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The browser edition

Giorgio Buccellati – November 2003

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The notion of “browser edition”

The Urkesh Global Record is presented in the form of a “browser edition.” Its main distinguishing feature is the ability to break down the elements of the discourse into its most minute segments, which are individually composed, while retaining at the same time a rigorous structure for the whole.

Fragmentation is so characteristic of a browser edition that it is valid to ask whether we can properly speak of “discourse.” . We may properly speak of “discourse,” or better of “discourses,” in the plural. Arguments are proposed and followed in a text mode, with hyperlinks providing the equivalent of traditional crossreferences, footnotes or figures. But arguments can be constructed by following one’s own thread through the data.

To follow one’s own thread is easier to do with a browser edition than with a book. But ease, in this case, can have its disadvantages. It can reduce to a minimum the time for reflection and the ability to absorb. Also, the perception of the whole is quite different between a browser edition and a book, and so are the modalities of use. Therefore one may easily loose track of the broader import and drown in details. Thus it may be useful to encourage the notion that one can in fact “read” and “study,” not just “use,” a browser edition.

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Atomistic vs. overarching approaches

The browser edition intends to span two opposite extremes. On the one hand, it includes, in its most minute detail, every single observation ever recorded. On the other, it provides a frame that overarches the detail. It is the age old interaction between analysis and sythesis, but heightened by the immensely greater power of the electronic tool now at our disposal. More than in most cases, the technique truly impacts on method by eliciting new habits and, indeed, new mental templates.

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Inquiry paths

It is in the nature of a browser edition to allow a “user” to follow unlimited paths as the inquiry process (or simply the curiosity) suggests. Thus to properly understand a given object one may explore first the stratigraphic setting (the accumulation in which it is found, the reasons for attributing the accumulation to a given stratum, and so on), then the typological correlations to other similar objects (e.g., all the figurines found in the same context), etc. All of this is available at the click of the mouse as one pursues the different links embedded in the original display page of the object in question, and then the subsequent links as they appear on each of the subsequent pages.

Where the process becomes more complex is at the moment when one seeks to group elements of given categories and to construct numeric, and eventually properly statistical, comparisons. A few preset inquiry paths of this sort are made available (and are accessed from the lower left column). They are the ones that are thought to be of a more immediate interest. Additional inquiry paths can be developed from the data base version of the data.

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Browser edition and input

Central to our effort is the ability to use the browser edition as an integral element of the data entry phase during the excavations. The reason why this is important is that the browser edition is not a distant finishing line, where the product is the result of thorough-going harmonization and synthesis. Rather, the browser edition proceeds pari passu with the excavation. It is, in effect, an instant translation of the notes taken individually by all members of the staff, from the excavator and the registrar to the photographer, the surveyor, the draftsman. The browser edition is produced on a daily basis through an in-house program that operates on all the inputs from each different source, i.e., from each staff member. These are simple inputs in plain ASCII format, and from them the browser edition is constantly kept up-to-date. In this manner, the browser edition provides an excellent environment for achieving the kind of integration that is a major desideratum for an archaeological excavation. It is within such an environment that all members of the staff relate on a daily basis to their own data.

(As of the 2003 season of excavation, there were still some delays and gaps in the actual functioning of the system as described. But in its essential elements the system is in fact operative.)

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Web-based and disk-based editions

Browsers are typically associated with websites, and indeed the best use of the Urkesh Global Record is through the web at the address (click on RECORD on the top bar). The main substantive advantage of using the website is that it draws not just on one unit of excavations, but on all the others. In particular, it draws on a volume (Z1) that links the various excavation units on a Sitewide basis. (This feature of the system has still limited application at the moment, but work is actively progressing along those lines.)

On the other hand, we retain the option of disk-based publications for two main reasons. The first is that on disk we can offer high resolution images, which would inordinately slow down normal web use. The second is that a disk publication provides a more definite bibliographical status to the publication itself.

For a more technical description see the The Urkesh Global Record: Overview.

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