Sunday 5 April 2009

Coin collector finds "Context" in his coin cabinet

Jorg Lueke writes on the Moneta-L numismophilic forum about contexts, which he agrees "are very important in advancing knowledge". But he considers:

The most important context aside from the coin being created is arguably the context of a coin in a collection. Each time the collection changes, the relationship between the coins change, and a new context can emeerge to create new knowledge. An owl in the context of a type collection generates different information than if the context is a collection solely of owls, or of Athenian coinage of a particular time. Contrast this to archaeological context which may impart one bit of important data or it may not.
What is it that coin collecting does to people's heads that they cannot see the total illogicality of their arguments? There are many situations when the context of discovery of coins has been useful in advancing numismatic studies, the discovery of denarii in stratified contextrs in Morgantina allowing the dating of the series, the association of Celtic coins in hoards, Parthian and many types of European Medieval coins likewise. The occurrence of associated numismata can give data on the length of circulation of certain coin types in different milieux (the stratified coins in Pompeii or other sites/deposits the precise date of formation/destruction are known, the composition of hoards in different areas of barbaricum). To negate this in one's own "dicipline" is simply ignorant. To attempt to impose it on a broader discipline from the narrow viewpoint of a coin-fondling collector is doubly-so.

In the study of Early medieval societies the types, distribution and nature of coin finds are very important in determining what kind of economic structures existed in various regions of Europe, they reveal information of site hierachies and settlement (and land use) patterns, which leads to wider considerations of social structure. Coins need not be in stratified archaeological deposits to serve as a source of information, but we do need to know where they are being found and how in order to interpret this information. Yes, also coins stratified in archaeological deposits associated with other objects also serve as another (but by no means the only) form of information for archaeology. Even the study of iconography of the coins can only be interpreted properly when we know where and among which milieux these coins were circulating (thus the special purpose money and bracteates of Early Medieval central Europe) and we can only determine this from knowing where those objects ended up.

Mr Lueke's rows-of-unprovenanced-coins in-a-cabinet "context" really is a pretty pale substitute for the information about the past the same coins would provide if their provenance was known. Why, without even documentation of where they come from, one cannot even use Mr Lueke's coin cabinet as a source of information about the collecting habits of a twentyfirst century Mid-American ancient coin collecting geek. Without that, its a heap of shiny or patinated geegaws, not even a cultural record of our own times, any more than a heap of random pebbles on the windowsill picked up on various holiday trips.

In any case what kind of "knowledge" does a heap of unprovenenced coins on a US collector's table create? Where does it lead us, and where does it go?

I really do not see why in this day and age to conduct typological studies of coins, anyone needs to actually collect ripped-up bits of the archaeological heritage. With digital technology Mr Lueke can collect no end of images of "Athenian owls" to put in as many rows and series as he likes, remake his "different contexts" with the pictures on the coins, bigger eye here, longer helmet crest there. Playing typological and stylistic "spot the difference" with the pictures on the coins can be independent of physical possession of the coins themselves. Very soon we will see the rise of new forms of three dimensional recording and replication which means Mr Lueke can have every one of his digital images as a three dimensional object in virtual or real space which will allow their appreciation in new ways that the mere coin could not. Perhaps before long Mr Lueke's old coin collection will be going the same was as my wife's old collection of seventies pop music on casette tapes and vinyl records. Now these objects (thrown out years ago) are fit only to be hunted down by strange people with woollen bobble hats and odd body odours in charity shops who say that today's digital versions of these oldies "do not have the same ambience" as the original old scratchy crackling sounds. Perhaps not, but collecting old vinyl records does not lead to the destruction of vast amounts of other types of the cultural record.


Marcus Preen said...

It seems to me Mr Lueke has inadvertently revealed something rather significant about the nature of the coins he buys to put in his collection.

He may well be absolutely sincere that from his viewpoint the most important context that he can see is the context of the coin in a collection - since that is the ONLY context that remains.

Of course, for that to be right he must have not the foggiest notion of it's original context which may have been infinitely rich and dripping with information both about the site and the coin itself.

And of course, for "not the foggiest notion" read: quite possibly looted.

Funny how every time he tries to pull the wool over everyone's eyes the clearer things become...

GordianGuy said...


I can see that it irks you to no end that others of broader intelligence and learning ability and draw relevant knowledge by thinking outside of the box. You suffer from the closed minded form of thinking - in which only what you believe is the correct way to do things is the right way. There are still millions of coins out there for you to discover that will date your layer of dirt - which appears to be your only concern - did you learn that from a book somewhere?? The knowledge that Mr. Lueke is gathering doesn't fit in your box but that is just fine since you were never given the roll of arbiter of what is good knowledge.

Everyone agrees that context "can be" important - but in numismatics it is not everything as you would force us to believe.

Go back to playing in your sandbox and maybe consider commenting on things that you truly understand - like the context of one sand grain to another.

Charley Rhodes

Paul Barford said...

Charley Rhodes writes about:
> thinking outside of the box <
What “irks” me are the collectors who cannot see further than the space in a direct line between the sides of the box in which they keep their treasured ancient geegaws in heaps and rows and the no-questions-asked salesman.

This is my blog where I write my reactions to and thoughts about what I learn about collecting and the no-questions-asked market – often from the mouths of collectors and dealers themselves. I surely am at liberty to say what I think here?

Certainly I would say that looking just at coins as things to collect is the epitome of “the closed minded form of thinking”. I really do wonder whether the spot-the-difference games (has the star on the reverse of this type of LRB got seven spikes or just five?) really adds as much to our understanding of the past as you and Lueke would like the rest of us to believe.

With my journal editor hat on today I have been working all day today on somebody else's erudite text on the characteristics of the Annales School of historiography. I really wonder how far numismophilic pedantry gets us to something like “Montaillou” to take just one obvious example. I have seen work done in the coin-fondling milieu on economic phenomena, maybe even processes, but to get to their place in any more holistic consideration of economic systems and the real world of the everyday and everyman past (not “Battles and Kings” historiography) involves the use of other types of data – including precisely those destroyed by the no-questions-asked market in looted artifacts which you coineys buy to collect, glom and fondle.

This is not just what I “believe is the correct way to do things”, it seems a pretty irrefutable fact. Although if instead of your puerile jibes, you’d like to try and refute it I’d be only too happy to see it on this blog.

>the knowledge that Mr. Lueke is gathering doesn't fit in your box<
I asked where it takes us and where does it go? You have not answered that question. So what does the Jorg Lueke ancient coin accumulation tell us about the past? Or is it Mr Lueke and wot-a-great-guy he is we are to learn about from it? What “knowledge” are you talking about?

Charley Rhodes, author (I believe) of "Interferometric Observations of Lightning at 274 MHz." writes:
>There are still millions of coins out there for you to discover that will date your layer of dirt - which appears to be your only concern<
It seems to me that you have difficulty comprehending the written word. See above.

and then:
>but that is just fine since you were never given the roll of arbier of what is good knowledge.<
The word is “role”, it comes from the French. It’s the context in the sentence which gives it its real meaning isn’t it? Like an artefact (say an ancient coin) ripped out of context, “roll” has a meaning all of its own, but seen in the context, in association with the other words which contain the message you tried to impart earlier, a different meaning becomes clear, without which it is easily misread. Divorce an archaeological find from its context and it is a misread word from the past - can never be used to make the full sentence or paragraph, let alone a text comparable to the one which was destroyed. We can only "imagine" what it was intended to "mean" by inventing other contexts (like "the Jorg Lueke Coin Collection"), but these themselves cannot replace the lost meaning in terms of the original message destroyed undocumented in the creation of the collected items.

Marcus Preen said...

More power to your elbow Mr B! You've now had two collectors in succession trying to push the ludicrous fiction that you can learn as much from a coin on a table as from a coin in a field. In other words, that looters do no harm!

I think you should encourage them to say more, they're totally making your point for you. They remind me of those fox hunters years ago that announced the fox enjoyed it. Nobody believed them but everyone was amused.

More please. People pay for entertainment like this.

Paul Barford said...

Mr P. thanks, but I think we should remember that, entertaining as it might be, the longer people like Mr Lueke and Mr Rhodes and their fellows carry on their pathetic stance of denial and continue their financial support of the no-questions-asked antiquity dealers with their dodgy goods, the longer the destruction of the archaeological record goes on, and the more destructive it is to our ability to use it. Any of us.

Marcus Preen said...

You're quite right of course, there's nothing funny about acquiring stuff you know may be ill-gotten at a cultural cost to the rest of us.

But the excuses ARE funny and sometimes it does no harm to ridicule the risible. If we strip the two submissions down to their bare bones what we have here are the equivalent of a couple of yokels with osprey eggs in their pockets bleating "it's alright gov'nor I'm going to study 'em "....

I guess it sounds like a plausible story back in the "Yokel's Centre for the Study of Osprey Eggs" but not in the wider world.

Paul Barford said...
> it is not easy to comment on
> Barford's posts because he
> spends most of his rebuttal
> berating what you write and
> then censoring your rebuttal to
> his diatribe.<

It was no "rebuttal" to poke fun at the surnames of other contributors to my blog. I did not post your "rebuttal" because it was insulting and contained nothing concerning the matter under discussion. If you would like to address the issues raised by my comments on Jorg's post, then I'd have no problems whatsoever putting your reply on my blog, but your personal insults and puerile name-calling belong elsewhere. Try a coin collectors' forum.

The point about the context of the word "roll" in your sentence was a perfectly valid analogy to what portable antiquity collectors do to archaeological artefacts. I guess that is why you did not like it.

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