Thursday, 7 August 2008

Tiberias coins and Collectors' Numismadogma

As part of the ideological battle to protect their commercial interest, a group of coin dealers and collectors, for the most part based in the US, are attempting desperately to persuade the public and lawmakers of the truth of a number of dogmas which have been developed as protective mantras, defending the noble and venerable “science” (sic) of amateur numismatics from attacks by those good-for-nothing conservationists and archaeologists. In the course of following the antiquity collecting debate the same ones keep cropping up again and again.

One of them (Numismadogma number one) is that ancient coins are not archaeological objects (and so therefore should not be included in measures intended to protect the archaeological record from erosion by artefact hunting to supply the antiquities market). These pro-collecting activists have armed themselves with a number of specious arguments which aim to prove “coins are not archaeological finds”. Most of them show a woeful disregard (for I suspect its not actually ignorance) of the facts concerning where coins are actually found in the “source countries”. Currently one of the dealer-activists is over on the British archaeological discussion list (Britarch run by the CBA) trying to lecture British archaeologists about how they allegedly “don’t know” where Roman coins are found in the soil of Great Britain, apparently they don’t come from archaeological sites at all, because “90% come from ploughed fields”. Yeah, right.

Another of their strategies is to try their hardest to claim some intellectual (and cultural and sometimes ethical) higher ground over archaeologists when coins are concerned. One of the ploys in which they do this is to belittle the understanding of archaeologists of any matters connected with ancient coins (and their ability to look after them). Archaeologists, allegedly know nothing about ancient coins, only a collector can do that. This seems a rather unfair and intentionally misleading generalization. A typical example of this mythmaking appeared a few days ago on the Moneta-L discussion list. Dawson Lewis a collector from South Dakota writes:
A few years ago there was a find of "Jesus" coins in Northern Israel. The archeologists who reported the finds talked about how rare the coins were and gave new light on Muslim and Christian relations. In reality they were gold Byzantine solidi minted in the early 1000's. That archeologist needed some
collectors to help them.

This seems an odd story, it is incomprehensible how an archaeologist working in Israel could be unable to identify such a coin. Barely believable in fact. So I decided to try to look into these sad allegations of artefactological ignorance. As far as I can find out from colleagues working in the area, there were no “gold Byzantine solidi”(sic) minted in the early 11th century found in northern Israel in the period mentioned. There was however some newspaper coverage of finds made by Byzantine specialist Prof. Yizhar Hirschfeld in Tiberias. It would seem that these are the coins referred to. But these are anonymous folles, struck in copper alloy not "gold". We are clearly dealing with more of the mythmaking endemic in US amateur numismatic circles. I cannot see where there is a problem here in what Hirschfeld said and why he allegedly "needs a coin collector". Hirschfeld was a specialist in Byzantine archaeology and I think we can assume he well knew what these coins were (The predictable comments of a local government official seeing here an opportunity to market the tourist values of the area as a result of these finds should not be ascribed to the archaeologist.)

Lewis seems to think that it is an expression of ignorance that Hirschfeldt said they were “rare”, such coins are pretty common after all in coin dealer’s trays (many of them from illicitly exported metal detected finds from the Balkans). By the end of the tenth century the area where these coins were found had not been in Byzantine hands for a couple of centuries, and Byzantine coins of this date and type are indeed rare there. The presence of a group of 58 folles does indeed raise interesting questions about what they are doing there and the relations between Byzantium and the Islamic world. Mr Lewis seems merely to have had a problem accepting that these coins were found by an archaeologist rather than them entering the antiquities trade. As a result however of his muddled account of what had been found and what was said about them, many US amateur numismophilists will have found confirmation of the “archaeologists know nothing about coins” mantra. How many of them are bolstered by precisely such anecdotal evidence? Probably all of them.

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.