Friday, 5 June 2009

“Barford is demonstrably wrong” about coin collecting

I see that in an undated addendum to the original blog post “Paul Barford and the rape of History” "Cultural property Observer" [Peter Tompa] now writes:

I asked Paul Barford to clarify this statement in his latest salvo:
"'The study of "Numismatics' by itself is not really important in the broader scope of research on the human past ...." […] In this, Barford is demonstrably wrong. For example, much of our knowledge about Bactria is derived from the work of scholars who put together a chronology of the Kingdom based on the study of well-known coin types
Mr Tompa had asked me to explain what I said, which I put some effort into doing. The reader can judge for themselves, but it seems to me that the coin-collecting lawyer of Bailey and Ehrenberg PLLC really has not “demonstrated” at all that what I said is "wrong". In fact he totally ignores each of the several points I made in clarification of the statement he challenged. The lawyer should know that this is not “demonstration”, it is evasion.

Mr Tompa merely facilely dismisses what I said by saying: “Despite his stated respect for numismatists, it appears Barford's actual experience with coins is limited and that he indeed only values them as archaeological artifacts”. Well, apart from the self-evident point that coins are (no more no less than) just one category of archaeological artefacts, this seems to be another example of "cultural property clairvoyance" that ignores what I said but instead determines that somehow somebody involved in European archaeology mainly of the Roman, and Medieval and post medieval periods as myself can only have had “limited actual experience with coins”. The only explanation of such a statement is that this again reflects the inexplicable US coin-collectors’ mindset which perceives coins as isolated objects which never occurs in assemblages with other finds and so would never be encountered by anyone actively researching archaeological material and sites. Instead coins would thus be only the preserve of special coin seekers and coiney-scholars and nobody else in the world can ever have come across them or be able to comprehend what they are about (this is of course precisely what lobby-ranting collectors accuse archaeologists of). This is of course a totally false presumption. Coins do of course occur primarily in association with other material and sites and most British and European archaeologists and finds specialists have hands on experience with dealing with coins from archaeological contexts and assemblages. I would suggest that most collectors of said coins in the United States and Canada however lack this experience, as comes out clearly in their writings.

I perhaps did not add something that seems totally obvious to me the other day, but feel in hindsight that I should have expanded on it out in reply to Mr Tompa’s challenge. The geographical and chronological extent of coin use is pretty minimal when compared with the extent of the human past which is the subject (through various means) of archaeological study. This is what I meant by "in the broader scope of research on the human past". It really seems to me to be incontrovertible.
Peter Tompa says I am wrong in stating what seems to me to be a self-evident truth. The study of coins by themselves does not have the overriding importance in the broader scope of research on the human past that coin collectors ("numismatists") would have us - and US lawmakers - believe. Mr Tompa says he can “demonstrate” the fallacy of my assessment, but it seems to me that so far he has failed to do so.

Not only that, but Mr Tompa also ignores totally the fact that I pointed out that what I would regard as numismatics is not at all what his coin collecting mates do buying up no-questions-asked whatever classical numismatic geegaws they can get their hands on and merely comparing one with another (a point also made by Elkins). This “numismatic context” (a la Welsh; John Hooker wrote something similar on a forum back in 2004) may provide some information about die use in mints, but there is nothing but a very tenuous link from that to the history of communities and societies and whole human groups which is the aim of archaeology.

But then in fact as the forums demonstrate what many coin colectors do is collect thematically ('one of every emperor', 'all the reverses of Septimus Severus', 'one from each Greek city around the Black Sea', 'coins with mythological reverses', 'coins with ladies with shapely bosoms/bottoms' or whatever). Others try to find rare varieties for the cheapest money on eBay. None of this type of collecting is advancing scholarship in any way. So what percentage of the 50 000 ancient coin collectors in the US actually are?

The contribution of “heap-of-loose-coin-on-a-table collecting” to our knowledge of Bactria which is taken by Mr Tompa as proof positive that I have incorrectly assessed the “true value” of coin collecting will be considered in the post below.

1 comment:

Paul Barford said...

Re: It really seems to me to be incontrovertible .

Let us honestly consider just how much coins can tell us about the history of the North American continent for the millennia of human history before 1604 (or 1585/7) for example. Nothing much at all I would guess, and yet that’s tens of thousands of years of human history of a whole continent– invisible to the numismatist. How much though could one determine about the history of what is now the USA by the study of seventeenth century coin finds alone? I am sure US collectors can point us to studies of such coinage in the US territories, but my bet is that they use ‘extra-source knowledge’ to place those artifacts into an historical context, rather than creating them. I also have asked before (on Unidroit-L) how much one could deduce about later US history (going beyond the ‘kings and battles’ type) from a study of its coinage alone (typology, metrology, iconography).

Coinage can in fact tell us nothing much about the history of Britain in the second to first centuries BC north and east of the distribution of “Celtic” coins in the south and east. Neither can it, in actual fact, shed much light on the history of a substantial part of the British Isles in the Roman period. Coin evidence tells us nothing at all from 410-ish to the creation of sceatta coinage (the thrymsas and tremisses are special purpose money of limited extent). It's a numismatic blank, but one in which a number of hugely significant processes were going on. The same pattern applies to much of northern Europe in this period. Even in the southern parts of Europe, the coin record is in a number of areas discontinuous in the same broad period (and later).

The poverty of the solely numismatic approach to history is also visible in most of Sub Saharan Africa, and the few places (Axum and the Somali coast, for example) where older coins come from, the coin evidence alone cannot reveal a lot about past societies as a whole. More telling is ancient Egypt a flourishing civilization with a complex at times centralized economy which for millennia used no coins.

South east and eastern Asia were coin using (lots of coins potentially smuggled out of there on the US market), but again are the coins always enough to tell us the full story? Several long-lasting conventionalized types such as the ban liang and wu-zhu and the Kashmiri goddess-king issues I mentioned in an earlier post rather rule out making such simplistic generalizations. The pre-Song Chinese issues are not terribly informative in general - that is even before we begin discussing the deceptive fakes now infesting this part of the antiquities market. Obviously some coins are more useful than others for writing histories of the region. There are also areas between these coin using groups which have no coins – that does not mean they have no history, does it?]

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