Review of DigMaster

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DigMaster is an online archaeological database that offers access to a select corpus of artifacts recovered in excavation from two sites in Israel (Tell Halif and Maresha) as well as similar materials housed in the Pierides Foundation Museum in Larnaca, Cyprus. The database focuses on terracotta sculpture, primarily figurines--although some of the Pierides material is slightly larger than figurine size and includes marble and stone examples. The date of the material is confined as well, with figurines from the Persian/Classical periods as well as some Iron II objects; the dates of the Cypriot material from the Pierides Museum range from the Archaic to the Hellenistic periods.

The impetus behind the creation of the database was twofold. First, the authors were committed to the imperative that excavators publish field results in a timely and responsible manner. Recognizing that final publication of excavated material is realized only after years of study following work in the field, they intended DigMaster as a vehicle whereby objects recovered from excavation could be made available to the scholarly and professional world prior to final publication, in fact, while fieldwork was still continuing. A second motivation for the creation of DigMaster was to encourage scholarly exchange among researchers working on similar classes of objects. The authors of DigMaster invited archaeologists in the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East to post terracotta figurines recovered in excavation within the DigMaster database, whereby a corpus of related material would be available online for researchers worldwide.

On both scores, the database succeeds admirably. The site of Tell Halif, located in southern Israel at the juncture of the Judaean hills and the northern Negev, has been the focus of the Lahav Research Project under the direction of Joe Seger (Director of the Cobb Institute of Archaeology at Mississippi State University). In 1992, Phase III of the project, co-directed by Paul Jacobs (Professor and Head, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Mississippi State University with appointment in the Cobb Institute of Archaeology) and Oded Borowski (Emory University), yielded an interesting corpus of fragmentary terracotta figurines from the Persian period, and that corpus was increased the following year. The large number of figurines recovered (563 are in the Tell Halif database) prompted the decision to make the material available online while study of the material and work at the site was still in progress. The result was DigMaster.

DigMaster was later broadened to become a collaborative venture among archaeologists who had recovered objects similar in date and medium to the Tell Halif corpus. Dr. Amos Kloner of the Israel Antiquities Authority included the terracotta figurines from the site of Maresha, located c. 24 km northeast of Tell Halif, and 39 figurines from Maresha are now available within the DigMaster database. Demetrios Pierides, Director of the Pierides Foundation in Cyprus, generously allowed the bulk of the terracotta figurine collection in the Pierides Foundation Museum to be included in the database. With the help of Peter H. Ashdjian, grand nephew of Demetrios Pierides and currently in charge of the museum, 416 objects from the museum's collection were selected for inclusion. The Pierides material furnishes important Cypriot parallels to the material from Israel.

DigMaster is a significant archaeological database, not only because of the breadth of material it includes (over 1000 objects) but also because of the wealth of information provided for each object and the striking multiple high resolution digital photographs of the material. There are over 6100 full-scale color photographs of objects, and each object is represented in multiple views (always obverse and reverse and, in most cases, the four sides of the object). Zoom features allow for close scrutiny of the object online, and in the brilliant original photography undertaken by Paul Jacobs, details of fugitive paint as well as surface tool marks are visible. In addition to color photos, 235 QuickTimeVR "movies" are available of select objects that were photographed sequentially around a 360 degree transit - allowing viewers to revolve the objects completely. A few artifacts (six) are accessible as laser scanned VRML models, making possible even greater manipulation of the object.

DigMaster is incredibly user-friendly, and the intelligent (and striking) design reflects the skill of Chris Holland, former student at Mississippi State University and currently a professional designer of web sites for educational and commercial applications. Entering the database is easy. At the Cobb Institute of Archaeology, Mississippi State University web page (, the first click-on heading, "DigMaster Archaeology Database," leads to the DigMaster main page. The first option there, "Getting Started," provides the user with information about the purpose and philosophy of the database, with links to short biographies of the three principal authors as well as instructions for using the database. However, the text instructions are likely not needed because the click-on tiles on the main page (with beautiful graphics and clear captions) are self-explanatory links to the database's important categories of information:

On the main page of the DigMaster database, the viewer can select one of the three individual databases (Tell Halif, Maresha, Pierides Museum), each having its own tile button with specific graphic icon. Each database is organized similarly with access to a variety of information, all retrievable via click-on tiles that are well-labeled and designated by different graphics.

In the Tell Halif database, click-on labeled tiles lead to Statistics which offers information on the number of objects, photographs, drawings, Quicktime VR images, and VRML models with links to an object index and further links to photos/drawings/movies. Background Info. provides a site description with a black-and-white aerial photograph, a link to a map of the area neighboring the site, a link to strata designations and period names (with corresponding dates), a brief history of the project with links to biographies of principal investigators, and an aerial view of Field IV where the figurines were discovered. Object Database leads to a chart of objects numerically designated in blocks. Clicking on the block leads to a page with color thumbnail photographs of each numbered object within the block. A further click on the object's inventory number leads to an information page that includes details on the object's find context, links to all available photographs/drawings/movies, a description of the object, condition assessment, manufacturing technique, dimensions, characterization of the fabric (including Munsell classification), a list of comparanda from the site (with links to those objects), and the Israel Antiquities Authority accession number. The Typology tile leads to a page summarizing the work by Dr. Eleanor Beach of Augustana College who devised a typological system for the objects. At the bottom of this page, the major typological groups are indicated by title and a brief sketch of the type; clicking on the title gives access to an ordered number of all objects of that type as well as sub-categories (e.g., under "horse and rider" are included the sub-categories "cone [horse legs or muzzles], "horse bodies," "horse heads," etc.). Clicking on the inventory number of an individual object leads to the information page for each object noted above. The Search Database tile on the Halif main page provides access to a page where one can search the database via keyword or by figurine inventory number; the search leads to the page devoted to that object with its thumbnail photograph and all available information. The Dig Area Map tile gives access to a map icon of Field IV with individual areas of excavation indicated; clicking on an excavation area links to figurines, plans, field photos, section drawings, and a summary of the area with its excavated strata (with a locus list, a stratigraphic chart, a summary of baskets that were gathered in 50 cm by 50 cm surface plots, summaries of individual loci [with links to excavation field photos and significant objects] with detailed lists of objects recovered in each locus). For Maresha there is no comparable stratigraphic information, and there is nothing comparable for the museum pieces.

The Maresha Persian Figurines Database is arranged quite like the Halif database. The Dig Area Map is that of the cave system of Maresha with a link to a summary of the recovered figures provided by Dr. Amos Kloner and Adi Ehrlich of the Israel Antiquities Authority as well as a summary of the cave system at the site. Background Info leads to a descriptive overview of Maresha by Dr. Kloner with a discussion of the history of the site; its identification; and information on the tell, the lower city, the caves of the lower city, and the necropolis, all of which comprise the entire site of Tell Sandahannah.

The database for the Pierides Foundation Museum is organized along the same lines as the other two databases and contains more than 4200 color photos along with brief descriptions of the 416 objects in the database. In this case, Object Database includes, where relevant, available comparanda. What is lacking (and would have been most helpful) is the notation of the Pierides Museum inventory number. The Background Info tile leads to a wonderful page written by Nancy N. Jacobs detailing the history of the collection in the Pierides Museum and a history of the Pierides family with family members' photographs.

Though not actually a part of DigMaster and not included in DigMaster's home page, the DigMaster archaeology database is augmented by additional materials found in excavation conducted by the Lahav Research Project in 1999; that material is available via a click-on heading on the Cobb Institute of Archaeology home page ("Lahav Research Project 1999: Dig in Israel"). The 1999 excavation database is not as user-friendly, and those who have become accustomed to the beautiful labeled tiles with their graphic images in the DigMaster database will miss their presence in the 1999 dig database. A click-on heading provides access to an overview of the strategy for the 1999 season. A separate heading allows for searching the database via object number, object type or keyword (it should be noted that objects other than terracotta figurines are accessible--including charcoal, cores, crucibles, glass, grinding stones, loom weights, olive pits, painted plaster pottery, scrapers, shells, worked stone and other artifact types). Searching by object type will ultimately lead to a list of all objects of that type with a colored thumbnail photograph accompanied by a database object number for each; clicking on photo or number gives access to data for each object including find context information, list of photos and archival material--all accessible via further links--as well as descriptions, dimensions, Munsell classifications, notes and comments. When I searched for "figurine fragments," it took several minutes to download a list of 249 fragments, whereas it took only 10 seconds to download a list of 15 fragments after searching for "grinding stones." The Information Index within this database (including separate basket, locus, and object indexes) was not available at the time of the review. The Photo Journal is a welcome bonus and provides daily photographs of the season's work at the site.

The DigMaster database succeeds in every way. Easy access to the excavated material, impressive graphics, bold and striking colors, readable fonts, an impressive array of information, clearly marked options, links to all photographs (which are stunning in their clarity) make this database a gem. It more than delivers what the authors had intended--preliminary presentation of a body of excavated material prior to publication. The positive reception of the site is documented by the over 80,000 hits/month the Cobb site was getting when records were being kept. DigMaster might well serve as a model for other archaeological databases, and to this end, an article on the philosophy, construction, and evolution of DigMaster by authors Paul Jacobs and Chris Holland is requisite reading. It can be found as "Archaeology Online: New Life for Old Dead Things" in First Monday, the electronic journal (

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