Sunday, October 21, 2007

Good and Bad on the Internet

The internet is here to stay. That's not news and neither is the observation that an increasing amount of information about Mediterranean ceramics is coming online. So it's not just the fact that people are using the web that needs to be addressed, but also how they're using it.

Some current uses of the internet are to the clear detriment of the ongoing study of ceramics. As Nathan Elkins has been pointing out, the trade in undocumented antiquities is moving online and small sherds of ancient pottery and undecorated vessels are a regular part of this destructive commerce. Some examples:

Perhaps some will think that I shouldn't link to commercial sites. I do it to set up a further point. A Google query for '"Sarmatian Jar"' brings up only two links, the first to the Ancient Touch page, the second to another dealer.

While "Samartian Jar" is not a very likely search term, 'roman amphora ribbing' is slightly more plausible. Clicking on that link shows the Ancient Touch page in the number 4 slot - or at least it did when I tried, your results may vary. Fortunately, the two top slots are taken by Paul Tyers' excellent resources on Roman amphoras. My point, however, is that the internet is one place where the competition for the "hearts and minds" of the public is taking place. In this instance, professional archaeologists working to provide high-quality information on-line make out pretty well.

But things could be better. Note that it is the Ancient Touch page that offers the richest set of color images. Click through on the Pontic Amphoras at the top of the page and you'll see some of the best images of that ceramic type available anywhere, either on-line or in print. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that this page lists prices for these artifacts, it would stand out as a terrific resource. I take from this the point that ceramicists need to do a better job of providing high quality information on the web so that commercial sites move even further down Google's rankings.

And there is another issue to consider. When I clicked, just below the Ancient Touch link was another to a 1996 Britannia article on amphora inscriptions and legionary supply. Unfortunately, this article costs $12.00 to read. Sure, I have access to JSTOR through my academic affiliations, but most internet-users do not. This further suggests that the online commercialization of academic research puts archaeologists at a disadvantage when trying to make our case to the concerned public.

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