Sunday, 9 December 2018

The Archaeological Values of the PAS Database (VI): Hauntings, Heads on Poles, Imaginary Data and Clipping, Reporting Archaeological Artefacts PAS-Style

The PAS dumbdown of archaeological outreach continues on the British social media. Several FLOs seem to feel that Brits really need to know the biographies, family relationships and Daily Mail style showbiz tidbits about those fascinating Roman emperors in far-off PASt-celebrity land. There is no end to this superficial show-and-tell using ancient coins to illustrate their gossippy potted histories. Here is one of them from up North:
"A rather haunting portrait of Western usurper Emperor Eugenius on this silver siliqua He ruled for just 2 years, AD392-4, until defeat in battle and execution led to his decapitated head being displayed in the camp of victorius Eastern Emperor Theodosius I" PAS record: DUR-4D6A9E
Yup, just the gory bits folks. Of course the FLO will claim that Twitter character limitations did not allow him to mention the more important features of his reign, as he and the Battle of the Frigidus were not without significance in the wider picture of things. But that is not what the FLO dumbdown version gives you - not even a wikipedia link. Just the 'bloody severed head on a stick' version of the history of Theodosian times.

The first question is why? Why does Joe Bloggs the Twitterer need a picture of 'the head-not-yet-on-a-stick on this coin I've got' to make a tweet to say, 'hey there was this emperor, right and he's really cool, but in the end he got his head cut off and there was blood everywhere'? Why is the coin there? Is it just so you can see what he 'looked like'? Why is this portrait said by the archaeologist to be "haunting"? Is the FLO Twitterer doing this because "I've got a computer full of pictures of other people's artefacts, what can I say about them? I know, a silver coin, the proles will like that", is that it? What is this actually about?

But to come back to that PAS record, here's a thing:
A clipped and worn silver siliqua of Eugenius AD 392-394, Reece period 21. The obverse shows a diademed and draped bust of Eugenius facing right. [DN EVGENI]VS P[F AVG] The reverse shows Roma seated on a cuirass, facing left, holding Victory on a globe and a reversed spear. [VIRTVS RO]MA[NORVM]. RIC IX, 106d: RSC 14b possibly from the Trier mint. Thickness: 1.11mm Weight: 0.7g Diameter: 13.04mm
Then further down we get a duplication of much of the same information, labelled 'coin data (numismatics)' [sic - the reason for that qualifier is unclear] - except there the place of minting becomes 'probably' Trier (not possibly), we get the information that the spear (if we could only see that since both ends are missing on the discssed object) is 'reversed', the issue is stylistically a regular issue (though that's a bit of an odd term in the case of a usurper), the die axis is 12 o'clock and the 'Degree of wear' is 'worn: fine'. And in the section 'Coin references', the reader is told ' No coin references available'. Translated that means, 'I cannot be bothered to explain to you proles why instead of writing in longhand in a public database so you understand, I use the abbreviations above "RIC IX, 106d: RSC 14b", and if you don't know what that means, it means you are unworthy to know, hoi polloi, eff off'. That's how it reads to me (even though I know what those abbreviations mean).

 I'd like to go back to this description of an archaeological find, and look at it as such. Look at the photo. Where do you see a cuirass? Despite what the description says, the guy on the coin in front of us has a neck, but no cuirass. His bust (which we cannot see) is 'draped'. What an odd description of what we see on that coin. What's he 'draped' with? an old curtain, a towel, bedsheet, or flowers? Or is he draped over an imaginary chaise-longue in his imaginary cuirass? An odd verb to use in any context (I presume its supposed to refer to a military cloak or regal stole but these are worn, not draped) - but especially so as no 'drapes' are visible on the object being described. What we have here is a description, not of the object in front of the recorder but an imagined idealised type. This is a coin catalogue entry (in fact the missing parts of the inscription are probably copied from one) rather that an objective record of what the observer can actually see - this is not preservation of that object by record. So what is the point?

The issue becomes more annoying when it comes to the one place in that record where the actual object in hand differs from the idealised iconographic 'coin-as-it-should be' that the recorder has written about. One word, in the description. 'Clipped'. From the photo one can see this, there seem from face-on to have been six cuts, five straight and one smoothly curved. That's what it looks like, but only the recorder who had the coin in his hand can confirm, and document, that. The corners between the straight cuts are rounded. Is this due to wear, or were they filed down, or both? The 'wear' the recorder notes in passing, did it happen all before, both before and after or all after the clipping of the coin? We cannot tell from his photos, but a careful examination of the edges of this coin would probably have revealed this, which is again important information. Again, the recorder should be looking at the tool marks and recording the full biography of this, specific, object - the one in their hand. That's what a description of an archaeological object is, an actual description not an imagined idealistic picture like Inigo Jones' rectangular Stonhenge, becase 'everybody knows' Roman temples were not (generlly) circular.

Numismatists, not karaoke ones, have been discussing this clipping, how when and why this was done. Here is one piece in the puzzle, where an archaeologist had the coin in their hands, and failed to properly observe and record this phenomenon. This means that this object fails to supply the information about this aspect of its use - but this is not because that evidence is missing, but because the recorder did not look, observe, and document it. This coin is now in some unknown private collection - divorced from the fact that it was found (somewhere) in assocition with material that we will never know about in Richmondshire in North Yorkshire. Heap-of-coins-on-a-table numismatics, based on the myriad decontextualised items they use for their tabletop studies, might say something about clipping of Theodosian siliquae but without recording of items like this in their geographical and archaeological context, no progress will be made in knowing the contexts of this activity. A wasted opportunity by the Durham FLO and his team to make a contribution to the knowledge of this phenomenon. This is by no means an isolated case, the PAS database is full of skimpy descriptions where the opportunity was not taken to look at an object more carefully before handing it over to private collectors.

And in the PAS dstabase, can anyone show me the kind of tool that was used to make those cut marks? Nah, or course not because collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record is about kings and battles, named groups, and rusty old iron tools are just not collectable. Do a search for Roman Iron Tool on the PAS database and see how many search results you get out of nearly a million and a half collected artefacts. About as many as you'll find offered by most antiquities dealers. That's what trying to 'do archaeology' through the medium of harvesting information from Collectio-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record gets you. Nothing.

I queried the dumbdown presentation of this coin (its often coins, archaeologists in the PAS seem to spend a lot of time fondling coins) writing:
But volunteer"PAS5970ADF70017BD's"description is a copied and pasted version of the cataloge entry for the type, not actually a detailed description of the current form of that particular object you (plural) are 'recording' before it disappears again into private hands. 'Draped'?
I got the reply
It's a standard coin record. This is how those coin people like them. You'll find most will be similar.
but of course the PAS records are not made only for use by one class of people, an elite that dictates what the rest of us cn have and not have. They are supposed to be a public medium for archaeological outreach and archaeological data gathering, not yet another resource for coin fondlers like Wildwinds, OCRE, Coinproject and all the rest. Coins are archaeologicl artefacts and should be treated by an archaeological organization like PAS as such. The fact that other FLOs are doing the same as we see here is really no comfort. There are 660,948 coins on the PAS database (about half the database!) . If it is true as the FLO says that 'most' are the same kind of description of an idealised imaginary 'type' ('how those coin people like them'), rather than a truthful objective description of the actual piece of metal in front of the observer, that means that potentilly a large part of teh PAS database contains imaginary 'data'. That's food for thought. Rather more than what happened to Eugenius's head.

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