Friday 5 June 2009

A Comment or Two on Artefact Collectors and the Bactrian Past

Peter Tompa produces Bactria as an example to prove that I am "demonstrably wrong" in being cautious about the claims of the ACCG collectors and dealers lobby that heap-of-loose-coins-on-a-table coin collecting can create historical knowledge.

He assures us that: “much of our knowledge about Bactria is derived from the work of scholars who put together a chronology of the Kingdom based on the study of well-known coin types”. Well, since it is supposed to be proof positive that what I said was untenable, let's have a closer look at the lawyer's argument about the cognitive value of artefact collecting here.

First of all the chronology of Bactria is not based on coin evidence alone, the coins are in fact fitted into a framework constructed on the basis of the written mentions of neighbours. In any case, there is also a whole load of pretty informative iconographic and even epigraphic material from Bactria, totally unrelated to the coins.

Secondly as far as I understand it, not all of those coin types are all that “well-known”, and the chronology of the coinage for the period of the floruit of Bactria from the mid third century BC up to the beginning of the first century AD is far from fixed. Coin collectors cannot even decide (or have they now?) how many rulers named Demetrios there were. Of course if these coins were coming into the scientific realm from stratified contexts and from documented associated finds from known parts of the extensive Bactrian region, instead of loose through V-coins and eBay, we’d know a lot more about them.

Apart from all that, for goodness’ sake, is creating the chronology of the [royal dynasty of] the Kingdom actually telling us anything much about history of societies and human communities in the region? It may tell us who ruled after whom, but that is the story of just one small group of people, not the whole of society, their subjects. It tells us nothing about them.

To take an analogy, does a mere list of Norman kings of England from 1066 to 1485 presented in order and giving the dates of their rule reconstructed from the numismatic evidence actually tell us anything about the development of English society? I doubt even whether in isolation from any other information that you’d get very far in studying socio-economic systems, trade, urbanism, social structure, settlement patterns or even the function of money let alone all the rest of things that make up our picture of Medieval England from any amount of study of the coins alone – with or without findspots. A coin-based history would be at best a partial history.

Certainly historiography has these days gone well beyond regarding the study of ‘kings and battles’ as the subject matter of the discipline. Once again in terms of scholarship, the US coin collectors’ lobby show themselves well and truly embedded in nineteenth century models of the humanities.

Actually, what Tompa says about coins being the primary source of information about the past of Bactria is anyway pure nonsense. I have on my own bookshelves a number of books produced in the former Soviet Union, both before and after their intervention in Afghanistan precisely on the archaeology of ancient Bactria. In the two academic libraries I most frequently use here in Warsaw, there is a much more extensive selection. Almost all of them are based on the archaeological study of the region (though there are some on "Bactrian Art" as well which concentrates on much more than just the coin images). There are indeed coins mentioned and pictured in these archaeology books, but also pottery, tile and a host of other pieces of evidence (including some powerful sculpture), alongside plans of the towns, and individual structures in them, sections through the layers showing the development of the sites through time, the distributions of settlements around central places and so on.

In these studies, the coins are only a very incidental element of the whole picture. None of the coins used in the writing of these books came from V-coins. Though some of the Bactrian coins on V-Coins may well have come from the same sites now the American soldiers are in Afghanistan (and we remember US coin dealers' opposition to HR 915).

Surely the coins of Bactria are best studied as part of the archaeological record of the region, in the context of sites they come from, the contexts of deposition, the spread of different issues across the Kingdom. Like any coins of the period, they need to be studied with other information about social organization and economy of the societies that produced them. This obviously is best done in the region, not some backroom in suburban Wisconsin. If US scholars wish to make advances in our knowledge of Bactrian society, then they should do so on material recovered legally and properly in ‘Bactria’ and not material of unascertained origins bought on V-coins or eBay and studied in isolation from the other evidence.

Tompa’s ACCG colleague says the same thing about “Parthia” (here and here for example), but the same comments apply. But then between and around Bactria and Parthia were other polities and societies no less important in the story of the region which the coin evidence (especially the heap-of-loose-coins-on-a-Wisconsin-table type) tells us next to nothing about. Is that only because not enough have yet been smuggled out of the region to appear in the stocks of US dealers for ACCG members to buy them and heap them on their desks?

Map: one of several versions of "where Bactria was" This one from the Miho Museum website.

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