Thursday, 2 July 2015

Numismatology or "numismatics"?

sorting, sorting...
David Welsh, an engineer turned coin dealer, reckons he is by that dint a "professional numismatist". He presumes imperiously to demand that  others provide him and his guffawing collecting mates with their "curriculum vitae or resume [...] regarding his education, professional experience, political philosophy and motives". This they say is "essential" for ethical use of social media. When I questioned this notion, he protests: " Mr. Barford confuses "academically qualified" with "professional". On the other hand, is not demanding to know details of somebody's "education" in the case of an archaeologist really is tantamount to determining whether they are academically qualified to do the job? He then switches the question to how one "makes a living", whereby proving one is "professional" to the satisfaction of Mr Welsh, means providing a financial statement of earnings from various activities, which seems to me to be going much too far. What is the matter with these people? 

Anyway, just what do we mean by "numismatist/numismatics"? The context of this rather pointless exchange  - which he initiated - between me and a US shopkeeper is the (weak, IMO) "justification" offered for the Black Hat Militants of the collecting world opposing the implementation by the US of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in the case of dugup ancient coins. That is presented primarily in terms of the suggestion (never documented) that to prevent illicitly exported coins entering the US would hit the ability of hundreds of amateur numismatists to use them as a source of evidence in their study of the past. A catchy slogan, maybe, but what is behind it?

The problem is that there seem to be two meanings to the word numismatics, which leads to imprecision in formulation of what it is we are discussing. To me, if we are to treat "numismatics" as a discipline which leads to understanding the past, it has to be treated as a discipline with a methodology which allows that and any interpretations based on it to be interrogated in the normal manner. And that is how I know it at first hand, from my own university studies (a course and seminar series as well as other reading and teaching and practice) and later collaboration professionally with numismatists in the Academy here in Poland.

The problem is that elsewhere, and in the US particularly (but not exclusively) mere coin collecting is also called "numismatics". Dealer Dave Welsh wants coin selling to also be called "numismatics". I suppose a parallel would be stamp collecting which its practitioners call "philately". But just using a catalogue to put rectangles of paper with colourful pictures of butterflies (or round pieces of metal with blurred pictures of Roman emperors) in order in an album/coin folder or tray is not really any kind of "study" and any "methodology" of this kind of ordering is the most primitive. This is why I have many times requested that these "heap-of-loose-coins-on-a-table-numismatists" who want to claim privileges from the US State Department and the indulge of the rest of us stakeholders, demonstrate the nature of this form of 'study of the past' by detailing (or even outlining) the methodology of their discipline - apparently to the great annoyance of those who consider themselves such "numismatists", but have no answer to even such a basic question.

Let's have a look at some of the claims made for coin collecting as such a form of study and a few other easily accessible definitions:
"import restrictions will certainly impact the American public’s ability to study and preserve historical coins" (here too).

"import restrictions may destroy the traditional freedom Americans have always enjoyed in being able to import and collect historical coins, damaging the study and appreciation of these fascinating coins [...] collecting helps preserve the past and encourages the appreciation of other cultures".

 "Jared Clark wrote [...] These restrictions will negatively impact my studies as a student",

 Witschonke: "Historically, there was often a close cooperation among dealers, collectors, and scholars who wished to study ancient coins to advance numismatic knowledge" (making clear that dealers are not themselves scholars who advance numismatic knowledge, they are just suppliers).

Tompa: "Such a sea change in coin collecting would be devastating not only for most collectors and dealers, but to numismatics itself. Access to coins is essential for numismatics to thrive" (again the notion that a discipline "numismatics' exists independedntly of mere collecting and commerce).

ACCG: "a few dedicated archaeologist-numismatists do care about coins and have used them to make important contributions to the study of numismatics," (numismatics as a discipline)

“the longstanding interests of collectors in the preservation, study, display and enjoyment of cultural artifacts against an ‘archaeology over all’ perspective.”

Susan Headley, "Numismatics is the scientific analysis and study of money and the uses to which people have put money throughout history".

ANS: "Numismatics is the study of coins and money, of coins and coin-like objects. The value of coins as historical evidence was understood even in antiquity, but the systematic development of the study of coins as a proper discipline, with a methodology of its own, began only in the late eighteenth century with the work of Joseph Hilarius Eckhel, an Austrian priest whose Doctrina Numorum Veterum (Vienna, 1793-1799)

Numismatology[...] " n. 1. The science which treats of coins and medals, in their relation to history; numismatics".

Coiney Favourite Wikipedia: "Die Numismatik [...] ist die wissenschaftliche Beschäftigung mit Geld und seiner Geschichte [...] eine hochspezialisierte historische und archäologische Teildisziplin".

Wikipedia: "eine eigentliche Fundmünzennumismatik herausgebildet, die heute den dynamischsten und methodisch innovativsten Teil des Fachs bildet",

Wisconsin GOP: "WHEREAS, we believe along with Ronald Reagan, “that coin collecting has educational and cultural value, promotes greater understanding of our history and heritage, and is enjoyed by millions of Americans,”  [...] we oppose the claims of those who say: [...] (c) only foreign states and their favored academics should have the right to preserve, protect and study the past" (in other words they promote US public participation in this study).
So, what is it to be? Only the most crass philistines among the Black Hat guys of the coin dealing world would deny that the removal of ancient coins from their context and throwing away the information about that context ('oops I lost all the papers/) destroys the ability to use them as a source of information by those disciplines in which that context is paramount (archaeology, contextual numismatics/ Fundmünzennumismatik). Is 'heap-of-coin-on-a-table' numismatics always the socially useful (in some way) methodological means to study material evidence to obtain a picture of the past, or is it just the collection of a lot of loose pretty objects like so many stamps depicting butterflies as the inspiration of the emotions and imagination? If it is the former, then obviously we discuss it (and the numismatic trade) in different terms than the latter.

Mr Welsh provides his definition of the discipline:
A professional numismatist is one who is qualified by knowledge and experience to earn his living in the field of numismatics, either by dealing in coins or by writing about them.
That I guess is the same as saying that a professional electronic engineer is the guy in a radio shack shop who can correctly sort a pile of C23E-5W and C23E-12W connectors that have come to him mixed and put them in the correct drawers. Selling electronic components is not the same as the intellectual process of designing them and creating their technical specifications. A coinshop owner is not the same as a Professor Suchodolski, Kiersnowski, Gumowski, Burche, Reece or any others. It is presumptuous of Welsh to claim equivalence.

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