Monday 1 June 2009

Cultural property clairvoyance

Peter Tompa, the cultural property observing coin-collecting Washington lawyer of Bailey and Ehrenberg PLLC seems to be able to decide the archaeological significance of the contexts from which artefacts were taken just by looking at a photo of a pile of them on a dealer's table. It must be some kind of clairvoyance. I wish my archaeological colleagues were as gifted as him, most of us need the contextual information recorded in detail first in order to analyses it and determine the significance. Tompa writes:

let's be realistic about the worth of these coins for the study of British history.
It is a shame Mr Tompa does not listen to the PAS outreach he so glibly praises when it suits the ACCG to do so. Mr Tompa seems to think that archaeology only gains information from the rare, exceptional artefacts and not for example from studying the context of "very common coins of the Gallo-Roman Empire or later". He seems to believe that archaeology advances only from finding new types of artefacts and not "types already known". Tompa seems to regard archaeology as only basing its conclusions on artefacts recovered from deep underground and seems not to have much concept of the value of surface survey using precisely that patterns of distribution of "groups of single surface or near-surface finds", even if they are "from disturbed contexts". There is of course in archaeology (British archaeology in particular) a whole methodology concening this type of evidence, books have been written about it. The fact that Mr Tompa seems not to be aware of any of this literature really does not put him in a very favourable position to comment on what is and what is not "significant" in British archaeology.

Certainly if the value of such finds was "minimal, or even non-existent", then there would be no ten-million quid PAS. This seems a very weak excuse for accepting the digging up of hundreds and thousands of such coins to feed the North American market.

As for his criticism of British archaeologists that "such coins are so common that they have been ignored by scholars" and it would "not surprise" Tompa "if such coins were recorded in any real detail when found at most archaeological sites". I invite him to get on a plane at Baltimore airport and drop in on (for example, for eease of access from Heathrow) the Museum of London after having first made an appointment to see the excavation archives they hold. I venture that he would find the coins better recorded than we would find the original provenances of the Hungarian and Greek coins in his own collection documented.

Mr Tompa really should not need reminding that the aim of recording the provences of artefacts recovered by members of the public (including artefact hunters) in Britain is far broader than merely "advance the study of numismatics". Not all of us share his apparently rather narrow and (round flat pictured) artefact-orientated perspective on the true object of study of the past.

Just to be clear. Not all of us accept the ACCG creed. The study of "Numismatics" by itself is not really important in the broader scope of research on the human past, no-questions-asked collecting of heaps of contextless coins from the Old World on a Wisconsin kitchen table top especially so. I am well aware of what can be achieved by studying coins in context and association, there is much literature on the subject and some important contributions have passed through my hands as ediitor and translator, I asked for some references to the methodology of "heap-of-loose-coins-on-a-table-numismatics" (maybe "HOLCOT Numismatics"?) but so far the no-questions-asked ancient coin-heapers have failed to come up with any.

From this point of view Tompa's parting shot is devoid of any sense:
Mr. Barford apparently has a lot of free time on his hands. Perhaps, if he truly thinks these coins are so significant, he could volunteer some of that time to help record, clean and identify by catalogue reference number some of the thousands upon thousands of similar coins found each year in the UK.
It is not the coins at all I am bothered with, it is the evidence that has been lost throught their accumulation in piles ("kilogramme lots of uncleaned coins"). It is the treatment of archaeological assemblages as "mines" to produce a commodity for no-questions-asked dealers like those discussed here (and ACCG dealer-members) to make a profit from that irritates me. As do their careless dismissals of any reasons why this status quo is damaging. It is the web of false arguments offered to justify maintaining this status quo that is deplorable. I consider examining and exposing these half truths about no-questions-asked portable antiquity collecting and commerce spread by those involved in it to be worth my time. For Mr Tompa's information, I have done my stint (in the 1970s/80s) recording something far more mundane than flat pieces of metal with ancient pictures on them with reference to published picture books full of them, greyware cooking pot sherds counted weighed and classified and then written up. Really you cannot get more mundane and repetetive than Romano-British pottery and tile, and yet (and a whole load of other mudnane material) when recovered in excavations and field surveys it is routinely studied in detail and the records kept in excavation archives up and down the country - alongside the coin reports.

(PS - Actually Mr Tompa, I was discussing the same coins as before. Read the posts before you criticise them please. Oh, and try and find out something more about archaeology before suggesting what it should and should not do with its source material. Still credit where credit is due, unlike the rest of the ACCG blogging bunch when polemising with views expressed here, in his post Tompa actually gives a link to this blog, something he has only once before done though he polemises with my views expressed here a number of times.)


Marcus Preen said...

I wonder whether Mr Tompa would regard a handful of recently dug up American Roman grots as being of no interest and incapable of adding knowledge to the American past?

Probably. After all, if the coins are commonplace then their spatial distribution is of no interest and can teach us nothing.

Paul Barford said...

I find this interesting, obviously there is something here that simply is not getting across to collectors of portable antiquities over the seas. A mental barrier of some kind.

There is no lack of books and other sources of information but (assuming these guys read them) there is obviously something missing in them which is at the source of these misunderstandings.

Whatever it is is presumably so obvious to those of us coming from countries with a long post-stone age archaeological record that we are not putting it in the texts these guys read. What is it?

Anonymous said...

Well what we're talking about here could be termed "Context Blindness".

Can it possibly exist as a syndrome? I rather doubt it.

It is possible to believe, just about, that there remain a few British metal detectorists that still suffer from it naturally, despite eleven years of explaining by the PAS. But in the case of the American dealers lobby, these are otherwise intelligent and educated people, it is hard to believe they believe what they say they believe.

Does Mr Tompa REALLY believe PAS doesn't want to know all there is to know about grots?

And what about thius from Mr Sayles, that we highlighted in our Journal recently:
"The contribution of numismatics to history, art history, economics, philosophy, religion, astronomy, biology and a host of other disciplines far surpasses the meager information provided by the context in which a coin is found."

I think we owe them both the basic respectful assumption that they are neither stupid nor ill-informed and that they therefore cannot believe such tosh.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Not to belabor this, and I'm sure you will correct me if you disagree, but it seems to me your post confirms that (a) you don't care about numismatics; (b) you think all other interests should be subordinated to protecting contexts, but at the same time you believe archaeologists should be free to record artifacts fully or not, solely depending on whether they think them significant.

It would also be interesting to learn more about your specific background, if any, with respect to the study of coins in an archaeological context. Nathan Elkins has done some work in that field, but I am unclear about your own work.

Incidentally, as should have been clear from my own posts, I do support finders recording items under PAS, but claims that a "rape of history" is going on here seem to me to be a gross exaggeraton, particularly compared to what is happening in places like Kashgar.

Thank you for clearing up that you were speaking about the same coins mentioned in Nathan Elkins' post. I did not find that clear from your own.


Peter Tompa

Nathan Elkins said...

It's a tactic, a twisted logic used to support an otherwise indefensible position: coins are somehow in a different category of antiquities (archaeological finds) and, therefore, are not of relevance to material studies (namely archaeology), and thus, also should be harvested for an indiscriminate market.

I think if Mr. Sayles et al. visited with the numismatists at Frankfurt who constantly engage with "coins in context," they would see what rubbish all their talk is. For crying out loud, an entire monograph series is devoted to the study of coins from archaeological contexts!!!

And while Frankfurt may be a center for developing the methodology and theory of this avenue inquiry, there are scholars around the world who study coins in context and both numismatic (e.g. Num. Chron.; Schw. Num. Rundschau; AJN, etc.) and archaeological journals and monographs regular detail the many histories that the study of coins in archaeological contexts yields about all kinds of settlements.

Marcus Preen said...

Mr Tompa, it isn't clear who you were addressing but speaking for myself I can't see where anyone implied they didn't care about numismatics.

As for context, since - with no known exceptions - more can be gained from a coin in context than from a coin then logic dictates the former has a greater cultural value do you not agree? Why else would you support finders recording items under PAS?

Paul Barford said...

What a curious exchange. Referring to Mr Tompa's remarks, it would indeed be untrue to say I “don't care about numismatics”. Over the decades I have had the opportunity to sit metaphorically and literally at the feet of several academic numismatists, at least three of the grade of full professors attached to institutes of archaeology in popular seminars in London and Warsaw. I would say that what I see being churned out by coin collectors and dealers of the ACCG ilk simply bears no relationship to what I (or they) would regard as numismatics. I am totally unimpressed by the narrow-minded, fuzzy, self-serving arguments and excuses produced by no-questions-asked numismatic dealers and their customers in the ACCG which serve no other purpose than to maintain the damaging status quo on their market. A market which to my mind there is no doubt causes damage to the archaeological record.

Coins self-evidently are archaeological evidence as much as pollen, bones, tile fragments, iron slag, flint flakes and all the rest that are part and parcel of the relic material culture we study to try to make sense of the social past. I simply do not see coins as anything more “special” or sacred than a piece of Dragendorff 29 terra sigillata, or the rim of a type 251 cooking pot, an intaglio in the bezel of a ring or cylinder seal or a Russian bale seal. Neither do I see any reason to.

Dave Welsh produced what passes for the theoretical manifesto of the ACCG professional numismatist about what he called “numismatic context”. I doubt whether the ANS or any peer-reviewed numismatic journal on the continent would publish it. ACCG associate Lueke wrote something similar – both are discussed on this blog. The reader can read them for themselves and decide whether what they or I say makes more sense.

The study of loose coins piled on a table advocated by Tompa’s collector and dealer pals, ignoring the fact that they are archaeological evidence (and merely comparing the pictures and writing on them other coins in catalogues auction catalogues or other collections to “spot the difference” like stamp collecting) is mere typology and has no methodology of its own. The same methods are applied to stone axes, Anglo-Saxon Great Square Headed brooches, decorated Terra sigillata, pipeclay figurines and so on.

They are also used in other fields such as conchology, lepidoptery and mineralogy . Nobody however would (I hope claim) that being able to name a variety of agate qualifies them as a petrologist or geologist, or the study of the pretty patterns of agates has much to tell us about the history of the Earth's crust overall. But that is exactly what coin collectors would have us believe about their own collations of information.

[part two below]

Paul Barford said...

[part two of previous reply]
I had a senior colleague (now deceased) who wrote a study of the form of the genitals on male classical statuary. If we find a broken off penis on an excavation, there is now a hope we can date it and maybe say something more about what kind of sculpture it came from, which may add to the other evidence of the status and nature of the site, but penis typology (though he claims his work was pioneering) is hardly archaeology, nor in itself can it add an awful lot to our knowledge of the past. Certainly a broken off penis with no context in Mr Aboutaam’s Geneva gallery can tell us nothing much about anything much (except naked male statues had marble genitals) even though we now have a basis to place it in a typological sequence. It’s a jolly good job, isn’t it that Petrarch did not collect marble penises, or due to this historical accident we’d now have “petrogenitologists” referreing back to a centuries old scholastic tradition of knocking bits off every standing statue in the ancient world to add to their personal reference collections so they can study sculpted genitalia. The mind boggles what the equivalent to ACE would be then.…

Seriously, there really is a limit to what you can do with any kind of typology, which is why in the latter half of the last century archaeology moved away from the sole application of culture-historical models which are based mainly on it. It seems from ACCG-associated writings though that coin collectors and dealers have stayed firmly in the nineteenth century in both method and attitudes, while numismatics (and real numismatists) have embraced other paradigms (so Alek Bursche’s work on medallions here in Warsaw referring to anthropological models as just one example). Where do we draw the line between mere collecting and compilation (a la postage stamps) and numismatics?

Have I ever written up a group of coins? Yes. In general however in processing the results of a modern excavation, we tend to get specialists to handle specific groups of material, in my day, just to deal with Roman artefacts, bone small finds went to one guy or one lady, glass sherds to another, slag to another bloke, Roman pipeclay figurines went to a guy in Kent, and Samian also to a specialist or two, animal bones to one lab, bird and fish bones to another, soil samples to others. And so on. So in most cases where I have worked on small finds from sites the coins have been catalogued by somebody else far more competent to find the right catalogue numbers quickly collaborating with the excavators. In general the detail to which they were recorded was in the hands of the numismatic specialist. Even if their reports end up being edited (finds specialists always overrun the word limit set in the research design) - the full report is in the excavation archive, which I suggested Mr Tompa can check out.

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