Friday, 8 August 2008

Notes from Britarch: Coins are not archaeological finds because...

For the reason mentioned in my previous post, I did not feel comfortable to reply this afternoon to a post made by Dave Welsh on Britarch, the Council for British Archaeology's academic discussion forum presenting for discussion by British archaeologists of the definition on which the ACCG seems to be basing its curious assertion that ancient coins are not archaeological finds (and which will perhaps in part form the basis of their case against the Cyprus coin restrictions). Dave Welsh writes:
Archaeological finds are objects which have been buried, or concealed in subterranean locations or ancient structures. The origin of nearly all ancient coins being unknown, to classify them as "archaeological finds" is clearly presumptuous.
He adds in explanation that

Large numbers of ancient coins were never buried at all, but were kept in treasures until they eventually found their way into collections, for example the vast store of Byzantine coins [originally paid in as tribute to the Sultan] held by the Ottoman treasury until the twentieth century. Roman coins were still circulating in Europe during the eighteenth century. Finally, there are large numbers of ancient coins in the souks and bazaars of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where they havebeen traded by money-changers since time immemorial. These coins are in demand for various uses including being sewn into tribal wedding garments".

Well, there we have it, straight from the expert's mouth, though Mr Welsh admitted that (unlike most members of the forum he was addressing), he had not actually dug up any ancient coins himself and his information on where they come from was largely second-hand. Anyway, according to the coin dealer, coins on the market are "not archaeological finds" because we don't know where they were found once they appear there by mysterious and undocumented means. Also many ancient coins were according to coin dealer Welsh simply never buried at all. Have a look in your pocket change, you might find one. It is a shame that the call for the discussion to be brought to a close prevented British archaeologists from discussing this strange idea.

To suggest that “coins are not archaeological finds” of course implies a denial of the right of the US State Department to include them on lists of restricted goods if a nation requests the US to restrict the import of “archaeological finds” in general. This argument has taken so many strange turns recently that its's not beyond the bounds of possibility to imagine we might see the lawyer for the ACCG case stating in court, "Your Honor, this definition was posted on the Council for British Archaeology's website and most of the 1440 British archaeologists there did not contest it, so it must be a true statement of archaeological opinion". Yeah right.

Let's take a look at this definition. Welsh states that “archaeological finds are objects which have been buried, or concealed in subterranean locations or ancient structures”. He uses the phrase “have been buried” (and not “have become buried”) which would tend to suggest that he thinks the only category of items qualified to be considered the subject of archaeological enquiry are those deliberately hidden (the relationship between this and old Treasure Trove law is obvious).

Indeed, there seems to be a conviction among US coin collectors that the fresh coins they collect come mainly from hoards, though one collector adds grave robbing to this. The lawyer Peter Tompa (1998: 73-75; Tompa and Brose 2005: 205, 207-210) claims that the exploitation of such hoards need not be a matter of concern for they are found in the middle of empty fields, well away from any archaeological sites. There is a piece of collectors' folklore that they were buried by Roman soldiers before battles.

These collectors completely ignore the fact that many hoards and groups of ancient coins are indeed to be found within settlements where they were used, deposited, left and lost. Welsh claims though that coin collectors cannot be held responsible for the destruction of ancient sites by metal detector users and other artefact hunters because collectors would allegedly not even want coins coming from settlement losses because finds from settlements are unsuitable due to their “low denominations and very poor condition” This however does not seem to deter many US collectors who buy uncleaned Roman coins precisely of such a character .

There also seems to be considerable misunderstanding in coin-collecting circles in the US over the “90% of finds” that the records of the Portable Antiquities Scheme show are coming from ploughed fields. Many portable antiquity collectors in the US seem not to understand that archaeological finds come from fields because archaeological material is in those fields because in the past (before they became fields in the modern landscape) they were the site of human activity. It is that activity (whether or not it comes from particular surface patterns of finds that we would label ‘sites’) which is the focus of archaeological enquiry. US collectors claim that Roger Bland told them of this on each of his three ACCG-sponsored trips to the USA presenting the Portable Antiquities Scheme as a model which (apparently) could be with benefit adopted elsewhere.

In reality in the 'source countries' of the classical world, ancient coins are commonly found on archaeological sites of all types, and as casual losses in areas between them. They are as much archaeological finds as potsherds, post-consumption animal remains, roofing tile fragments, glass shards, iron slag, burnt daub, wall plaster and a couple of dozen other categories of object types which are commonly found on ancient sites. From an archaeological point of view, it is utterly pointless for ancient coin collectors and dealers to try to pretend otherwise. Their special pleadings have noting to do with scholarship and actual knowledge of where coins are actually found, but are clearly dictated by entirely commercial motives.

Tompa, P.K. 1998. "Ancient Coins as Cultural Property: A Cause for Concern?" Journal of International Legal Studies 4.1: 69-104.

Tompa, P.K. and A.M. Brose. 2005. "A Modern Challenge to an Age-Old Pursuit: Can Cultural Patrimony Claims and Coin Collecting Coexist?" in K.F. Gibbon, ed., Cultural Policy, Cultural Property, and the Law. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press: 205-216.

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