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Museums and the Web

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Web-enriched Heritage in the Pipelines Corridor: Contested Histories from the Caspian to the Mediterranean

Paul Michael Taylor, and Jared M. Koller, Asian Cultural History Program, Smithsonian Institution, U.S.A.


This paper discusses an innovative, international, collaborative approach that we used to present and interpret archaeological data found along the length of the BTC and SCP oil and gas pipelines (the “pipelines corridor”) from the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan through the Republic of Georgia to the port of Ceyhan, Turkey, on the Mediterranean Sea. The Smithsonian’s “AGT Project” (Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey Cultural Heritage Project) is a new international collaboration encompassing a multilingual website hosting reports of archaeological investigations (in original languages and English translations), a database of archaeological finds in each country, and a peer-reviewed online publication offering new interpretations of the cultural history of this pivotally important region at the juncture of Europe and Asia. The overall project encompasses archaeology, ethnography, and museum capacity development. Researchers at the Smithsonian’s Asian Cultural History Program (ACHP) and from other Smithsonian offices work closely with counterpart institutions in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey – including the Gobustan National Historic and Artistic Preserve, the Azerbaijan Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography and the Georgian National Museum – to highlight the richly layered material heritage of the southern Caucasus and eastern Turkey. We balance updated best-practice web standards with practical considerations of technical web-viewing capabilities and local user expectations in the region. The project has produced, in addition to the AGT website ( two bilingual editions of a printed book on archaeological finds along the transect of the oil and gas pipelines, hosted a scholarly conference in Baku, and conducted numerous web-enhanced museum capacity-building seminars and museum professional training programs. This research and capacity-building program represents a potential model for future cultural preservation projects associated with mega-infrastructure developments (pipelines, road-building, dam construction, etc.), especially those crossing international boundaries in countries whose national traditions of archaeology and history provide contested or very differing interpretations of the materials uncovered. Our web presentation of interpretive narratives, supplemented by translations of the original site reports and a new database of objects found, contrasts markedly with other presentations in this field. We include and cross-reference all sites throughout the pipelines corridor, in contrast to presentations about individual sites. The website and the accompanying multi-lingual books present and reconcile (where possible) the diverse and contesting national historical narratives (located for example on websites in each country of the region). We attempt to balance a user-friendly presentation of narratives with an extensive database for scholars, rather than present just a narrative or just a database. The paper concludes by discussing some challenges faced by efforts to impartially present a broad regional history on the Web, as these challenges are expressed in design elements, images, and structural organization as well as the choice of content presented.

Keywords: MW2012, Archaeology, Azerbaijan, Capacity-building, Georgia, Mega-infrastructure projects, Turkey



This paper first outlines our Smithsonian team’s role in documenting and interpreting the archaeological and historical finds uncovered along the route of the BTC and SCP pipelines through the Caucasus and Anatolia (eastern Turkey), within the context of the multi-stage cultural heritage preservation efforts of that major international pipeline infrastructure project.  The pipelines pass through areas rich with historic and archaeological sites, and excavations in the pipelines corridor have provided important new information for the interpretation of the region’s history, including highly contested matters such as the movements and ethnogenesis of the ethnic groups living there today. Consequently, we focus on our role in the fifth “stage” of the cultural heritage preservation process along the pipelines, which includes capacity building in local museums, the preparation of technical reports and monographs about the excavations, and particularly the effort to make publicly available information about the archaeological findings through the publication of a major book and website about them. Our paper then provides a summary of lessons learned in the preparation of a multi-lingual website on the history of a region like this one, especially in association with mega-infrastructure projects. 

From the Caspian to the Mediterranean

The Caucasus and Anatolia, the region of the present-day nations of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, are home to some of the world’s most ancient cultures. For thousands of years, peoples have passed through and settled in this crossroads while moving between Asia, Africa, Arabia, Europe and Eurasia. The earliest traces of humankind’s prehistory in this region were found at Dmanisi, Georgia in 1999, where 1.8 million year old hominid remains were discovered (Vekua et al., 2002). In Azerbaijan, Gobustan Reserve’s ancient rock art provides evidence of human industry and artistic achievements as far back as perhaps 20,000 years ago. These cultures have left behind a vast wealth of archaeological treasures.

The archaeological surveys of the pipeline route began in 2000, before construction commenced. The construction, which began in 2003, was accompanied by teams of Azerbaijani, Georgian, Turkish, British, and American archaeologists who traveled the entire length of the pipelines, a journey that contributed to the story of known archaeological sites in addition to discovering hundreds of previously unknown and unexcavated sites.

The Smithsonian team continues its international collaborative research efforts in this area. Partners in the region include Azerbaijan’s Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Gobustan National Historical-Artistic Preserve and the Georgian National Museum. The Gobustan Preserve, located about 40 miles southwest of Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. The website produced is an example of the public education and museum capacity-building efforts associated with this project.

The Pipelines Corridor

The BTC pipeline begins at the Sangachal Terminal on the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan near the modern capital of Baku, then continues through the territory of Georgia, before ending at the Ceyhan Terminal on the Turkish coast of the Mediterranean. The length of the BTC pipeline is 1,768 kilometers (1,099 miles): 443 kilometers (275 miles) in Azerbaijan, 249 kilometers (155 miles) in Georgia, and 1,076 kilometers (669 miles) in Turkey. Its diameter varies from 1.07 to 1.17 meters (42 to 46 inches), and it is currently transporting close to one million barrels of oil per day, with plans to increase capacity to handle additional volume.

The SCP transports natural gas from the Shah Deniz field on the Caspian Sea to Turkey. It follows the route of the BTC pipeline through Azerbaijan and Georgia into Turkey, where it connects with the Turkish gas distribution system. The total length of this pipeline is 691 kilometers (429 miles), divided between Azerbaijan and Georgia in the same proportions as the BTC pipeline, and measures 1.07 meters (42 inches) in diameter on average.

Thus the “Pipelines Corridor” in which the Cultural Heritage Program took place consists of the corridor through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, along the length of both the BTC and the SCP pipelines from Baku to Ceyhan, but does not include the Turkish natural gas distribution system into which the SCP flows.

The AGT (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey) Pipelines Archaeology Program represents one of the most significant commitments to cultural heritage ever made by an international pipeline project. It was initiated as a result of the requirements of the international financial community that financed the pipelines, guidelines of the host countries, and BP’s internal standards for environmental and cultural protection.

In coordination with national cultural heritage authorities, a staged program of archaeological research and excavation was developed in each of the host countries along the pipelines (see Taylor et al., 2011a:34-40). The four initial stages occurred before and during the pipeline construction. Over the course of the first four stages, dozens of archaeological sites were found and sampled.

Baseline surveys, staffed in part with local experts, comprised Stage 1. The results of these surveys led to alteration of the proposed pipeline route, as part of an overall strategy to work around areas of environmental and cultural sensitivity.

Stage 2 began once the route was determined and the financial lenders approved it. This stage involved testing selected sites through limited excavations to identify cultural heritage resources of sufficient significance to warrant avoidance or mitigation initiatives, such as restricting construction areas or using protective measures such as fencing.

Stage 3, which also began before the AGT pipeline construction began, involved a first round of excavations. They were planned well in advance with BP’s national partner organizations so as to have clear research designs and protocols in place to maximize the data collected. Several methods of record keeping were employed during this stage, including drawings, photographs, and written documentation.

Stage 4 involved excavations of new sites found during the actual construction process. A vital task was the development of policy and procedures for dealing with previously unknown archaeological sites found after construction commenced. These “late finds,” generally consisting of scatterings of artifacts, also yielded unique and important discoveries. In many cases, BP, in consultation with national regulatory bodies, developed measures to avoid or abate damage to these late finds. Mitigation usually involved restricting impacts through the use of narrower construction zones combined with archaeological excavation.

Upon completion of the excavation efforts, archaeological teams in the three countries turned their attention to Stage 5, which entailed the preparation of technical reports and monographs pertaining to the excavations. “Capacity-building” studies focused on the treatment and preservation of artifacts recovered during the project. This work was followed by the preparation of general scientific publications and public outreach materials along with a database of information about the findings. The Smithsonian team’s role began as part of this fifth stage of BP’s “Cultural Heritage Programme,” with a multi-year project (2007-2011) headed by P.M. Taylor (research anthropologist and director of the Smithsonian’s Asian Cultural History Program), in which Jared M. Koller served as a researcher, database developer, and co-web-developer for the project. (Both have other on-going research activities in the Caucasus and Central Asia, in addition to this important project.) The results of the Smithsonian’s efforts include a series of museum capacity-building seminars in Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as at the Smithsonian; the production of the database and of the website (Taylor et al. 2010) described further below; the international workshop held in Baku, with proceedings published on that website (Taylor 2011c), and a major book that summarizes the finds along the pipelines corridor, and chronicles aspects of the archaeological project itself as well as the lives and cultures of the ancient inhabitants of the region who created the artifacts. This beautifully illustrated book is available in two bilingual editions, English and Azerbaijani (Taylor et al. 2011a) or English and Georgian (Taylor et al. 2011b).

The AGT Project Database and Website

The adoption of digital technology by museum professionals for collections management and educational outreach has significantly altered modern curatorial activity. This emergence of digital and web-based tools in museum scholarship encourages holistic approaches to collection, documentation, analysis and education. New media technologies provide numerous platforms for integrating basic curatorial duties into a unified process, one that reduces the repetition of data input by streamlining information from internally-supported databases to web-platforms available for public absorption. They also significantly expand the exposure of the museum to an international audience. The Smithsonian Information Technology Plan for 2010-2015, for example, states that over 188 million users visited Smithsonian public websites in 2009 (SITP Strategic Plan 2010-2015). The AGT website (Taylor et al. 2010: represents our attempt at an integrated digital information system, which is aesthetically pleasant but functional in regions of emerging IT capability such as the Republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia. 

During the early stages of the AGT Project, we realized that we needed a strategy for receiving what was sure to be a large influx of digital data. Our team of researchers at the Smithsonian’s Asian Cultural History Program (ACHP) took this challenge as an opportunity to explore some of the new tools that were being developed by the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO), the IT branch of the Smithsonian. Most apparent was the need to create a database capable of accurately cataloguing the developing collection. It is important to note that the Smithsonian did not add a single physical object to its collection for the purpose of this project. The archaeological material was discovered in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, and will remain with cultural institutions there. However, one goal of the AGT Project is to improve the conservation of museum material through digital documentation. Thus we knew that the design of the database would be crucial to the overall success of the project goals.

The manner in which we received the data was also an important consideration at the start, especially since the database was envisioned as encompassing information from Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. Since the new information would originate from educational institutions, transnational corporations and affiliated individuals, our database needed to be flexible enough to accommodate new information at different times and of differing quality, in languages using vastly different scripts. We also wanted the ability to support differences in English-language terminology that would arise from the varied scholarly traditions of each country. The first large amount of data that the Smithsonian received was in early 2007 from mainly Georgian and Azerbaijani sources. The bulk of the information consisted of aerial maps, graphic drawings of sites uncovered, images of excavation activity at sites or within individual archaeological features, and photos of objects either on display or in situ. As these images and maps were coming in, we also received explanatory documents describing the image data. We supplemented this metacontent with our own examination of the images being described, the result of which formed the descriptive portion of our database. 

For example, after perusing the incoming data for a few weeks in order to determine which categories should be included in the database, we discovered that the Georgian and Azerbaijani archaeologists used very different spatial categorizations in their analysis. The Azerbaijani use of the term “monument” could be said to roughly correspond to the American or British concept of an archaeological site. Finding collective agreement on the definition of an archaeological site is difficult enough in Western scholarship, as it can change depending of the time period and location being described. Further, new interpretations of how humans use space continue to develop, which alter previous definitions of an archaeological site (Binford 1983; Wagstaff 1987; Giddens 1990; Parker-Pearson and Richard 1994; Tilley 1994; Ashmore and Knapp 1999; Batty 2005). Yet American or British archaeologists generally understand the use of the term “site” in most contexts, within their tradition of archaeology. Georgian archaeologists were obviously familiar with an archaeological site, however most of the metacontent that they provided was associated with a trench number not a site. These trenches were highly standardized throughout the length of the pipeline route in Georgia. And while a grouping of trenches may in essence form a site, we discovered many instances where two trenches that might constitute a site in Azerbaijan were fully separated analytically in Georgia. This distinction (and many others like this) required careful consideration whenever inputting new information into the database in order to keep the format useful for scholars in each country and internationally.

One of the more exciting outcomes of this project was the development of an “integrated” database/website system that was capable of automatically updating information on the public website as soon as it had been entered into the internal database. The “Artifact Map” portion of the AGT website demonstrates this efficient new development in museum curatorial activity ( This section of the website allows the user to search spatially through some of the more magnificent sites uncovered during construction. If the user selects the site of Tovuzchai for example, he or she will be greeted with a brief summary of the material culture found at the site. If the user wishes to explore this site further, he or she may enter the image gallery by selecting “go to site gallery.” It is at this level where developers at OCIO, specifically with significant assistance from webmaster Michael J. Tuttle, have managed to link our functional database with public presentation. While the database is self-governed within ACHP, information from the database is transferred through Interwoven OpenDeploy in real time. Thus, when a researcher who has access to the database adds a new entry or edits an existing record, the change is instantaneous. This connection between database and website has saved innumerable hours of data entry.  

The design of the website was another important component that we needed to consider during development. We decided to utilize a highly sophisticated, multi-leveled template developed by OCIO for general Smithsonian use. This template had the advantage of using a tiered CSS approach, which allowed for easy global changes to the color palate and font styles. In addition, many Smithsonian websites also use this template (with local alterations), thus creating for the AGT website a sense of belonging to the Smithsonian community of online publications. The simplicity of the template had two additional benefits: the first was the ability of non-IT researchers to contribute directly to the content of the website through Adobe Dreamweaver and what was known as the “admin tool” (the user interface of the collection’s database). This allowed for much faster uploading of content and for more voices to be directly involved in the final process. Secondly, this template’s clean design and navigation allows internet users in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey to access the website using older models of computers that would have difficulty displaying a more modern design. During the initial stages of the AGT Project, which included visits by Smithsonian personnel to partnering institutions in the Caucasus and a week-long training seminar that brought Azerbaijani and Georgian museum professionals to Washington D.C., our research team soon realized the scarcity of modern computers in the region, especially in Azerbaijan and Georgia. This fact weighed considerably on our decisions during the database and website development.  

One of the most important contributions to Caucasus-region archaeology that this project made was the inclusion of the original site reports from numerous international excavation teams on the website. This required hiring professional translators to translate many reports into English, then hiring a British archaeologist familiar with the excavations to correct and edit specialized terminology in the translations prior to their publication within the “Uncover More” section of the website ( We are currently still working with local archaeologists to publish additional reports and translations of reports that resulted from the pipelines’ construction. With over 25 reports now translated into English and published for the first time, alongside the database of information on finds excavated, the AGT website allows for specialists interested in regional archaeology to examine the scientific data first-hand. Each site report was edited by a team of archaeologists, who only allowed the report to be published once all parties were satisfied with its content and implications. Further cross-cultural collaboration was encouraged during a 2010 workshop held in Baku, Azerbaijan, which provided a chance for the relevant excavation teams to meet and discuss their findings and potential future cooperation. The proceedings of this workshop are also available on the website, and demonstrate how leading scholars in the region are interpreting the results a few years removed from the excavations (Taylor 2011c). The presentation of each expert’s findings provided an opportunity for sharing information about the process of heritage preservation, through the methods of site surveys, excavations, and subsequent preservation and study of finds.

Because this project was intended to be multinational and multiethnic in scope, we were not always able to present a unifying thesis or argument such as those put forth in scholarly articles written by one or a few authors. The AGT website was truly collaborative in that it was created with input and contributions from several scholars in the region. The overarching goal from the start was to showcase the multitude of perspectives present in modern scholar in the region. More specialized scholarly journal publications, such as a recent article by P.M. Taylor and David Maynard in the journal Internet Archaeology about the excavations in Azerbaijan during the BTC-SCP pipeline’s construction (Taylor and Maynard 2011), can focus exclusively on those issues that the authors deem relevant, while also feeling less constrained by the pressures that can arise in multi-authored publications having multilingual editions with a broad non-specialist audience. This article, for example, examined issues about the excavation of Islamic gravesites, and the large number of Christian Albanian sites in Azerbaijan, that might have been deemed sensitive or easily misinterpreted by non-specialists had they been examined in detail on the website or in the multi-lingual editions of the book (Taylor et al. 2010, 2011a, 2011b). The Internet Archaeology journal format (and likely audience) also allows for a discussion of the potential importance and promise of historical archaeology even of abandoned sites from the Soviet period, though such matters are outside the scope of standard salvage archaeology in pipeline or other development projects. The potential for re-examination of data in such other specialized publications, however, also highlights the importance of presenting as accurately and as fully as possible the original archaeological material in the form of object images, measurements, site plans, and original site reports on the AGT website, so that such controversies could still be addressed at a later time, as they were in Taylor and Maynard (2011).

Contested Histories

The most controversial aspects of the project were nearly always related to interpretations of the data presented, especially in relation to ethnicities and the origins or movements of ethnic groups. Since the subject of this project was archaeological in nature, there were additional considerations to address during the developmental stage of the database and website, specifically related to questions of objectivity and positivist knowledge in modern archaeology. K.C. Chang, was among the first archaeologists in the 1960s to question the universalist approach to archaeological material popularized by Lewis Binford’s processual archaeology (Evasdottir 2000: 351). Disenchanted by claims of objectivity in archaeology, Chang argues that, “a theory provides us with a basic framework for operating our methodology and for determining the actual methods and techniques of gathering, ordering, and interpreting data that we come to use,” one that is constrained by the data that is available (Chang 1967: 128). New theories evolve with the introduction of material that renders current theories implausible, creating a situation whereby the accurate recording of archaeological material in a widely accessible database or website would allow more researchers to access and properly assess the data from their own perspectives, and thus advance archaeological theory. 

A detailed catalog of archaeological remains is particularly important in the Caucasus and Anatolia, which advocate unique and at times regionally combative national histories. Our team needed to have the data available quickly and reliably whenever a conflict of interpretation arose during the production of the public website. And at times it was difficult balancing opposing interpretations of the same material remains. A controversy arose for example, over the symbolic meaning attached to snake pendants by Bronze Age communities at the ancient site of Zayamchai. Specifically, there was a disagreement about the level of analysis we should assign to such an object. Some argued that the snake has symbolized wisdom and knowledge to people in the region dating back thousands of years and such information should be included in the final version of the AGT website. Others found this interpretation unsupported by the archaeological and historical evidence, but acknowledged the importance of noting it in the publication as one possible explanation of the object. At issue seems to have been the insistence that a folk interpretation of a motif, associated with one ethnic group today, must have been shared by the presumed ancestors of that ethnic group; conversely, the appearance of the motif in antiquity provides further evidence of continuous occupation. One critical goal for our team was to encourage collaboration among Azerbaijani, Georgian and Turkish scholars. Sometimes this simply meant organizing a prolonged conversation about the archaeological record, such as the 2010 workshop previously mentioned above (Taylor 2011c). Congregations such as these are rare instances of civil and productive discourse about extremely contentious issues related to ethno-genesis and national identity. 

Another disagreement centered on the ethno-origin of the Azerbaijani people. A sensitive subject for any community, the historical connection between the ancient inhabitants of what is now Azerbaijan and the current citizens of the Republic of Azerbaijan takes on added importance due to the country’s recent independence from the former Soviet Union and ongoing conflict with Armenia. Numerous scholars have examined the strategies that newly-founded governments employ soon after independence. Particularly relevant to our project are nationally-influenced reinterpretations of history, typically enacted to bolster and legitimize leadership and policy (Kohl 1988; Kohl and Fawcett 1995; Kohl 1998; Abdi 2001; Silberman 2001; Kandiyoti 2002; Meskell 2002). Philip Kohl notes the “considerable debate” surrounding the need for “a novel collective identity” as a basic component of the modern nation-state (Kohl 1998: 225, with reference to debates between Gellner 1983; Anderson 1991; Duara 1995). Kohl agrees with Eriksen’s rejection of “essentialist or primordial accounts that view nations as objective, durable phenomena, the origins of which typically can be traced back to remote antiquity.” (Kohl 1998: 225; Eriksen 1993)

Concepts such as essentialism and primordialism have been examined in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey as well (Dudwick 1990; Belyakov 2000; Suny 2001; Kuzio 2002; Guliyev 2005; Tokluoglu 2005; Akkieva 2008; Khatchadourian 2008). Claims by prominent Azerbaijani leaders and organizations have frequently posited a continuous link between ancient inhabitants and current Azerbaijani citizens (See the “History” page on the website of the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the United States of America; the “History” page on the website of the President of Azerbaijan; the Heydar Aliyev Foundation’s webpage about “Ancient Azerbaijan” for examples of the national interpretation). Yet we should quickly add that this feeling of connection to the tangible past also encourages great attentiveness to the care and preservation of archeological material, even the Paleolithic rock art of the World Heritage site at Gobustan. In addition, government-supported historical and archaeological scholarship in this region produces much thought-provoking and widely accepted work. Sometimes these efforts assist local communities reassert a lost history that was besieged by foreign influence. For example, significant debates emerged in the 1980s and 1990s between Iranian and Azerbaijani historians over the cultural identity of populations inhabiting the southern Caucasus during the Islamic period (Sabet 2000). Research performed by the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, and partially resulting from the excavations during the pipelines’ construction, instead focuses on evidence for a more cohesive and independent “Azeri” heritage continuously maintained in spite of Persian encroachment.      


As Kohl pointedly observes, and as our group of co-authors tried to keep in mind throughout the project:

Archaeologists, thus, can distinguish between what is well established, plausibly known, a matter of problematic conjecture, or sheer fantasy. Nationalist interpretations fall within this range of certainty to impossibility, depending on the arguments being made and the evidence used to support them. Ethnic identifications extending back over millennia, which are a favorite form of nationalist interpretation, are problematic and hazardous...The professional responsibility of the archaeologist confronted with such interpretations is straightforward: Emphasize that the identification is uncertain and tenuous and stress the real epistemological limits that circumscribe our ability to people the remote prehistoric past. (Kohl 1998: 241)

In the face of contested and nationalistic interpretations of historical data, our first goal has been to provide the broadest possible access to available archaeological data on which interpretations are based. While recognizing that data do not “speak for themselves,” we also understand that the ever-present tensions between data and existing interpretations are an important source of our changing views of history. For this reason, the historical narratives we present are extensively supplemented with the database of archaeological finds, and with our growing number of original site reports (in original languages and English translation). Second, our summary historical narratives (both in the book and the website) aim to present and cite contrasting interpretations from throughout the region, without always trying to reconcile them when we see no way of doing so at this time. Overall, we also conclude that no one should be deterred from undertaking very worthwhile projects like this elsewhere, to help preserve and increase access to priceless historical information about other regions of the world affected by mega-infrastructure projects that cut across borders and through deeply contrasting histories.  


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Azerbaijan Embassy to the United States of America website:

President of the Republic of Azerbaijan website:

Heydar Aliyev Foundation Website: