Monday 9 February 2009


There is a rather interesting, if unequal, discussion going on over on the new Heritage Action blog in the comments section to a post I think I have already mentioned here. A concerned citizen of a "source country" writes:
And of course, the people that are choosing their own commercial gain over British damage reduction are the very ones that are banging on about what ethical dealers they are! If they can’t even act ethically towards Britain, the heritage protection regime of which they consider an exemplar, or fall in with the clear advice to purchasers by PAS, which they say is the best thing since sliced bread, what hope elsewhere? “Other countries should act like Britain” is their claim, but what’s the point when they are already providing a market for the artefacts dug up by irresponsible non-reporting detectorists here? It’s the way of the world we fear. Money talks and money-makers talk of ethics!
Mr Lueke, the unconcerned collector, has just started up his own blog in which in his single post so far (Coins as Cultural Property ) he displays total lack of thinking outside the ACCG box and his rather schematic thinking on the notion of "cultural property". More to the point here, he displays his total ignorance of what the US coin collectors' beloved pet, the PAS is actually recording and why. He writes of coins as if they were some special kind of artefact which for some supernatural reason are not subject to the normal mechanisms of deposition of archaeological artefacts:
coins are almost always found in isolation. In published reports such as Coin Hoards from Roman Britain we see that coins are found either with some pottery or else scattered about in fields. If we look at the Portable Antiquities Scheme annual reports we can see that the bulk of finds are metal objects (weights, rings etc.), coins, and stone objects (usually pottery). Archaeological sites provide only 0.25% of all finds. This does not mean that coins aren't found at archaeological sites, but it does show that coins are primarily not found amongst most other objects labeled as cultural property. [...] To satisfy those nitpickers we can safely say that the majority of coins come from finds with no other archaeological context.
This is ridiculous. The PAS is charged with public outreach at public expense. The PAS produces lots of words and numbers and pretty pictures. Despite this, this is not an isolated instance of a member of the public with a more than average "passion for the past" (i.e., a collector of or seller of bits of it) who completely misunderstands what the PAS is saying about the origin and significance of the archaeological artefacts they record and their place in the archaeological record (for a reply see Elkins here: under 'common misconceptions'). If Mr Lueke and Mr Welsh and all the rest cannot understand what the PAS are writing, what is the hope that Mrs Bloggins who runs the chip shop and Bert the Builder or Percy the Policeman, Colin the Customs Officer and Jeremy the Judge do? The PAS is obviously doing something wrong that we keep meeting such nonsense about the origin of the collectables on the market all referenced to statements allegedly made by the PAS. Perhaps it is time the PAS as part of their outreach and partnership with collectors started to take note of what the latter are writing about their results and correcting misapprehensions like this, so the public is not led astray any more.


Nathan Elkins said...


Don't you know that coins weren't struck for economic purposes but rather made to be buried far, far away from anything else? It was a hobby, something the ancients did simply to kill time and to leave for us 2,000 years later! They were never really used to buy anything, c'mon! It would be crazy to think we might find coins where people actually worked, lived, and conducted their daily lives! ;) If I like to collect pottery and would like to cool my conscience, I suppose I would say that it is always found isolated and is unimportant too.

Apologies, I am usually not so sarcastic in the mornings.

Seriously though, you are right. Some of the arguments that certain individuals are trying to make are really pretty outrageous - it highlights how tenuous their position really is. Its too bad that more collectors who are actually concerned and informed about the issues aren't speaking up more and shunning this type of derelict nonsense. Instead dullard arguments like this, perpetuated by certain agenda-driven dealers (I think you've already named some), are parroted over and over again as if it were gospel. I can't imagine they are actually fooling anyone but themselves.

Paul Barford said...

If I like to collect pottery and would like to cool my conscience, I suppose I would say that it is always found isolated and is unimportant too. Well, no, all a collector has to do is pull out a copy of Roman Coin Hoards in Britain and the answer is there in black and white; its scattered in "fields" with Roman coins, which of course we all know in only - what was it? - 0.2% of cases come from archaeological sites... You will for example find very little of it recorded on the PAS database compared to coins and artefacts, so a collector referring to that might be forgiven for thinking that its not a real archaeological artefact which archaeologists might be interested in.

I think there is here a very important issue, how can a PAS "partnership" with and "outreach" to collectors and other members of the public operate without any attempt to give them some sort of idea what the archaeological heritage looks like, where it is found, what it means and how it is studied? We take it for granted that some things are "obvious" which it seems from comments like this are not. Not to everyody. After ten years the best I can find on the PAS website is that "archaeology is like a layered cake" (or some such nonsense). There is not even a booklist. The fact that there is a TV programme Time Team (which does have a website with a good booklist) does not absolve the PAS from making the effort. To give the public a view of the UK's archaeological record than is not composed (as Mr Lueke and Mr Welsh obviously see it) as isolated more or less collectable goodies scattered like cherries in that "cake".

I can't imagine they are actually fooling anyone but themselves. Frankly I cannot imagine that these people actually believe themselves the nonsense they write. In my opinion these are mantras which serve a different purpose than to generate knowledge.

You will note that one of the "professional numismatists" I quite specifically "name" here (because he's the one that shouts these things the loudest) skipped all the posts in this blog where these things are discussed (with copious references to his own texts) to make a sarcastic comment about the ACCG yesterday (the one that ended hail).

I'd like to see him have the courage of his convictions to submit his "numismatic context" ideas to a peer-reviewed numismatic - or archaeological journal. He will of course find no end of excuses why he will/can not, but the real reason is that no numismatists would actually agree to publish such "junk science".

Marcus Preen said...

Paul Barford wrote "I cannot imagine that these people actually believe themselves the nonsense they write"

I agree. I don't think it is half as complicated as people make out.
The dealers that say you are wrong to criticise them don't have a leg to stand on from where I am standing.

Up the road from me is a bishop's palace. People have been regularly digging up its lawns at night for as long as I can remember. Thirty years for certain. They must have had HUNDREDS of objects out of there. They aren't historians, they sell it all and I'm told most of it gets bought by Americans.

So my simple question to the dealers that have come here is - has any of it passed through their hands and if not how do they know?

The true answer is of course THEY HAVE and the solution is FOR THEM NOT TO BUY STUFF THAT MIGHT BE LOOTED. All this yadder yadder from them when all they have to do is stop buying dodgy gear so that no-one has an incentive to loot. Aren't there enough millions of coins dug up already for them to run their businesses profitably? Why do they have to encourage people to dig out yet more?

Paul Barford said...

Thanks Marcus for your comment. I think that is really the question we all would like to have an answer to. I am truly sorry to hear about the lawns around the palace, but as long as there are people willing to pay no-questions-asked for what they find, I guess there is no stopping them.

Anonymous said...

If it were just PAS. The published hoards by Roger Bland present the same picture. Any analysis of coin finds of the public record yields the same data. Coins are found with other coins and not around much else of significance.

If you can't accept this then you are not debating but merely bellowing into the wind.

Paul Barford said...

Jorg, you specifically quoted what you said were "PAS" statistics. You are naive if you think your book called "Roman coin hoards" presents a full picture of where and how Roman coins are found in the province of Britannia.

Any analysis of coin finds of the public record yields the same data What analysis do you base that remark upon? Sorry, but that is just complete nonsense. Any detailed analysis of an HER (SMR) will of course tell the opposite story.

There is nothing supernatural about where coins are found. They are subject to the same taphonomic processes as any other relict material culture. Coins, particularly Roman coins - since you use them as your example, but it applies to Medieval and post medieval ones too - are found most frequently where coins were used. Roman coins were used most intensively in settlements, towns in particular and anywhere where goods were being exchanged and services offered. Coins are of course found on archaeological sites, and usually as parts of assemblages of many other types of material. Why can you not accept this? I have (unlike I would venture to suggest you) for over thirty years actually been doing fieldwork and using the HERs and other archives in precisely those Old World "source countries" your US collectables come from.

Maybe if you were to do a bit deeper reading for yourself before spoubting off the usual old ACCG mantras copied from Dave Welsh, you'd have a better idea what we are talking about. Otherwise it is you who would better be described by your phrase "not debating but merely bellowing into the wind".

I have answered your comments on this on your own blog:

Marcus Preen said...

JLueke said

"Coins are found with other coins and not around much else of significance."

I can't believe you said that!

Take any Roman or medieval site and there will be coins and all sorts of artefacts spread all over it.

Pocket - soil - find, and the greater the ancient footfall the greater the concentration. Nearly all the coins recovered by metal detectorists in UK are lost items and in the company of other lost items of every sort.

Ask any metal detectorist if he detects fields where he finds just coins and nothing else! What you say is a complete joke.

Paul Barford said...

Well, Mr Preen, I think the problem here is that so few US collectors (not just coin collectors) actually are not too concerned to go into the nitty gritty of where the things they collect come from.

As I keep saying on this blog, the internet is a wonderful thing and today allows anyone to go right into a British metal detecting forum and see what they are up to, what they find, what they say about what they find.

After a sunny weekend on many of them, as you perhaps know, there are posters eager to show their mates their "haul" from the previous day's searching. If Mr Leuke was right, you'd have them just showing coins and nothing else, and others showing artefacts and no coins. Well, of course Mr Lueke is not right and week after week these people show their mates that they are finding artefacts and coins together. In fact on many Roman sites, coins are so common that they talk quite dismissively of them ("oh, and the usual Roman grots", "sixteen grots and a silver").

I really do think that the US coin collecting crowd would do well to get over to Britain (if nowhere else) and find out just what an ancient site looks like and what metal detecting is all about. Then we'd hear less of this nonsense.

Maybe the ACCG (or the collectors' partner PAS?) could organise a metal detecting holiday for US coin collectors in the interest of improving international co-operation and increasing knowledge?

Phil Davis said...

Paul! I want to believe you are completely passionate, completely sincere. You don't always make it easy though. I suspect you sometimes are the tiniest bit disingenuous.

For example, you term "ridiculous" the notion that "coins are almost always found in isolation." I'll stipulate that "almost always" is too strong; I'll further stipulate, for the purpose of the present discussion, that at least a substantial portion of "uncleaned" coins sold on Ebay or elsewhere is found in proximity to sites that we all can agree are "archaeological," or originate from the sites themselves; that, in other words, many "uncleaned" lots are indeed looted, destructive of the archaeological record, and all the rest. That said, uncleaned coins on Ebay are hardly at the heart of the ancient coin marketplace. Unquestionably, higher-end dealers and auction houses depend in part on "new" material. Some of that may well be exported illegally, or at best semi-legally, from the source countries. That's a different discussion; for now, I hope we can agree that legality and destruction of knowledge are not synonymous. I hope we also can agree that archaeological excavations, in the way those terms are commonly understood, do not usually yield any great quantities of high-quality, unworn, precious metal coins? Those sorts of coins are mostly not single finds, from an ancient site, a farmer's field, or wherever. They mostly are found in hoards, because precious metal coins were worth searching for if casually lost. Yes, ancient cities do yield the occasional hoard, hidden within a wall, under a floor tile, etc. No question, but most hoards are truly found in isolation. This is especially true of the really large hoards of high-quality coins on which the high-end market in part depends. Many of these are likely to be military pay chests secreted before a battle, but whatever their origin, they were hidden away from "civilization," in places where they wouldn't be casually found. That was the whole point. I'm most familiar with Republican-era hoards from eastern Europe. I urge you to examine "Les tresors de deniers anterieurs a Trajan en Roumanie," Depeyrot & Moisil, and "An Inventory of Roman Republican Coin Hoards and Coins from Bulgaria," Paunov & Prokopov. I haven't attempted a tally, but a quick flip-through of these compilations confirms my point: Most hoards of ancient coins do not derive from archaeological sites.

Now, I know you would argue that a hoard like that is, in and of itself, an archaeological "site." OK, but there really is a qualitative difference, not just one of scope, between an ancient city and a bunch of coins in a pot under a rock. I won't insult your intelligence by spelling it out. I mourn (read: hate, loath, detest...) the immense loss of knowledge when hoards like this are dispersed in the market without being recorded. Here's the key: while it reflects on and engages with just about any discipline you'd care to name, that knowledge is at heart numismatic. It's achieved by a comprehensive recording of all aspects of the coins themselves, followed by analysis of that data. It's very important to know the locale in which the hoard was found, the more precisely, the better; it's helpful, but not crucial, to know the sort of container the hoard was in; but it matters hardly at all how carefully, how "scientifically," the hoard was excavated (so long as nothing is actually lost, obviously.) The context doesn't matter much because, most of the time, the hoard is found in soil that's archaeologically "virgin," or at any rate unrelated to the hoard. From hoards of coins, we learn, first of all, about coins. I know you know this, although you like to protest it isn't true, hence "disingenuous."

And on that, I'll return to a lovely spring-like afternoon in Chicago, previously scheduled. We'll leave discussion of solutions for the return of winter.

Paul Barford said...

Well Phil, you are looking at this as a consumer of coins. This blog is like its author looking at it from the perspective of what is/was in the ground and what comes out of it. So from the point of view of the archaeological context, it is totally irrelevant whether the metal object that is hoiked out when the metal detector gave a signal will become at the other end of the commercial market a cut-price uncleaned coin on eBay or one of the ones picked out for single sale on a commercial site or otherwise a participant in the “high end” of the market. The archaeological evidence has been destroyed, there is a hole in the record. Its like the ruffians who cut illuminated initials from an unread and unique medieval manuscript for framing, from the point of view of the damage done, it makes no difference if it is a consonant or vowel, or red or blue, its still a hole in the text.

Likewise there are no supernatural laws which mean that only worn coins are dropped where coins are being used. If unworn coins are in use, some will turn up in the archaeological record. If a soldier gets his pay in freshly minted coin and goes off with his mates to booze it away in the local taverna and loses some in the snow and mud in the street outside when he falls over dead drunk in the middle of the night, then that is where the freshly minted coins may well lie until somebody picks them up.

Likewise, not all hoards are of fresh coins, in a period when the coinage became more and more debased, those older coins of higher silver content were preferred to newer ones for thesaurisation – it’s a well-studied numismatic concept (at least where I work). The hoarder may even have deliberately chosen the more heavily worn and damaged items from his transactions for this very reason (less chance of accidentally including a plated forgery).

There were many reasons for the creation of what we now label hoards. This means that you really cannot generalize that “all/most/many hoards are found in…”. Some hoards are founds in the middle of towns, some are found in temples, some in villas, some in farms, and some in the middle of nowhere. Frankly, I think you should be ashamed of yourself repeating the Dave Welsh nonsense about “many” being “military paychests hidden before a battle”. That simply shows a lack of awareness about the nature of provincial hoards (and indeed about how the Roman army was organized in the provinces). Neither is it true of the majority of hoards in barbaricum outside the limes - not of course to mention many Medieval hoards which I do not think can be left out of the equation just because you, persomnally do not collect them.

The uncleaned ancient (Roman, Greek and 'Byzantine') coins now flooding the market in such quantities are an exact indication of what is at the heart of the ancient coin market as it is today. Metal detectorists hoik out what they can from the most productive sites, it is gathered up into bulk lots and then the whole lot is sorted through, the uncleaned coins are what is left after the nicer examples have been extracted. This is what Nathan Elkins’ recent papers are about. There was supposed to be a discussion of them on Moneta-L but the moderator-dealer called a stop to it before that point sunk in obviously.

Most hoards of ancient coins do not derive from archaeological sites. […] I urge you to examine "Les tresors de deniers anterieurs a Trajan en Roumanie," Depeyrot & Moisil, and "An Inventory of Roman Republican Coin Hoards and Coins from Bulgaria," Paunov & Prokopov. This is ridiculous. What about the period 1st to fourth century in Britain, Spain, Gaul, Italy etc etc? I really do not think you can compare them to these tresors de deniers anterieurs a Trajan en Roumanie which was not even a province then – so not part of the monetary system and in which coins had a different function than in the monetary economy of provincial Dacia. This is going to affect what is done with them. Republican coins in Moesia and Thracia well, again, surely you need to look at the coinage of Moesia and Thracia when they were actually part of the Roman economy (so after 30 BC and 45 AD respectively if I recall correctly).

This is the way I see it. You ancient coin collectors from the USA are all – with the ACCG at your head - bending over backwards in order to deny the obvious. You are totally uninterested in examining any of the archaeological literature, and keep referring us to some boring old numismatic publications which inevitably tell half the story. I really do not see why you have to deceive yourselves and others. Roman coins, the Roman coins that come to the USA and Germany and those other countries (UK too) by the lorryload come from the mining of archaeological sites in a number of regions of the ancient world, most often by relic-hunting metal detector users. If a hoard is found – whether in a site or in the open countryside, its contents no doubt find their way to the same middlemen who supply the wholesalers and dealers, they may be mixed in with the rest, they may be kept separate, the hoard may be split or two or more of similar content may be mixed by the middlemen. They are in it for the money, not preserving numismatic information. Simple. Where’s the problem for the collector?

Bill Donovan said...

Paul, could you make a post with links to archaeological studies that describe the finds at several sites, or maybe throughout Europe? I think that would be fascinating.

It would also help me understand what is being discussed, as a lay-man I only have access to the experts opinions, but I would like to see the data.

Without the data this resembles arguments my sister and I had when we were children: "Yes you did," and "No I didn't!"

Paul Barford said...

Bill, this is my blog, you seem to be mistaking it for an online archaeology course for US ancient coin collectors!

If you read the post you will see that its about the misuse of PAS "statistics" by US coin collectors and my reaction is that since this is not the first instance, the PAS would do a lot of good if it would step in and put the record straight.

If you want to find out more, I suggest you contact the PAS Just a mouse click away. They are the archaeologists who see collectors as their "partners", ask them, not me.

Phil Davis said...

A few quick points in response: "Military pay chest" was an off-hand comment. I'm not "ashamed," exactly, but I'll cheerfully withdraw it. It's not something I've given a lot of thought to. In most cases, the best any of us can suggest as to the reason hoards were hidden are educated guesses. Your comments regarding the possible differences between Republican and Imperial hoards from eastern Europe are well-taken, astute even, but describing my citations as "ridiculous" is a cheap shot, and, quite simply, wrong. I cited the material with which I'm most familiar, and stated that in so many words. I can't imagine why that wouldn't be intellectually "permissable." Why is it ridiculous to use the data I know best? Republican-era hoards are surely not the whole story, but, just as surely, they are part of the story. They tell us something about the ways hoards were hidden, and the places where they're found. Perhaps you can cite studies of Imperial hoards from the same regions that contradict the data of the earlier hoards?

Lastly, my posts are my own, my thoughts are my own, neither the ACCG nor anyone else is "at my head." Nothing I've written anywhere even hints differently. It's accusatory flights of fancy like this that make your opponents wonder if you're arguing in good faith.

Paul Barford said...

Phil, as far as I am concerned, the "flights of fancy" are the statements being made by US collectors about "the origins of ancient coins in general". Like it or not, they are mostly emerging from those gathered under the ACCG umbrella. Certainly the "professional numismatists" of the ACCG do nothing to set the record straight, you all speak with one voice. The "miltary pay chests" is a case in point (see some earlier posts here), its what the ACCG officers are promoting, and (tellingly) you admit it is not something you have "given a lot of thought to". So why bring it up?

It is ridiculous to try and 'prove' the general "all coins come from isolated hoards and not archaeological sites" model by using examples of a region and period which are not typical of the ancient world as a whole. I've seen similar attempts (mostly by John Hooker) to use British Celtic coin finds to prove a similar point - but the crucial thing is that their deposition and recovery patterns are atypical of the subsequent four centuries of ancient Roman coinage.

Republican-era hoards are surely not the whole story, but, just as surely, they are part of the story . Well, why not let's look at Republican coin finds (for example) in Italy? To what extent are they only found in the areas outside the extent of settlement and to what extent are they coming from archaeological contexts? What about Constantinian bronzes from Bulgaria, Serbia? What are the reasons for these recovery patterns?

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