Tuesday 9 June 2009

Goldilocks and the Finders of Roman coins

We are constantly being told by the pro-collecting lobby (in Britain especially) that for various reasons archaeologists should welcome the phenomenon of portable artefact collecting because it allegedly has so many benefits for us all. This is sheer lunacy, and totally ignores what the rest of the world's archaeologists consider to be the fundamental point, which is that in its current form the collection of so-called portable antiquities is nothing more or less than the erosive, exploitive and selective mining of the archaeological record merely for collectables for profit and entertainment. This process is widely recognised outside the topsy-turvey world of British archaeology as causing severe damage to the archaeological record. Renfrew does not hesitate to call it a "crisis", while virtually the rest of British archaeologists and archaeological bodies (and antiquities collectors and dealers of course) see it as "opportunity". In a comment on my post here about the potential number of metal detected artifacts which are not being reported by metal detector using artefact hunters in Britain, Roger Bland valiantly offers the statement:
A French scholar, Xavier Loriot, and I, are working on finds of Roman gold coins from Britain, comparing the data with a corpus he wrote of finds from France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland and the pattern is very
similar: from Britain the rate of new discoveries has more than doubled since 1973, whereas on the Continent it has declined.
Whoopee. More numismatic "excitement", a complete list of Roman coin finds from the UK, but just of one metal. I cannot identify which corpus of Loriot he is referring to. Sadly, Dr Bland does not inform us how he interprets the statement about the doubling of the "reporting rate", so we are left to guess from the context of the statement that we are being asked to assume we are comparing “like with like” and on that basis we are expected to conclude that Britain’s PAS is “a jolly good thing”. I think that the interpretation of the pattern of the varying “rate of discoveries” and reporting (for that is what we are discussing) of gold coins is not such a simple one as this suggestion would imply - as I am sure Bland and Loriot will acknowledge in the final publication of their joint research project.

From a recent study of the Gaulish gold coins (J.-P. Callu, X. Loriot 1990, L'or monnayé II, la dispersion des aurei en Gaule romaine sous l'Empire which I had a glance at in the library here looking for the work Bland mentioned), it emerges that the peak in reported finds in 1850-1900 was the result of a sort of “fashion” to collect information of this type in this period, a tendency that continued in the first half of the twentieth century and indeed is not restricted to France. After c. 1950 however, the number of reported finds from France drops off sharply. This is not however just a result of changing fashion, more importantly neither is it a result of the French law on metal detector use which most collectors blame this on (for that dates to 1989). Other factors are involved, and it would be interesting to explore them in more detail.

What is clear is that since the middle of the century (and especially after c. 1970), there has been a vast increase in the size of the market for “minor” portable antiquities, including [perhaps especially] coins, in Europe, the USA and further afield. This is closely related to the appearance of the hobbyists’ metal detector. The difficulties of supplying a sharply expanding trade with legitimately-obtained material heightened the tendencies to secrecy already present in the antiquities trade and led to the emergence of the no-questions-asked approach which is today the root of all the damage this trade is doing. It is this which is behind the fact that for a certain period ‘finders’ have no longer announcing where the items at their disposal have come from, and there is a ready market for these items despite this and which tends to bypass the usual channels by which new finds came to the attention of the academic world. It is thus that fewer reported findspots have become known in comparison to earlier periods.

Dr Bland apparently thinks we should rejoice that, apparently through the existence of the Portable Antiquity Scheme, we now have a two-fold increase in the “rate of reporting” of one specific group of finds. In reply I would point out that in 1950, very few people had access to tools such as metal detecting devices to seek for such items, today in the UK there has been an increase ten-thousand times of the number of people out there equipped with electronic equipment to locate precisely such finds. This means a ten thousand fold increase in the rate archaeological sites and assemblages are being eroded in the search for collectables. Moreover this is a cumulative process which has been going on since the 1970s.

In such circumstances it seems somewhat odd to be rejoicing about a two-fold increase in Roman gold coins being reported “since 1973”. In the same period there has been an increase ten thousand fold in the number of people in the UK alone going out into the fields equipped to seek ancient treasures, including some who are not overly concerned about the legalities of where they search and what they actually tell anyone about the results. The knowledge that we have a few dozen more reported gold coin finds from the whole of the UK in recent years is therefore tempered by a few moments spent on internet sales sites such as eBay and ACCG President Bill Puetz’s V-Coins. Where actually have all those unprovenanced gold coins come from?*

It seems very much a “never mind the quality feel the width” approach which extols the virtue of being “partners” with artefact hunters while ignoring the fundamental issue here. A considerable amount of erosion of the archaeological record and damage to sites is being caused by this search for collectables for entertainment and profit, and only to a certain degree is our knowledge of the past benefiting (if that is the right word) from it. The degree to which this is relative to the erosion and destruction is totally unknown, as bodies like the PAS refuse to investigate and discuss this. Indeed the British pro-collecting "partnership" insists on presenting an extremely optimistic picture of the "success" they have allegedly been having dealing with the artefact hunting problem, one that is parrotted overseas by collectors and dealers without much understanding of what is involved. This picture is based entirely on superficial asessments glib statements like the ones presented by Bland earlier here, rather than a proper analysis of the overall effects of artefact hunting on the archaeological resource of Britain. What kind of a “policy” is that? In my opinion, the pro-collecting case is more of a fairy story than a policy.

Photo: Gold coin of Emperor Constantine III (the western one), source: Wikipedia commons.

* I am not claiming they all come from metal detecting in England, but the most careful data collection cannot be interpreted reliably when we do not have any inkling of the degree to which they are representative of those from the potential sample space. The fact that there are a disquieting number of gold coins passing through various hands without record prompts us to be extremely cautious in assuming they are.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"so many benefits for us all."

For me that's the nub: the claim that the benefits outweigh the damage, ergo all is well. They don't, patently, and I'm not sure anyone sincerely thinks so. It is after all a newly crafted argument and was not the one upon which PAS was founded - it was set up to merely supply a degree of mitigation to what was universally perceived as unacceptable, not to partner it or champion it or claim it was beneficial if mitigated somewhat.

Dan was anxious on the other thread to assure us that PAS is just as concerned as us about "the effects of metal detecting on the archaeological record" and I'm sure they are but what they say is not consistent with that, e.g. Dan you said -

“I still don't believe that 10,000 people are actively engaged in metal detecting weekly, or that many find that much of archaeological note”....

... but I am sure you know me and Paul well enough Dan to know we would not base our estimates on such a silly assumption – what would be the point when we would rightly be immediately shot down? So why imply such a thing? Of course ten thousand detectorists don’t go out weekly and of course even those that do don’t do so all year round. And, incidentally, no we don't think there is reason to think many people persistently go out and find very little of archaeological note, why should we? We HAVE put a lot of thought and work into every aspect of this and you really should not presume we are naive or incompetent or have made false assumptions. Give us, and the counter and it's broad implications a bit of credit, please.

You also said - “It always seems that you (that's you and HA) don't think that we're concerned about the effects of metal detecting on the archaeological record of this country.”

But I don’t believe we have ever given you reason to think that. Our complaint is that PAS’s equal concern is all but inaudible in its annual reports, press releases and indeed in its indecent haste to publicly discredit our figures and dismiss our concerns. The public is owed the unvarnished truth and I am sure you would have to concede that is not what is being delivered. We understand why but do not believe the reason for it is as tactically sound as is believed, quite the reverse in fact, and in any case we are quite certain it is unjustified where it amounts to misleading the public, which is frequently.

A random person stopped in the street will opine that save for a few nighthawks 99% of metal detecting is a jolly good thing for the archaeological record of this country. Nighthawking bad, metal detecting good. We here all know that is not the case or even close to it yet that is what the public has been led to believe after eleven years. Our Counter perforce uses a broad brush but I really don’t think it can be seriously proposed that the picture it paints isn’t far more accurate than the one PAS has delivered up to now.

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