Sunday 21 June 2009

We are witness to a 'decontextualisation process' on an enormous scale

Over on his Numismatics blog, Nathan Elkins has begun a series of comments on a recent book (H.-M von Kaenel and F. Kemmers (eds.) 2009, Coins in Context I: New Perspectives for the Interpretation of Coin Finds, Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike 23 - Mainz). In the second post in what promises to be a thought-provoking series, he discusses the first essay [in the section "Methodological Overviews"] which is by one of the volume’s editors H.-M. von Kaenel ("Coins in context - a personal approach", pp. 9-24). Nathan has summarised the text for those – like me – who have not yet seen the book itself. I was struck by several of the quotes he gives. For example he reports that Von Kaenel writes:

"Never before has so much archaeological material been removed from the earth through illegal looting as it has since the 1990s. We are witness to a 'decontextualisation process' on an enormous scale which affects all archaeological objects. However, as regards sheer numbers, coins take first place."
I think this word “decontextualisation” is a useful concept to describe what is taking place and its effects; objects which have a context, are deprived of them by entry into the market of contextless “dugups” which collectors buy no-questions-asked. Von Kaenel continues:

"This is a loss of historical source material that is without comparison, and it cannot be replaced. The situation for archaeology is just as disastrous as it is for numismatics. Many colleagues are aware of this, but only a few speak out and
the authorities responsible have so far not been prepared to intervene actively and consistently."
I am not sure it is "without comparison", I'd liken it to the burning of the Alexandrine library many hundred times over. The question of why there are so many colleagues that are aware of this but few of whom speak out is an interesting one.

There is also a section of the paper called: "From 'numismatics or archaeology' to 'archaeology and numismatics'". Von Kaenel suggests that it is a younger generation of numismatists which is coming to realize that the study of ancient coins (which are after all just ONE type of archaeological artefact) cannot take part in isolation from (and to the detriment of) other branches of the study of the past. He uses an example taken from the realms of “Celtic” coinage in central Europe where the evidence from stratified coin finds overturned the traditional chronology based on typology. Von Kaenel suggests that:
"today no one seriously asks the question 'numismatics or archaeology' – the title of a paper by K. Castelin published in 1976. In fact, in Celtic numismatics today it is a matter of 'archaeology and numismatics'."
It would seem that Dr Von Kaenel has not come across (or paid attention to) the ACCG. Their spokesmen claim to be “professional numismatists”, and the dealers' lobby group does indeed proclaim that it is either archaeology OR the coin collector, as we have seen time and time again, they apparently do not see room for both unless the other side (the conservationsist) makes vast compromises to the exclusive benefit of the coin collector and dealer. The ACCG which seeks at every step to discredit the archaeological study of artefacts such as coins and all that goes with it, including those that would protect the archaeological record from exploitation for commercial purposes. I could not help a wry smile on reading the next part:
"In no other area of ancient numismatics has the discussion on coins and money been so productively stimulated and advanced by archaeologists as in Celtic numismatics".
It is in this field that the current main ideologue of the ACCG (Canadian John Hooker), claims to have his expertise, and we may note that while he is very willing to quote archaeologists when it suits him, in general he is an advocate of the autonomy and primacy of “numismatics” and typology over archaeology and context.

I look forward to the ACCG review of “Coins in Context I”, perhaps as one of the “Hooker papers” series.


Paul Barford said...

John Hooker “answers” my post here in a rambling piece on Moneta-L. This starts off by saying that heap of coins on a table numismatics is a discipline equal in complexity to interstellar transport and that anyone who does not agree simply “does not understand” (and is thus unworthy to discuss anything with). Having 'established' this and accusing me of being some kind of a 'cult' member, his response then jumps from topic to topic, on the way drops the name of a few archaeologists (Colin Haselgrove, Raimund Karl) whose opinions on a certain matter match the ACCG/Hooker viewpoint. He concludes

“So when Paul Barford says of me that "in general he is an advocate of the autonomy and primacy of “numismatics” and typology over archaeology and context", he just doesn't get it. It is all invisible to him. I use all of these things and more. I would say, though that any claims of the autonomy and primacy of archaeological context over typology is going to miss a lot”.

I rather think it is Hooker who is entirely missing the point in what von Kaenel is saying [about “archaeology OR coin collecting” as opposed to “coin collecting AND archaeology”]. Like his US coin collecting pals, Hooker is still posing the typological questions of half a century ago and refusing to embrace the consequences of his own words, that “Celtic numismatics is the most transdisciplinary branch of numismatics”.

Instead of all this dodging around….

let us see the ACCG’s critique of “coins in context I”.

Let us also see the ACCG publish a summary of the results of the last decade’s dedicated work in ancient coin-ology of its collector-scholar-members as “Coins out of context I”.

Paul Barford said...

John Hooker rambles, drops (the same) names and moans in a new post to Moneta-L.

It's much the same as the last one. He presumes to inform Monetans what books Paul Barford has "not read" (he says, he is wrong on three out of four counts).

Hooker reckons (the “Petrarch collected coins” mantra again) that heap-of-loose-coins-on-a-table coin collecting deserves respect and toleration of the damage done to the archaeological record because:
The strong relationship between archaeology and numismatics goes far back to John Evans in the 1860's
Only in England that is, on the continent it goes back further, the Scandinavians Christian Thomsen and Bror Emil Hildebrand for example. That however is beside the point, coin collectors (antiquity collectors in general) should recognise that however much they may wish it was not true, we no longer live in the nineteenth century, and the relationship between archaeology and coin collecting is not what it was 150 years ago. Is that difficult for anyone else than a North American coin collector to understand?

Apparently, according to Hooker: Paul Barford […] doesn't understand what sorts of evidence are useful to numismatics or to archaeology That'll have to be put down to my poor education in two university Institutes of Archaeology and the Academy of Sciences, but I do try hard to understand what it is those coin collectors really think they are doing... But I guess I'll never get the hang of that dang archaeology stuff. Its a good job we've got a group of erudites in the ACCG to tell us what is what.

Apparently too my "cult approach has deceived a number of apparently well-meaning individuals who have little knowledge of either numismatics or archaeology". Well, any "deceived individuals" reading this only have themselves to blame. I am just chatting, and do not set out to educate in either archaeology or (still less) coin collectng (heaven forbid!). You'll have to work that out yourselves. I say it like I see it, any readers that come across it can take it or leave it.

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