Friday, 16 January 2009

Roman coin hoards, some US numismophilic erudition

One of the justifications that the collectors of ancient objects in general, and US ancient coin collectors in particular are always parading before their critics is how “educational” it is, how much the possessors of ancient coins “learn about the past” from handling lots of contextless pieces of old metal with pictures and symbols on them and how much of that new “knowledge” they disseminate by writing about them and publishing their websites. In fact the actual number of academic publications produced by this milieu is relatively low compared to the size of the collecting community and the huge amount of archaeological damage done by the supplying of the market for contextless artefacts.

I thought it would be instructive to have a look today at what a “heap-of-contextless-ancient-coins-on-my-table” US collector can learn from their ancient coins taking an example of the meaning of hoards. Let's take Roman coin hoards.

Now there is a huge literature on coin (and other) hoard and non-hoard finds, both archaeological and numismatic. They range from catalogues and monographs to theoretical studies. One would have thought therefore that coin collectors, even US ones, would be able to get hold of some of this literature and digest its contents. Not so it would seem.

Californian coin dealer (he calls himself a “professional numismatist”) and pro-collecting advocate (officer of the ACCG) Dave Welsh is one of those propagating the “contextless coins for education model”.

In his provocative “Preserving Numismatic Context from Destruction by Archaeologists" (Dec 15 2007) he stresses that what he calls “Numismatic context” which apparently “is not by any means the same thing as archaeological context” is a specific methodology which can be applied to heaps of totally contextless coins from a no-questions-asked dealer piled on a US table . “It is instead mostly concerned with the systematic study of dies and die-links, and also with the study of coin hoards and their dating. In studying coin hoards, numismatists are only interested in the location and contents of a hoard, and the accuracy to which it can be dated by non-numismatic evidence. Other aspects of archaeological context make very little or no contribution to numismatic knowledge.” For Welsh the study of coins is the study of the associations within and between hoards (sounds like archaeological context to me, but that is by-the-by).

I was therefore struck by something he wrote the other day (A plea for a semblance of sanity Moneta-L, Fri Jan 16, 2009) He writes that it is wrong to think that “eliminating coin collecting” [more of that elsewere] “would diminish looting of archaeological sites”. He then produces a justification of that view, basically saying that ancient coins do not come from archaeological sites at all. Well, they do not in California anyway, but he’s talking about the Old World, where:

“individuals who have interviewed prospectors for ancient coins in countries like Bulgaria relate that the best places to search for coins are the borders of ancient battlefields. Before a battle soldiers would hide their few valuables (usually a small purse of coins) to retrieve after the engagement.”
Well, that’s it. Welsh says that the coins today on the market (the ones he sells for example) are not a product of artefact hunters looting ancient settlement sites and cemeteries. He says (Moneta-L Smuggling and Reality Moneta-Ly Wed Sep 21, 2005) “The facts of the matter are that historical sites are very unrewarding places” (sic) to look for collectable coins. (I guess Mr Welsh does not get out much in the countryside of california with his metal detector, so I guess we can excuse him for not really knowing what he's talking about, though there are metal detecting forums he could join). This he says:

"was clearly demonstrated by 2002 statistics for UK Treasure Act finds. Archaeological excavations produced only three per cent of the coins discovered. Almost all discoveries were in out of the way places such as woods and fields”.
So collecting coins does not damage archaeological sites, a position he has steadfastly maintained a number of years, trotting out the same, unchanged, arguments. (By the way of course these “woods and fields” in Britain contain ancient sites which is why the artefact hunters who are reporting their finds to PAS are there in the first place looking for ancient artefacts to collect and sell !)

The Californian numismatist makes clear elsewhere (Above the laws? Unidroit-L May 26, 2008 ) that he thinks that not “every place in the vicinity of an ancient battlefield, and every field or wood in which a small cache of coins was concealed during antiquity, should also be considered to be an "archaeological site" and part of the "archaeological record." (I wonder what he thinks constitute an archaeological record, a material record of man’s activities in the past?)

Welsh returns elsewhere (HR 1047 Unidrot-L Tue Oct 19, 2004) to his view that battlefields are not archaeological sites

The valuable coins, as numismatists have long recognized, tend to come on the market in groups that suggest they were originally found in a hoard. People didn't often bury these hoards in built up areas. […] coin hoards were concealed in remote places, just like a pirate burying a treasure chest. They are often found today out in areas that have never in the memory of man been anything but a pasture or forest. Many small coin hoards are also the result of soldiers burying their purses before a battle, and ancient battlefields are sought after by detectorists both for weapons and for coins. I have not read that ancient battlefields are considered archaeologically significant sites
(battlefields are indeed the subject of archaeological investigation – including in the USA)

Again, just a few months later (Rarity? Of Ancient Coins? Unidroit-L May 8, 2005)

concentrations of small low value coin hoards that are often found in the vicinity of ancient battlefields […] are no doubt soldiers' purses, concealed to be recovered after the battle by those who did not survive to do so. Here there is some context, but who has any interest in it? When has any archaeologist ever
excavated an ancient battlefield?
One example Dave Welsh should know about is Kalkreise, very carefully searched in recent years, it’s probably the site of the loss of Varus’ troops in the Teutobergerwald. Although coins (quite a lot of them) were found scattered on the site, there were no hoards found on the edges of the battlefield. Maybe Welsh can show us a properly investigated battlefield of the Roman period where they are.

This insistence on a “coins buried before a battle” model by this "professional numismatist" and coin dealer is interesting. I don’t know where it came from, I suspect some early antiquaries may have thought it up as one of their speculations. It however does not function in the current literature on Roman coin hoards as the sole, or even main model for hoard deposition and loss. We have many examples of hoards deposited in settlements or religious sites. So where does the US “professional numismatist” get this idea from?

Well, it seems quite frequently referred to in the community that supplies coins to the public. Here’s Ancient Coin Store (J. Jones): "Soldiers and citizens often buried their coins before battle, and as people were driven from their lands or even worse, killed, the coins would remain where they lay for hundreds or even thousands of years and more”.

Then there is a continental (Italian?) firm MoneteRomane.EuThe coins come from Viminacium, […] it is not difficult to find the coins near constructions and monuments. It moreover must hold account that the roman army often was engaged in war and before a battle the riches came later on buried for being recovered from the legitimate owner, often the soldier did not make return house and its assets remained hidden until the days ours”.

An eBay seller called ‘grandma’s vault’ says: "Before the age of national banks, Roman Soldiers buried their coins in fields for recovery after years of battle. Most of these soldiers never made it back.”

Amazon seller Beverly Oaks LLC “Lot of 10 - Uncleaned Ancient Roman Coins” “Before the age of national banks, Roman Soldiers buried their coins in fields for recovery after years of battle. Most of these soldiers never made it back. Farmers & locals also buried their coins to keep them safe from invaders, bandits and tax collectors. Now, 2,000 years later, YOU can own these coins. These are amazing addition to your collection or as gift.”

Aurelian Antiquities Otisville, NY tells the same story, but in the form of an on-line article: The Loss and Subsequent Discovery of Ancient Roman Coins By D. H. Oomen ’ “If the Roman soldier knew when a battle was going to occur the soldier would bury his pouch of coins to protect it from falling into the hands of the enemy as well as to unburden himself of the pouch and the possible consequences of carrying it into battle”.

A rather overpriced “Roman Empire 20 Coin Emperor Collection” says: “in fact, most Roman coins are from hoards that were buried by soldiers before they went into battle. If a soldier didn’t survive the battle, his life savings were lost until some lucky coin hunter unearthed the valuable coins several years or even centuries later.”

Back to bulk lots, A.T. Goodman: “Uncleaned Ancient Roman Coins Gold Found Just in from Europe!!!” “These uncleaned ancient coins were found north of modern day Greece in the region of the ancient town of Philipopolis”. Aww go on, say it, don’t be coy, you mean in the vicinity of Plovdiv Bulgaria! Anyway he writes: “Many hoards were buried by Roman soldiers before they went off to battle. However, many of the soldiers did not return and thus their money (these very coins) were left in the ground only to be discovered millenniums later by archeologists.” (Archaeologists, eh? Not “coin hunters” then?)

Here’s another coy one (Richmark imports): “This hoard of uncleaned Roman coins has just arrived from Europe” (guess where?) “Because there were no banks at the time, coins were often buried for safe keeping. Countless hoards were buried by Roman soldiers before being sent off to battle. Alas, many of those soldiers never returned and their money remained in the ground only to be discovered millennia later”.

We find the same trite generalizations on coin-collecting forums. Thus Frederick M. S. ‘Origin of Coin Hoards?, Reprise, etc., Moneta-L, Wed Nov 21, 2001: "the number of coins buried just before a battle would probably be in the tens of thousands in and around the vicinity of a battle site.” But wait a minute… in reply to this, the REAL professional numismatist T.V. Buttrey (Dec 5, 2001) correctly noted:”One way in which the army handled this problem was not to pay out full salary in cash, but to keep running accounts of what was owing. The soldier could claim against the credit on his account.”

Well, yes the Romans weren’t stupid. One would have thought that all those avocational erudites handling all those contextless coins to “learn about the past” might have looked at a few books about how these coins were used. One of them of course was as salary for the army. There are many good books on the Roman army for example which inform their reader about this (I guess though you have to actually read the book). The Roman soldier did not carry all his life’s savings around in a big bag on his hip, by the end of his service if he’d avoided gambling and whoring it away, that could have been a pretty heavy bag. The person really learning about the past use of the coins they collect (a) would have come across the terms seposita and deposita and know who looked after this in the army (signifer), they’d have come across the story of the revolt of Saturninus against Domitian and so on. I’d also (b) have thought that since on their forum Ted Buttrey as early as December 2001 was telling them about this (or giving them a hint that here was something to read up about), we’d not be seeing the same myths perpetuated without it being extensively commented on by other forum members - busily "learning" away from each other about coin-related aspects of the past...

Well, that is not so. March 6th 2003, T.J. Buggey wrote: "I think we must remember the origin of the uncleaned coins. Many that are found are the result of major defeats of Roman armies. The pre battle burial scenario, some may be due to settler's hysteria with an oncoming horde - I guess that would make it a horde hoard. Many of these would not be associated with key archaeological sites." Again someone (“rasiel" (Ras Suarez) Moneta-L Thu Mar 6, 2003) Pointed out : “this is the "wisdom of the crowd", […] every ebay uncleaned coin auctioneer states soldiers buried their money before going off to battle.” Andrew McCabe (Moneta-L Wed Jan 14, 2004) notes: "Collectors rather romantically assume their coins were […] buried by a soldier before going off to battle but these are probably the least important mechanisms for coins to exit circulation." So that, one would have thought put the romantics in their place... But no, the US coin collector obviously is a slow learner.

The "before the battle" model refuses to die, dealer Robert Kokotailo (Moneta-L Dec 23, 2004) “One of the things that commonly happens in times of war, is people bury money to keep it safe, and we can be reasonably sure large numbers of these coins got buried just before the battles were fought”. Dealer Dave Welsh again (Re: Comment Requested on Potential Import Restrictions, Moneta-L Aug 10, 2005) “Coins were usually buried under circumstances relating to battles, invasions and other stresses much less common in Italy than in other provinces”. Rasiel (Re: Smuggling and reality Moneta-L Sep 22, 2005) again stresses “despite ebay uncleaned ad boilerplate most coins retrieved by detectorists are _not_ the recovered hoards of long-dead roman soldiers burying theirpennies just prior to battle.” And again the same author (Re: Claudian denarii Moneta-L Fri Nov 25, 2005) “the assumption that hoards were buried by soldiers just prior to battle is an urban myth perpetuated by ebay uncleaned coin ad boilerplate”.

Nathan Elkins in several papers (here and here for example) has recently examined the origin of many of the coins on the US market and concludes that they are accumulations selected from the products of metal detecting and digging over of archaeological sites in many parts of Europe (especially the Balkans) and the Middle East, and not for the most part "hoards". It is odd then that this model has been evoked yet again in the past few days to say where the coins on the US market are coming from.

So why is this still popping up? Is it ignorance, a failure to check facts up and think them through? Or is it a willful disregard of the facts? The sellers of the products of metal detecting archaeological sites in [south] eastern Europe are trying to convince their clients that its “OK to collect” these things because they “do not come from real archaeological sites”. We all know that they do. They come primarily from settlements, urban complexes and forts on the limes and beyond. These sellers are misleading the public with their romanticized and speculative “before the battle” scenario.

It is noticeable that there is a division between serious collectors and REAL numismatists, who are quite clear that the "before the battle model" is a myth and dealers who insist on propagating it in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. After all if all the Roman coin hoards in Britain were the remains of battles, there was an awful lot of fighting going on all across the country throughout the whole Roman period - for which there is no other (not a scrap) evidence. A lot of these hoards show signs of thesaurisation rather than being bulk payments, which is what you would expect of the putative soldier's moneybag. There is not a scrap of real numismatic evidence that the coins on the US market were soldiers' "before the battle" deposits. And it is my bet that people like Dave Welsh know full well that the foolishness they are spouting is numismophillic nonsense.

It is clear that by these tactics, dealers like Dave Welsh and the ACCG are trying to mislead the collecting public and the others to whom their outreach is directed by the same misleading propaganda which bears absolutely no relationship to where the coins currently on the US market really are coming from. The ACCG and a hardcore of vociferously couldn’t-care-less US collectors have stuck to the same story despite having been presented with ample opportunity to find out how true a picture it is. Are these the people we can “build bridges” with?

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