Friday, 20 December 2013

Mr Tompa "Loses" a Comment

Tombstone from Jordan (Yeshiva University)
Peter Tompa made a big thing about "Archaeology Magazine' publishing a short news item referring to a longer piece in the New York Times about a Jewish tombstone which he, jubilantly, says goes against the AIA principles on "unprovenanced antiquities" ("Archaeology Magazine Publicizes Unprovenanced Jewish Tombstone", CPO Wednesday, December 18, 2013). He concludes his post with the observation: "Yes, we can learn a lot from unprovenanced artifacts, despite what hard-liners in the AIA and archaeological blogosphere might say". Personally, I do not think anyone is denying that we can say something (sometimes many things) about, and maybe learn something from certain artefacts taken out of their context. To do so would be ridiculous, and certainly merit the name "hard-line", but then, who is actually denying that? On Wednesday, I sent a comment to the Tompa blog, but somehow it seems to have got lost in the aether (I see from that blog's comments sections that even the multitalented, ever-superior and distinguished Arthur Houghton III frequently has the same problem and has to ask somebody to do it for him). Atypically, I did not save a copy of the exact wording of this submitted comment (the ACCG bloggers are notorious for refusing to publish comments on their blogs which do not suit their world view).

I remember though that I started my response to Tompa's parting shot with the remark, "artefact or text?" What the NYT article describes is merely deciphering a blurred text in a known language. Reaching interpretations on the basis of texts and pictures is easy-peasy. They are what we call 'addressed sources' - ones that are intended to convey information, and so they do. That's what makes discussion of these issues so frustrating with coineys. They see only objects which are addressed sources, and seem quite oblivious to the fact that archaeology is on the whole dealing with 'non-addressed sources'. Nobody (almost nobody) is or was trying to convey a message in the way they throw away kitchen waste or deposit other rubbish. Yet that is what we mostly have to deal with. I really do not see what is really so clever that somebody can read an inscription saying "here lies Jenny" and tell us that a woman called Jenny lived somewhere in the place where this woman was buried. Duh. Having that same inscription on a stone associated with a particular grave (containing a particular assemblage of material) in a particular position in the vertical and horizontal stratigraphy of the cemetery, and in relation to other graves in that cemetery, which lay in a particular place in the settlement geography of the urban complex from which it came could give us a good deal more information than "Jenny". And that is the point, because somebody ripped off this stone, and it got to a private collector in the US (how, when?) who gave it to a church museum, who then gave it to somebody else, all the rest of the information has irretrievably gone. All we have is a group of smug young people happy because they read the name "Jenny" which somebody had written on it.  Not actually a big deal at all, is it?

I then added to my comment an invitation (including a link) to readers of Mr Tompa's blog to participate in the challenge (not such a difficult one as the artefact has two pictures on it and two lines of writing) about the Acre Christopher coin. Sadly the comment never appeared, so Mr Tompa's many esteemed readers will not see it and will not have the chance to exhibit their skills and allow us to examine the methodology they would apply to the study of a specific decontextualised object. That's a shame.


Cultural Property Observer said...

I've posted your comment now. Did not get an email from blogger saying you made one. Happy Holidays.

Paul Barford said...

So, I look forward to one of your readers taking up the challenge and demonstrating the truth of your closing statement. Or maybe you'd like to have a go, Mr Tompa?

Happy Christmas.

Cultural Property Observer said...

I'm afraid I'm no expert on Medieval coins (despite my small collection of Hungarian issues) so I will need to defer to someone else. Still, I would imagine such a person would look at the legends of the coin (hard to read from the picture), look through catalogues of other coins of this ruler and if I could find no parallels other coins from the same period. Then, I would try to ascertain the meaning of the images (not sure this is a King's head or that of Christ for example), to see if there are any particular reason for this ruler to put them on his coins. In sum, I'd basically try to ascertain if I could why these images and legends were of importance to this ruler and whether there are any other parallels to other issues from which I might be able to draw some conclusions. Of course, all this is a bit speculative unless there is some contemporary writings which might confirm these conclusions. Knowing the context where the coin was found would be helpful, but I don't believe it would necessarily be the most important information I would need (keep in mind coins circulated quite widely, so where they are found might not tell us that much about the reasons why the coin was struck, etc. ) This is just a stab at what one might to consider; however, I don't view myself as a numismatic scholar so others would likely have a much better sense of how to derive meaning from this Medieval coin from Acre.

Paul Barford said...

Ah, thank you for that. It's rather odd, isn't it that, when you are discussing things with the Department of State you are ALL homegrown scholars and researchers, who would be deprived of a source of "research material" by this or that regulation, but when it comes to the crunch nobody will own up to the title and show us what its about.

So basically what you are saying is you'd compare the pictures and writing on this coin with pictures and writing on other coins ("look through catalogues")?

"other coins of this ruler"
but how do you identify the "ruler" from the pictures? The coin is unique, and his name seems to end "..ZL" which is not a great help. He appears to have a crown with pendants, what does that mean?

"other coins from the same period".
But how would you determine that "period" without that archaeological context to narrow it down? There were in this broad period enormous numbers of local issues right across central Europe. Was a coin with the legend Rex Boemiae issued by a king?

"not sure this is a King's head or that of Christ for example"
or maybe the head of St Christopher as the reverse legend proclaims?

"see if there are any particular reason for this ruler to put them on his coins".
So speculation based on a wider context, not information from the decontextualised object itself? Extra-source knowledge, including from other disciplines?

"I'd basically try to ascertain if I could why these images and legends were of importance to this ruler and whether there are any other parallels to other issues from which I might be able to draw some conclusions".

ditto, but then how have you determined which "ruler"?

So, I presume you'd not deny the possibility that archaeology might contribute something here - the very same archaeology, based on its reliance on reasoning based on context which your coiney pals dismiss and vehemently oppose and denigrate?

"unless there is some contemporary writings which might confirm these conclusions".
So text-driven reasoning? Numismatics a mere handmaiden of historiography? Adding decoration to a narrative constructed by scissors-and-paste use of written sources?

Suppose however that further analysis of the object indicates that the context of deposition and discovery do tell us something more than the mere pictures and (unclear) writing?

Removing this object from that information-bearing context without reporting it, and smuggling it over to a US dealer to flog off to some spotty teenager as something "cool" is destroying that information.

Merely having it surface at a Wisconsin coin show when said teenager grows up and tires of his geegaws is not getting us any nearer to understanding where that coin circulated. The same goes for shabtis, scarabs and other collectable geegaws that are bought and sold like potatoes by the dealers you support and succour.

This loss of information is obviously (to the rest of us) a reason why we need more transparency about collecting histories and accountability in the US dugup antiquities market.

What has the responsible coin importer (bringing new "research material" to the market), dealer and collector have to lose by doing their utmost to preserve that information to the fullest degree possible with the objects they curate in their ("research") collections?

Cultural Property Observer said...

I think we disagree about the value of archaeological context. I do agree that it has some value, but in many cases its at best redundant. Anyway, I also believe that programs like PAS and the Treasure Act help to preserve such context (or at least the most meaningful aspects of it). They also help preserve coins-- which can go into private collections where they are cared for rather than being all dumped into state museums which can't cope. But that's another debate I guess. Merry Christmas.

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