Web Sites and Public Access at Gardom's Edge

by M. Edmonds and G. McElearney


This summer saw the launch of a Web site built around current field research at Gardom's Edge in Derbyshire. Here we want to sketch in some of the ideas that lay behind the creation of the site, how it relates to the project as a whole, and our plans for future development.

Gardom's Edge is part of the gritstone scarp which forms the eastern side of the Derwent Valley. Behind the edge is a broad shelf which contains many archaeological features. Like other parts of the Eastern Moors of the Peak District, the Gardom's Edge shelf is remarkable for the sheer density of evidence for settlement and other activities during later prehistory. This includes a massive stone-built enclosure, probably Neolithic in date. A short distance outside the enclosure is a large earthfast slab with 'cup and ring' art. Two smaller examples of rock art have been found elsewhere on the moor. Later prehistoric cairnfield systems can also be seen across much of the better, if stony, land encompassed by the project, and they are associated with a rich variety of features: house sites, clearance cairns, linear clearance features, and lynchets, some defining small fields. Ceremonial monuments include standing stones, burial cairns, and a ringcairn. Linear boundaries cross the central area of the shelf, apparently overlying some of the field systems.

The principal aim of the project is to produce a long-term biography of the area, ultimately from prehistory to the present. We are trying to trace the changing ways in which this land was inhabited, and the manner in which communities at different times were articulated within broader social geographies. Conceived as an exercise in landscape archaeology, the project has involved excavation, remote sensing, metrical survey, and the analysis of environmental and soils data. The Gardom's Edge project is a joint undertaking by the Department of Archaeology and Prehistory at the University of Sheffield (Mark Edmonds) and the Archaeology Service of the Peak National Park (John Barnatt and Bill Bevan). It has been running since 1995 and will continue in the field until 1999.

Our research concerns at the Edge have gone hand in hand with a desire to promote access and understanding beyond conventional disciplinary boundaries. As such, our work is an exercise in public archaeology, an ill defined and ambiguous phrase if ever there was one. From the beginning, we have tried to acknowledge a wide variety of different 'communities of interpretation' in the design of the project, treating it as an event which can be approached in a number of ways. Public access takes a variety of forms from informal, and more formal, guided tours to co-ordinated projects with local schools and parallel work with artists in residence. We have also been trying to develop various forms of access for different special-needs groups. As a step away from a more conventional 'producer'/'consumer' relationship, we also encourage people to participate 'in the field' in various ways. Our primary concern in this work has been to promote the recognition that much of what people encounter when they visit is as much a product of history as a part of nature. On that foundation, can be built a variety of different engagements.

Our concern with promoting different forms of access was the principal motive behind the development of the Gardom's Edge Web site. With increasing Internet usage and Tony Blair's promises to get all schools 'on line', the Web clearly offers unique opportunities for interaction and communication. Work on the site is at an early stage, and we are still waiting for the Government to deliver on these (and other) promises. However, it is probably worth making a few comments on the design and development of the site.

What sort of site to we want?
Undoubtedly, the medium can be very usefully employed to publish the traditional 'interim report'. The format also allows a degree of liberation from many of the constraints imposed by conventional publishing. Perhaps the most notable of these being the limitations and cost of reproducing good colour illustrations in paper-based media. What we really wanted to exploit, however, were two other vital elements that the new media claim to offer: interactivity and (paradoxically) 'immediacy'.

If our motivation behind the Web site is a broad notion of expanding the level of access to, and engagement with, the primary archaeological research, we need to start with a structure within which we can package our story. This structure is the prime means by which our visitor will navigate through the Web site, and contains an implicit narrative direction throughout the site (whether desirable or not). So far, we have adopted a very simple linear 'table of contents', in which it is possible to move through the site relatively freely, gaining basic information about the project, its rationale and methodology. At various points, it is also possible to branch off into more detailed discussions of specific landscape features, and into precise accounts of work on those features to date. For those who wish, detailed interim reports are available at the end of each section.

So far we have adhered to the fairly simplistic use of text and in-line images, which has ironically become 'traditional' in Web pages. As such we have not really exploited the degree of interactivity that is becoming deliverable via the Internet. However, we are now beginning to experiment with various facets of the site which will take things a good deal further. We are now trying to make more effective use of images as something other than simple appendages to the text. Crucial in this have been our first experiments with the use of QuickTime VR®. This technology situates the visitor at the centre of a digital photographic panorama, wherein they can pan their field of view (left to right, up and down), and zoom in or out of the image. Using these panoramas, we have begun to explore how movement within images might provide a more satisfactory basis for conveying a sense of the topography, setting and character of much of the archaeology. Links between panoramas can also be established, allowing the site visitor to move, albeit in a series of jumps, from one location to another. There is more to this than simply adding local colour. As interpretative concerns in archaeology embrace various strands of hermeneutics and phenomenology, so there is a requirement to think through the bodily experience of past material conditions. This inevitably involves thinking about the routine and more performative practices in which people were engaged at various places and times. It also requires a more thorough investigation of 'place' itself, whether that be the character of the land, or the forms and spaces of monuments and other features. This is proving to be vital as research progresses in the field. It therefore needs to be addressed on the Web.

At present, we are experimenting with GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to increase the subtlety of navigation back and forth across the moor. GIS will also make it possible for the visitor to follow various analytical strands -- for example, accessing data or exploring changing viewsheds as they move from one place or feature to another. In time, people will also be able to move from the Edge to other places in the Peak, raising the scale to think of the broader landscapes in which communities on it were once articulated. We are also working on models that will allow people to move through simulations of the landscape under different conditions. We can in turn use technologies such as QuickTime VR® or Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML; see also the facial reconstruction update in this issue) as new means of visualising and participating in the results of this research. Given the nature of the medium, there will always be a gap. But models by their nature 'stand for' something else, and at the very least, they allow ideas and arguments to be explored in greater depth.

Current media also make it possible to open up other forms of access. In a few months, our work with schools in the field and the classroom will be extended by the addition of further pages. These will contain routines that will allow children to access information and act upon it: following tasks, responding to questions and perhaps running simple models. Here again, we hope to link these to other pages and tasks that operate at a broader geographic scale. This a major area where we will need to think carefully about injecting a meaningful level of interactivity into the site.

It is the apparent immediacy of information dissemination that is possible via the Internet that really sets it apart from other publishing media, including its digital counterpart, the CD-ROM. This year saw the trial run of site diaries, which aimed to provide a frequently updated pictorial journal reporting on progress in the field. Thus a visitor to the excavation site itself at a given time could then visit by proxy at a later date and witness how work in the field has progressed. As the immediacy of specific images becomes less important, they will be catalogued in a data base which we hope itself will be searchable via the Internet. Here we can see how the technology can dovetail the mutual goals of presentation with research capability. In principle, it is actually possible to do this live, and there is the scope to establish dialogue between ourselves and schools in real time. Such possibilities do, however, rely heavily on technology that can hardly be described as suitable for field conditions -- cold camera batteries and appalling weather conspired to cause problems for much of the season. However, the diary will be extended next year, allowing the possibility of communication and response while work goes on.

What of other forms of access? To most of us increasing access means more people, whether visiting the site, going to museums, or watching relevant programmes on the television. Again the new media provide more and open new potentials for different forms of access, rather than just increasing the volume We are currently working on a gallery containing images and discussion of some of the on-site work of artists in residence. Much of that work has been specific to place and is, therefore, not that well suited to translation, but the pages can be taken in parallel with others. Moreover, links can be used to engender a range of perspectives on different aspects of the project, including our practice itself. This will also be followed through in more conventional forms of text, involving narrative experiments, multiple interpretations, and in time, a site for conversation and debate. In short, different voices and different views. The nature of Web publishing enables us to take the same core data and restructure it in a multiplicity of ways, providing the possibility of different meanings to different audiences.

We clearly believe that publishing this sort of data via the Internet has a lot to offer, but we are also aware that it not a panacea. Although this is not intended as a technical document, technology does pose its challenges. Simple Web authoring itself is relatively easy. A few years ago you would have needed a good working knowledge of HTML and a lot of patience to get very far. Nowadays there is a wide range of 'editors' around that make much of what is contained in our Web site quite a trivial task. More interactive elements that can be included are still pretty much the preserve of the programmer, but we can expect this to change in time as well. The kind of interactive graphics provided by QuickTime VR® require specialised software to author and view. Many of us may still be connecting to the Internet by ageing telephone systems which again place constraints on the kind of data that can practically be delivered.

Perhaps the greater challenge is that of the structuring of our information, and its subsequent provision. Because people have an expectation to move fairly freely throughout a Web site, they may be frustrated if they can't, but may miss the essential contextualisation of isolated data if they do.

As we said at the outset, work is still at an early stage. We are fortunate to be in a position where we know what technologies are available and the possibilities they provide, but the implementation of these is another matter. If we were to provide an honest self-critique of what we have done so far, we need to re-address the objectives of the project as a whole. How effectively does our approach convey the complex evolution of a relatively small area over a relatively long period of time? We are keen to get comments and suggestions from people working along similar or quite different lines, and are aiming for the next stages in the development of the site to be in place in the later part of the autumn. There is much to be done!

Copyright © M. Edmonds and G. McElearney 1998


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