Tuesday 3 June 2014

Cryptogenetic coin grouping in PAS Database

FLO Vanessa Oakden in Liverpool had a visit from an anonymous member of the public, an old lady now living in Meols, who showed her two coins. "Ooooo...."  she said, "you done well. Where did they come from?" She was told they'd been found in Essex, in Laindon (Langdon Hills, lovely place if you've been there) near Basildon (the FLO spelt it Bassledon, sic) to be precise, by somebody building a summer house on their land before the war.

The geology here is mixed, but that is not enough to explain the differential state of the two coins pictured.  LVPL-221354 has little patina, and looks like an old collection object. The coin found with it  LVPL-21DE60 is represented by an excruciatingly bad photograph but shows an object with a totally different type of corrosion.  

I am a bit dubious about the authenticity of the first coin. If it was shown on eBay looking like that, I would suggest that on one of the coin-forgery websites it would stand a good chance of being dismissed as a cast forgery. I've put some red pointers to areas I see as of concern in the photos. None of them is conclusive by itself (the problems artefact buyers all have of judging something like this from someone else's photo), but I would argue that there is a case here for this object being treated with suspicion until looked at again by a specialist. There are a couple of marks visible which seem like mould seams on the edges (Ms Oakden apparently did not document the appearance of the edges - often a key area in the case of fake coins). The obverse is relatively crisp and in high relief which has been buffed-up to a shine, the reverse is in extremely shallow relief with a 'soapy', not to say porous, surface. The drapery and wings markedly-so. The flan-strain cracks round the edges are not cracks but rounded in profile, and there is no sign of corrosion lurking deep in the strain-cracked crevices.  On the reverse are two small round raised globules, are they casting bubbles?  The lettering on the obverse is rather 'fuzzy' and the letters merge into the field gradually. This is often seen as a prime pointer to a cast fake (due to the meniscus of the molten metal not reaching the very extremes of a mould), though I note that what (seem to be) original authentic tetras of the same period sometimes have the same appearance. Good die-cutting and full striking were obviously not the Alexandrian forte in the 270s-290s. But compare the conformation of the lettering here with that on the contemporary NARC-675913 from the same mint and used as the vignette for an earlier post on this blog.

 The photo of the second coin is fuzzy, pixellated, and poorly-lit. The lettering on the obverse shows the same poor definition, the reverse is soapy. There are four or five bright tiny raised areas, one on the reverse at four o'clock) which, if not an artefact of the photography, look like casting bubbles. Above all however the 'patina' attracts suspicion, light green powdery deposits in the crevices which has rubbed off over most of the surface, and bright unpitted metal exposed on the edges. 

It seems to me that there is a high probability that if that summer house site was located and excavated today, what would be found there is not a third century AD site, but remains of a 1930s (for example) house clearance bonfire site with various items deriving from desk drawers and the drawing room newspaper rack. Egypt was a popular upper- middle class holiday destination in the first part of the twentieth century and these two coins are just the sort of thing which such tourists would bring back (low-value, small but chunkily substantial to hold in the hand and with a primitive charm of their own - furthermore 'speaking' of Empire). Once the photos and souvenirs have been shown round family, neighbours and friends, the latter would end up in a drawer somewhere, perhaps to be thrown out disregarded when Aunty Maud passes on. An alternative to tourist souvenirs of course is the schoolboy coin collection, fed by gifts from Uncle Derek, the ex-squaddie who'd been stationed abroad, and abandoned when the youngster's voice breaks and he discovers girls. 

Apart from the differential corrosion, and the state of the coins so aberrant as a find from Essex soil, it would seem that both of them are in fact not authentic dugups, but the photos suggest they are both tourist fakes, rather well done ones compared to most of the tat sold today, but cast fakes both of them. The second coin is artificially patinated, the other has lost any coating it once had. Both look as if they've served as 'pocket pieces' for some time.

FLO Oakden in Liverpool has, for some reason, dealt with several other finds from Essex. Despite that, it seems not to have crossed her mind here that genuine finds from the coastal south of the county have entirely different corrosion. Neither PAS record mentions any suspicions that these are not authentic finds. These two coins have thus entered the archaeological record of the UK, to be used in far-off lands as "evidence" to support transatlantic pro-smuggling philistinism. There is no mechanism in the PAS record to keep track of items once the FLO has given them the once-over, these objects are currently curated only-God-knows-where. Here though, there is a very clear case for those coins to be re-accessed and re-examined. I suspect that in the Liverpudlian once-over, certain questions were not asked of the object and its state (and if the questions were not asked, the answers were not recorded). The record of both coins says they were 'struck', but this seems to be an automatic assumption in this case, as the photos show features apparently consistent with their being cast, and this is not addressed in the descriptions. Those descriptions were written in January 2009, since then, that information has been in the database. The records await 'verification' (like most) and are basically as they left the keyboard of the FLO five years ago, with the problem of the nature of the object and the context of deposition and context of discovery unaddressed. 

Obviously two scrappy photos (neither of which shows the edges of the coins or any other angles or details) and a rapid unreflexive stock description are  not enough to act as a full archaeological description of that object. A fuller discussion of these two items needs the artefacts in hand, and under a microscope. But that cannot be because they are in private hands, in the home of "an old lady in Meols", who may or may not still be alive in ten years time.

How may more items 'recorded' in the PAS by hard-pressed FLOs trying to keep up with their backlog would benefit from a closer look before they are treated as archaeological evidence? 

How many things in that 'database' were not deposited in ancient times in the place where a finder asserts they were found?


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