be worthwhile to surf the Web, too?
One of the most challenging aspects of laboratory analysis has been tracking down comparative material not only for initial identifications, but for confirmation and interpretation. Any archaeologist who has spent time sorting lithics or ceramics knows just how helpful published descriptions and illustrations can be. However, one also is all too familiar with the experience of peering at the details of a poorly-reproduced, third-generation photocopy of an indispensable, out-of-print, classic monograph or dissertation--often the only resource besides an actual type collection--where one can find definitive examples of the item to be identified.
The following are some examples of Web sites that have already been created to facilitate the identification of archaeological materials. Surprisingly few sites exist. Each is an excellent example of what is possible and all are examples to follow. Nevertheless, all could be improved!
The most common Web sites on lithics currently available are essentially
amateurs' guides to the identification of projectile points. The best is
LITHICS-Net (see below), which will undoubtedly grow as its author receives
more encouragement and assistance. It would be nice to see this site expanded
by a network of regional contributors. An additional improvement would be a
guide to the identification of lithic raw materials, both through images and
detailed descriptions. At present, the site is dedicated to projectile points.
The addition of other tool types would be extremely helpful, escpecially for
making comparisons across broad regions like the Great Plains.
A helpful list of online catalogues of lithic materials can be found at ArchNet, archnet.uconn.edu/topical/lithic/. A simple example of an identification-by-image database is "A Catalogue of Lithic Types" at archnet.uconn.edu/archnet/topical/lithic/tools/tools.html, with online illustrations of tool types from southern New England. There is only one example of each. However, each category could easily include the whole range of type variation, with illustrations of specific subcategories (as has been done at SARC, see below). Another ArchNet page, archnet.uconn.edu/archnet/topical/lithic/types/typedate.html, created and maintained by Tara Prindle, provides an illustrated, online catalogue of major aboriginal projectile points in southern New England. These are organized by type (corner-notched, side-notched, stemmed, and triangular/lanceolate), and chronology. At present, there are 34 different point types illustrated, with more to be added.
SARC--Stone Age Reference Collection
The Stone Age Reference Collection (SARC), www.hf.uio.no/iakn/roger/lithic/sarc.html, has been developed by Roger Grace for the teaching department of the Institute of Archaeology, Art History, and Numismatics at the University of Oslo, Norway. It has a number of attractive and useful features, including an illustrated stone tool typology with descriptions and illustrations of dozens of categories, as well as pages on reduction technology, raw material resources, and analytical techniques including typology, use-wear analysis, refitting, châine opératorie, expert systems, and residue analysis. While largely intended for instruction, this site can readily be expanded to assist with more detailed analysis.
The Folsom Point
The Folsom Point Web site, www.ele.net/~ebaker/folsom.htm, created by Tony Baker in 1996 (but last revised in mid-August 1998), is an excellent and well-designed resource that merits imitation. It offers a detailed, illustrated, step-by-step description of the manufacture of a Folsom point. For example, the page on channel flake removal is accompanied by seven color photographs represented by both thumbnails and high-resolution, close-up views (with scales) of ventral and dorsal views of relevant artifacts. Altogether, Baker provides 30 photographs of Folsom points and point fragments, all at scales large enough for careful examination. Another excellent site of Baker's is The Paleo End Scraper www.ele.net/~ebaker/pes/pesintro.htm.
Chipped Stone Projectile Points of Western Wisconsin
The Chipped Stone Projectile Points of Western Wisconsin site, www.uwlax.edu/Colleges/mvac/point/point.htm, created by Jeremy L. Neinow and Robert F. Boszhardt, is the result of a long-term cooperative project based at the Mississippi Valley Archaeological Center. It provides detailed descriptions and illustrations of more than two dozen projectile point types together with information for both collectors and professionals on responsible documentation. One of its features is a downloadable site recording form that can be printed for recording important data about collected points. There also is a useful discussion of local raw material sources and an annotated research bibliography.
Southern Ontario Projectile Points
The London chapter of the Ontario Archaeological Society maintains a Web site on Southern Ontario Projectile Points yoda.sscl.uwo.ca:80/assoc/oas/points/sopoints.html that stands as an example of the kind of resource that could be assembled by just about any local archaeological society. There are descriptions and multiple illustrations of 25 different projectile point types, arranged by chronological period. These are formatted in such a way that each page could be printed for inclusion in a field manual.
Perhaps the largest (and most current) online resource for lithic artifact identification is the prize-winning site LITHICS-Net, members.aol.com/artgumbus/lithic.html, created and maintained by Art Gumbus. As of February 1998, it featured information on 113 different projectile points. The LITHICS-Net site is part of both the Archaeology Ring and the Paleo Ring Web "rings," which are collections of sites on related themes that are linked sequentially. The site is dedicated to projectile point identification, with points indexed both by name and by shape. Gumbus' color photographs of artifacts are superb. Each illustrated point is accompanied by a detailed description of its size, features, and provenience. Points also are cross-indexed (and their descriptive pages cross-linked) so as to facilitate comparisons of similar point styles. LITHICS-Net also provides a list of books on projectile points, with information about where to obtain them, and a link to Michael Pfeiffer's enormous online bibliography wings.buffalo.edu/anthropology/Documents/pointbib. Its growing list of other sites devoted to prehistoric lithic artifacts is a good place to find other resources on the Web.
At present, Web sites for the identification of archaeological ceramics are
surprisingly rare. Given the huge amount of time that one can spend tracking
down worthwhile descriptions and illustrations of ceramic types in the existing
literature, there is no doubt that online resources would be a tremendous
contribution to scholarship. The Web is an ideal medium for the publication of
this information, that, to do well in paper media, is notoriously expensive.
There are relatively few publishers willing to commit resources to extensive
illustrations of potsherds and profiles. Rarely does one devote sufficient
space to the publication of a representative collection (which would probably
consist of a dozen or more sherds and profiles) of an individual type. For one
thing, full-color digital images cost no more than black-and-white ones, and
for another, linked images and hypertext can make cross-comparisons much easier
than page flipping. Perhaps the biggest advantage of the Web is that pages
anywhere on the network can be linked to one another, enabling archaeologists
working in several different states or regions to pool their resources and
organize cooperative collections of information.
The following two sites represent pioneering efforts to exploit the value of the Web for ceramic identification. Still, there is so much more that could be done!
The Windsor Tradition: A Virtual Catalogue of Prehistoric Ceramics from Southern New England
This Web site, archnet.uconn.edu/archnet/topical/ceramic/windsor/windsor, compiled by Jonathan Lizee at ArchNet, is another example of a well-designed online type collection. It features descriptions and illustrations of 13 different Woodland types from southern New England, as well as guides to vessel morphology. For each type, there are images of both whole vessels and sherds, the latter providing close-up views of specific types of plastic decorations. Sherds are reproduced at roughly life-size (though a precise scale would be helpful).
The Internet Index of Banassac Figure Types
Assembled by Allard Mees at the University of Leiden, this ambitous site, archweb.leidenuniv.nl/anadecom/punzenka.htm, provides an excellent example of the possibilities of archaeology on the Web. It is devoted to the identification of Samian Ware figures from Banassac in southern France, a manufacturing center of mold-made ceramics dating from the first half of the 2nd century A.D. Samian Ware from Banassac is found across southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Hungary, occasionally appearing in the Netherlands, Belgim, and Great Britain. The online type collection consists of more than 100 thumbnail images of Samian Ware pottery, with figures classified into groups of human figures, animals, plants, and ornaments. With a computer screen configured to 1024 x 768 pixels, the images are displayed at actual (1:1) size, facilitating comparisons in the laboratory. One of the chief advantages of placing this type of resource on the Web is that it is a living, growing document. Mees uses the site to solicit additional images of unrecorded figure types. Presumably, this type collection will grow to become a worldwide, master index of all known Banassac figure types, and possibly expand to include other manufacturing loci of Samian Ware pottery.
Floral and Faunal Remains
Not surprisingly, the majority of resources for the identification of faunal
and floral remains have been put online by zoologists and botanists. While
expert identification will always require comparisons with actual specimens, it
is not difficult to imagine the utility of good photographs, especially ones
that could be displayed on a monitor at scale, for basic identification. Among
the approaches that might prove useful would be the development of image
libraries of specific vertebrate bone elements, with keys for the
identification of specific species and subspecies. While it would be ideal to
have complete reference collections, online images could be especially useful
for supplementing collections with information on rare or highly regional
species, endangered species, fetal and juvenile specimens, and examples of
human alteration through cutting, boiling, or reworking.
There are several links to useful resources at the Zooarchaeology Web page, home.sprynet.com/sprynet/fdirrigl/, maintained by Frank J. Dirrigl Jr. and Barry W. Baker. Unfortunately, there are not yet many resources that could be considered as type collections for archaeological analysis. There are several online catalogues of faunal materials ranging from vertebrate specimens to seashells, but none with a specific archaeological orientation. The University of California-Berkeley Museum of Paleontology offers searchable online catalogues of over 25,000 type specimens of vertebrates, invertebrates, microfossils, and paleobotanical specimens. Only a portion of these, mostly microfossils, are accompanied by images.
The Histological Thin-Section Gallery, archnet.uconn.edu/archnet/topical/faunal/catalog.html, was conceived as a resource for providing histological images to aid in the identification of bone specimens too small for accurate faunal classification. However, it provides only eight images of thin sections of bone from cow, white-tailed deer, red fox, Canada goose, human, opossum, gray squirrel, and snapping turtle. Hopefully, research along these lines will lead to larger and more comprehensive online resources.
I have not yet been able to identify any resources for the identification of botanical remains that have been created specifically by or for archaeologists, although one can readily imagine the potential use of a "live" and growing database of images of macrobotanical specimens, pollen grains, or diagnostic phytoliths. One example of an online resource for the identification of floral specimens is the site managed by the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge, www-palecol.plantsci.cam.ac.uk/, which offers a page on paleoecology and evolutionary biology with links to online catalogues of pollen types from Great Britain, the Juan Fernández Islands of the eastern Pacific, and from southern Chile. While there are only a few online images, there is a searchable text database of about 4,000 specimens at www-palecol.plantsci.cam.ac.uk/chile/pollen.html.
Getting More Information Online
Despite the enormous potential of the medium, current online resources for the
identification of archaeological materials are meager at best. I believe that
the production of useful, Web-based guides to the identification of
archaeological materials should become a new directive of standard
archaeological practice. Currently available technology (that is not expensive)
is learned relatively easily. The basics include a computer with an Internet
connection and browser software, a flatbed scanner, and image-processing
software. Web-site hosting is now something that is offered for free by
hundreds of internet service providers and commercial enterprises like
Geocities (www.geocities.com), Yahoo (www.yahoo.com), Netscape
(www.netscape.com), and Excite! (www.excite.com). With either a
word processor and a basic knowledge of HTML, or--better yet--a web
page-authoring program like Netscape Composer or Microsoft FrontPage, anyone
can publish a resource accessible to the world. Images can be created either by
scanning existing photographs or drawings or creating new ones. However, web
page composition does not require the purchase of an expensive digital camera.
High-quality, color images of potsherds, projectile points, bones, shells,
metal objects, makers' marks, and other archaeological materials can be
produced by placing these objects directly onto a flatbed scanner--a piece of
equipment that can be found at most office supply stores, sometimes for less
than $100. (A tip: Use a sheet of clear acetate or plastic to keep from
scratching the glass.) Most scanners now come with basic software packages that
permit the creation of files in GIF or JPEG format for use on the Web. For more
advanced manipulation of the color, contrast, and size of image files, a
package such as Adobe Photoshop can be indispensable. This type of software
allows for the inclusion of text, arrows, and other information to aid with the
interpretation of a given image [see B. A. Houk and B. K. Moses, 1998, Scanning
Artifacts: Using a Flatbed Scanner to Image Three-Dimensional Objects, SAA
The best pages with images are those that provide "thumbnail" (small, quickly loaded) versions of images that are linked to higher-resolution ones. These allow for at least two levels of interpretation: a quick, general identification and a detailed examination or comparison. The level of resolution allowed by digital images is virtually unlimited. A photograph of the object as a whole can be linked to images of specific details (most effectively through image-mapping) down to the level of photomicrographs and even SEM images. As with any good artifact photographs, these should always include a scale. Given the problems with color reproduction with different brands of monitors, it also would be useful to include a standardized color reference (such as a Munsell chip).
Ideally, online type collections should provide (1) color images of objects that have only been published in black-and-white, (2) multiple views of three-dimensional objects, (3) side-by-side comparisons of objects that can be hard to distinguish from one another, (4) enlargements of critical details, (5) links that provide cross-references to other objects, descriptions, or bibliographic citations, (6) keywords and alternative descriptions to facilitate location of objects through online search engines. Another helpful strategy would be the creation of online classification keys constructed with logical decision trees that would help one to sort through a variety of possibilities.
Good Things Yet To Come
With the explosion in free Web site hosting, ready availability of easy-to-use
Web page scripting and management software, inexpensive scanners, and
image-processing software, I have high hopes that archaeologists will recognize
the potential of the medium to greatly facilitate the labor- and time-intensive
aspects of artifact identification. The Web should go a long way toward moving
many analyses beyond the basic work of classification and description and
further into rigorous interpretation. There is no reason, other than time and
commitment, that we cannot, as a profession, work on the creation of online
type collections of the objects repeatedly encountered in archaeological
fieldwork. Rather than running to the library to track down a few murky
photographs of "Sebonac Stamped," one could simply type the phrase into a
search engine and come up with a digital facimile of sherds on the laboratory
table. With multiple laboratories contributing to the same effort (perhaps via
a single Web site), countless hours of searching through well-thumbed
monographs and lab manuals could be saved.
There is a great deal to be said for the ability to cite paper references, some of which have been around for a century or more. However, these references are only as useful as one's ability to obtain the cited work. Doctoral-level students are not always close enough to their home institutions to be able to consult key monographs on short notice while writing their dissertations. What if the publication is not available at a local library or is deemed too rare to be exchanged via interlibrary loan? Archaeologists working for private or government agencies do not always have access to university libraries with comprehensive collections of articles and monographs. Foreign archaeologists, especially those in Latin America and developing nations, are often unable to obtain copies of references considered to be fundamental to the analysis of materials in their own countries. Equally problematic is the enormous amount of useful data generated by CRM programs; while they submit reports to clients and government agencies, their budgets do not permit publication for a wider distribution.
The Web presents us with opportunities to surmount these problems, and I hope that we will realize its potential and consider contributing to the further development of online resources for data analysis.
John W. Hoopes, associate editor for the "Networks" column,is associate professor at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kansas.