Tuesday, 24 June 2014


Somebody called "Wayne"
Noah Wiener's (18th June 2014) post 'Ancient Coins and Looting: Preserving the context' has attracted a few comments. Among them is one from somebody who fancies himself as an expert in archaeological methodology. Wayne reckons that Professor Nathan Elkins' analogy in Biblical Archaeology Review between archaeology and a detective examining a crime scene is totally wrong:
If archaeologists are the “detectives” of history, and they truly believe that “coins provide a precise chronology when discovered in context” I fear that the past will forever remain a cold case. The truth is that coins are far less accurate as chronological markers than other contextual objects.  
What "contextual objects" does he have in mind (more to the point what IS a "contextual object")? As an archaeologist I would say that "Wayne" needs to do a little more reading up on the subject of archaeological methodology before coming out with such a negative suggestion that "coins are far less accurate as chronological markers than other contextual objects".  What does he mean, things like glass vessels, Viking battle axes or sword fittings, bone combs, fibulae, architectural elements, metalworking waste, type 168 cooking pots, East Gaulish terra sigillata?  What can he mean?  

I think most of us, except "Wayne" are aware that in stratified contexts, coins and coin assemblages are extremely useful as chronological markers and in reality few other artefact types have such a precise chronology (terra sigillata is one example). Even in such cases, if we look at the methodology behind the establishment of their dating, in fact their controlled excavation from coin-dated contexts has played a large part in its development. In any case, anyone who says that "looting coins does not damage sites because they can't be used for dating anyway", they are missing the point, looting a site for coins and other collectables will destroy the context of those "other" objects that Wayne insists are in some way "more important".

The archaeological use of coins however goes far beyond their use for dating stratigraphic sequences and zones of sites. Applied numismatics has for some time been used in the UK and here in Poland (and probably elsewhere too) to say a lot more about classical and medieval society using sourced numismatic evidence, and addressing wider questions about their use and significance than a few decades ago. None of this information is available when coins are surreptitiously dug up and flogged off to grabbing coin dealers who do not care where they came from. The study of the 'pictures and writing' on unprovenanced artefacts can never yield the sort of information being obtained by coins from known contexts and findspots that is being obtained by studies such as archaeologists Philippa Walton in the Heberden Coin Room at Oxford and Tom Brindle at Reading working on Roman coins or Mark Blackburn on the early Medieval coinage..

"Wayne" asks what the agenda was of the author of the piece. I would say that "the agenda" is encouraging better and more nuanced scholarship like this using more full information about the numismatic source material, one which I would have thought anyone seriously interested in learning more about coins would support.


David Knell said...

Nathan Elkins explained the crime scene comparison so clearly that the self-evident truth of it should be blindingly obvious to even a protozoic amoeba. But along comes "Wayne" who, presumably as a coin dealer in a state of denial, still manages to totally miss every point that Elkins made.

Is this an example of the "serious discussions" that some coin dealers pretend they want to have with academics? What academic would have the patience to engage in a "serious discussion" on that sort of level?

David Knell said...

Who is the one with the "real agenda" - the university professor who wants to protect archaeology or the coin dealer who wants to exploit it? If the latter continues to display such a terrifying failure to respond to simple common sense, then "regulation and mandatory registration" may indeed be the only ways to hammer the points home.

Paul Barford said...

The PAS used to do explanations in Protozoic Amoeban, but seem largely to have given up. I think though that people like "Wayne", like Tompa and those two on the Texan blog have long ago given up any ambition to have any real discussion with anyone and are just out to irritate, disrupt and provoke in an attempt to draw attention to themselves.

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