Monday, 6 July 2009

Alan Stahl reviews 'Studies in Early Medieval Coinage'

In the online Medieval Review, Alan M. Stahl, Curator of Numismatics at Princeton University, reviews a 2008 book on sceattas [Abramson, Tony, ed. Studies in Early Medieval Coinage, volume 1: Two Decades of Discovery. Woodbridge, Suffolk, and Rochester, NY: Boydell and Brewer, 2008. Pp. 202. $80. ISBN 978-1-84383-371-0] .

I found this review interesting as a counterpoint to the usual moanings and mantras of no-questions-asked coin-collecting US “professional numismatists” we are used to encountering. Let us hear what Dr Stahl made of this book. He starts off:
The studies in this volume treat, from a very wide range of methodologies and disciplines, a specific segment of early medieval coinage: silver coins of the seventh and eighth century circulating on the English and Continental sides of the North Sea, which are generally called sceattas by modern scholars and collectors. These small coins rarely have any inscriptions or other indications of origin, so their attributions must be based on find spots and comparisons with other series. In the past few decades, the study of sceattas has been taken up by archaeologists and art historians as well as a growing cadre of numismatists, and attributions that were once mere guesses can now be evaluated on the basis of substantial amounts of evidence.
Let us note the order there, archaeologists, art historians and then "a growing cadre of numismatists". So no "Petrarch collected coins, so there!" here then. So far, so good.
One of the principal sources of the growing interest in sceatta study has been the enormous proliferation of newly published finds, some with full contexts and others with frustratingly limited ones. An example of the former type is in the report by Claus Feville, "Series X and Coin Circulation in Ribe," (pp. 52—67) where a careful analysis of stratigraphic finds from more than three decades of excavation gives a chronological as well as geographical dimension to the attribution: not only was the series in question (commonly known as the Wodan/Monster type) minted in the region of the Jutland site (and possibly at the emporium itself) in the mid-eighth century, but examples of the issue continued to be lost until well into the ninth century, after Carolingian reformed pennies had taken over the circulation in other parts of the continent.
So "coins in context" then. Mr Stahl does not seem at all surprised that coins as archaeological artefacts can have an archaeological context and that context can provide information about coin use.
An example of less satisfying provenance information is found in "Sceattas from a Site in Essex" by Mike Bonser and Tony Carter (pp. 91-95). The authors explain that "the detector user, who is known to both of us, agreed to allow his coin finds to be examined and published on condition that the location was not revealed... The productive area...has produced Celtic, Roman and medieval coins...through to late medieval. The total number of coins, which have all been single finds, numbers several hundred." Despite the value of the publication of photos of twenty of these specimens and the knowledge contributed by the information that they were found in Northwest Essex (in the end rather little), one cannot but be alarmed at the apparent systematic destruction of an archaeological site of at least a millennium's duration.
Oh dear. Nobody told the US numsmatist that we are supposed to pat metal detector users on the head, call them "darling", "hero" and "partner". Fancy a US numismatist stepping out of the ranks and saying he (we?) “cannot but be alarmed at the apparent systematic destruction of an archaeological site” by what? Well, by the search for collectables such as coins. I’m beginning to like the style of Dr Stahl, saying what the others are apparently afraid to for fear of being shouted down by the no-questions-asked bully-boys.
Many of the new additions to the corpus of sceattas with known provenance derive from relatively recently enacted antiquities legislation in England and Wales: the Treasure Act of 1996 and the Portable Antiquities Scheme introduced soon thereafter. While coin hoards are subject to state regulations similar to those of other European countries, coins found singly can be shown to regional experts who record them and their findspots for inclusion in an online database. [...] The availability of these specimens on the internet (along with unprovenanced ones on such sites as eBay) has allowed such intensive studies as "The Sceattas of Series D" by Wybrand op den Velde in collaboration with D. M. Metcalf (pp. 77-90), which divides a predefined series into three distinct issues on the basis of die-strings and suggests that while most are of Frisian origin, certain varieties were probably minted in England. The growing precision in attributions presented in this book has allowed archaeologists, historians and art historians to draw new inferences about this poorly documented era.
Well, there we are, the numismatic curator sees these coins as primarily something to be studied by archaeologists and historians and coin collectors and dealers (aka: ”[professional] numismatists”) aren’t even mentioned here. Good for him. He concludes:
This book is announced as the first volume in a series devoted to the current research on sceattas. In view of the potential of further findings on this large and complex coinage to illuminate the history of the transition of the North Sea region from a marginal fringe of the late Roman world to the center of new medieval civilizations, this is a welcome prospect.
Well, unless you are an American no-questions-asked collector of heaps of decontextualised coins of the Classical civilizations such as ancient Greece and Rome ripped from archaeological sites all over Europe, North Africa and the Near East, in which case such arguments, even from fellow US numismatists, will of course fall on deaf ears.

Photo: an eBay decontextualised sceatta - who knows where it was really from and what it could have told us if we knew?

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