Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Coin Dealer: "Foreign Archaeologists Cheat"?

The executive director of a coin collectors' organization, coin dealer Wayne Sayles ("New discovery?" Ancient Coin collecting blog Dec 9 2013) sees a "red flag" in a newspaper article (Ilan Ben Zion, "Oldest reference to Bohemian king found in Acre" The Times of Israel December 2), reporting on a rather interesting Medieval coin. The problem for him seems to be that this coin has an archaeological context (a context pre-dating 1291, in 2009 excavations by Dr. Edna Stern of the Israel Antiquities Authority in Acre) and was not found loose in a no-questions-asked dealer's tray. The second problem is apparently that the archaeologists are foreigners, Israeli in fact. The coin is probably a denar of the powerful and influential Bohemian king Přemysl Ottokar II (reg. AD 1253-1278) an important figure in late thirteenth century Europe. Sayles' problem with this coin is based on the photo:
Upon closer examination (sic), one will note that the obverse appears to be pierced in the lower left field but there is no corresponding hole nor sign of even partial penetration on the reverse. 
This is not a piercing, but the surface of the coin has been cratered by rotating a sharp but flat point in it, like the tip of a dagger or knife. Such 'pecked' (damaged) coins may not appear in many US ancient coin dealer's trays, but the phenomenon is quite well known in European medieval numismatics, in north eastern Europe from the tenth century onwards. The aim was not to make a hole, but make a mark on the coin, there has been some recent discussion on the topic of such marks. Sayles has more doubts about the goodwill of the archaeologists involved in supplying the Israeli media with a photo of this coin:
Copying the reverse image, inverting it, reducing the opacity, and placing it over the obverse image one can see immediately that the obverse and reverse are different sizes [...] rotating the overlay image reveals that the two images are not of the same shape either. One might therefore be inclined to conclude that either the obverse and reverse photos are of two different coins or that there has been some alteration of the images...
Which leads to a comment on the professionalism of the archaeologists involved. Mr Sayles apparently has too little experience of freshly-excavated coins to understand why the two faces have apparently corroded differently which he suggests might be additional evidence of some archaeological jiggery-pokery: "this again might suggest [...] two different coins...".

Medieval numismatist Professor Boris Paszkiewicz of Wrocław University who has a lot of experience with collaborating very closely with archaeologists admitted this morning (pers comm.) that he had not considered the theory that the Israeli archaeologists had cheated him, "maybe Mr Sayles can explain it to me".

I do not think there is anything to explain, Sayles - for reasons best known to himself - is making a mountain out of a molehil. Leaving aside that he really should know the difference between the obverse and a reverse of a coin (!), he is wrong about the corrosion. In fact if he examines the photo of the coin even "closer", he will see on the edge of the reverse (St Christopher) has the same corrosion as on the obverse (the issuer's image) between 12 o'clock and six o'clock.

There really is no need to attempt to make a mystery about the shape of the coin. If one takes the obverse image, and enlarges it horizontally 12% and then inverts the image and reverses it, the two pictures do have the same shape, except somebody has carelessly over-trimmed the background from part of the edge that would have been most strongly lit to produce the white background we see in the media photo. Whether that was the archaeologists or not, I could not say. This could equally have happened in some press office. The effect is clearly seen if we colour in (using the "fill block" tool of a standard graphics program) the faint shadow of the background on the published image (both in the newspaper and Sayles' cut-and-paste).

The backgrounds of the two images compared

Methinks dealer Sayles is too ready to unjustly criticize somebody else just because they are an archaeologist, evidently a group of people that he and others in the ACCG loathe with an irrational hatred. Just what is it he hopes to achieve by suggesting that foreign archaeologists might be lying and cheating?

Now, this coin has turned up in Acre, an interesting context, and one that bears examining in the context of other coins excavated and reported as from Acre and all around the eastern Mediterranean, and perhaps the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region where Ottokar was lord (1272-78). Many of the king's coins are single-sided convex bracteates, what is the context of the issue of this coin, where was it intended to be used? Questions like this can only be answered on the basis of coins with known context of deposition. There is a huge limitation to what can be told from this coin if it had "surfaced" in Dealer Sayle's online stockroom with no collecting history or provenance (and yes, if Mr Sayles would like to take up the challenge and show what can be done with just the pictures and writing on this coin and no provenance and no way to identify by date the issuer ("[...]ZL") - great, we are all ears).

By the way, despite what the Times of Israel says, it seems that the silver mines at Kutna Hora (the source of the large Prague groschen which were used over a wide area of Europe) were only opened in the 1290s under Ottokar's successor Wenceslaus II.

UPDATE 11.12.13:
Dear oh dear, dealers on the defensive. Mr Sayles has conducted a discussion with Mr Tompa (in his comments) justifying his post. It is stressed that the ACCG's executive director did not raise "these questions out of malice for archaeologists" but his "professional concerns" (Mr Sayles' "profession" is selling coins, thank goodness he'll not be getting his hands on this one). He apparently considers coin dealers and their anti-archaeological sniping  part of the academic world:  
My questions were numismatic concerns, not an attack on archaeology, but some people in their myopia are probably not able to understand that. And, admittedly, Mr. Barford is not a numismatist by any definition of the world. This blog post was not critical, it was exploratory — is that not the nature of academia? 
Mr Tompa seems to have had difficulty reading the TEXT, once again we see the coineys just looking at the PICTURES and making assumptions on what they represent:
I'm no expert in this series, but isn't it unusual to have a Christ Head/Saint combination rather than a Shield or some sort of device on the reverse during this period? It would be interesting to look for others in the trade 
Actually, why not look at the accounts written by numismatists and archaeologists on the iconography of Early Medieval central European coinage? Yes, you get a lot of ecclesiastical motifs, including many saints on them, and the Hand of God Himself on Bohemian denars. A "shield" is what you find on the reverse of Hungarian denars (which, I believe, Mr Tompa collects), most other coins of this period and region have other images, heraldic shields only come in big time later with the talar coinage with their bigger flans.  Of course the point is made in the article that this coin is currently unique, if another turned up over in the US as "surfaced loose" with no proper collecting history "in the trade", it would be a tragedy.

Both Tompa and Sayles ignore my challenge (above) to show us what they could achieve on the basis of the pictures-and-writing study of this coin by the type of "numismatic research" they advocate as if it had turned up loose "in the trade". Not surprisingly, I think they'd be floundering about trying to find anything much to say about it by such means. So once again, instead of exploring ("is that not the nature of academia?") we get more coiney sniping.

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