Student, teacher, farmer, or lawyer. Thousands of people in the United States have an interest in the past. For some it's genealogy, their own personal past. Others have an interest in only one particular historical event or era. Many people enjoy seeing places from the past, reconstructed buildings, and the things that people used. Archaeology is one way through which the people can experience the past, be it the past of a hundred years ago, a thousand, or ten thousand years.
The archaeological community recognizes the importance of making archaeological knowledge accessible to the general public. In 1996 the Society for American Archaeology formally adopted the Principles of Archaeological Ethics. Two of the eight principles are relevant to the dissemination of archaeological work to the general public. Principle No. 4: Public Education and Outreach states that “archaeologists should reach out to, and participate in cooperative efforts with others interested in the archaeological record with the aim of improving the preservation, protection, and interpretation of the record... and communicate archaeological interpretations of the past [to the public].” Principle No. 6: Public Reporting and Publication states that “within a reasonable time, the knowledge of archaeologists gain from investigation of the archaeological record must be presented in accessible form (through publication or other means) to as wide a range of interested publics as possible.” The bylaws of the Society for Historical Archaeology also state the importance of disseminating research results to the public.
The World Wide Web has the potential to reach a large and diverse audience in a timely fashion. It could become a important medium for archaeologists to fulfilling their goals for public education. There are already thousands of web sites that are in some way related to archaeology. What is the content of these sites? Are they geared toward professionals or the public? Are the web sites primarily descriptive or are they research oriented? This project is only interested in web sites that are written for a general audience. What is out there?
It would take months to carefully evaluate all the web presentations on American archaeology. For this project, examples of three types of web sites were studied. The web sites of archaeological societies, associations, and institutes were evaluated. It was generally assumed that these sites were either designed by archaeologists or that archaeologists had ultimate control over the content of the sites. Museum web sites and the National Park Service web site were also studied. These sites are most likely not designed by archaeologists. However, archaeology plays an important role in both museums and parks. Furthermore, a arge amount of archaeological research is conducted in these venues. The final type of web sites examined were those directly relating to archaeological sites. The content of some of these presentations should be in the hands of archaeologists, although projects which are located in parks may not be.
In general, archaeology web sites are in chaos. Most of them provide very little in substantive information. The general trend is to provide minimal information and provide links to many sites which in turn have little information for the reader. The content of web presentations need to provide the reader with original information. They should be able to stand on their own. The website designers need to ask themselves one question. What am I contributing that is unique and informative to the reader? There is a place for web pages that provide links to other sites. Especially those pages which have a specific focus, a time period, region, or type of archaeological site.
Archaeological web presentations are currently not utilizing those features which make the world wide web unique and exciting. The content of many pages remain primarily textual. While the abandonment of text is not being suggested, many web page designers need to brake away from that traditional format. One limitation of how information is presented in books, journals, and newspapers is the cost of printing images. While images may increase the download time of a website, it is possible to design a site that will make many images available as external files. Archaeological web sites also do not utilize e-mail or forums to garnish feedback and discussion.
There are archaeology web sites which are well designed, provide substantive information, and current research results. Because of the youth of the world wide web as a publishing medium, one can only hope that the archaeological community will continue to progress and utilize this medium.