Thursday, 23 July 2009

A penny and an old shoe

US dugup Coin fondlers are continually looking to justify to each other (and the rest of us) why the subject of their hobby should continue to be carried out “as petrarch collected coins” with no-questions-asked about where the items on sale are coming from and without seeking any assurance that they are of legal origin. They do this by appealing to US exceptionalism and numismatic exceptionalism. This is the conviction that coin collectors are in some way a special and privileged group within antiquity collecting, for whom exceptions “must” be made, and as US citizens are in some way a special and privileged group within the world community, for whom (again) exceptions “must” be made. In reply to some (rather superficial) remarks of Canadian coin collector John Hooker on Heritage on Moneta-L, Jorg Lueke suggests:
This is one reason that coins are very important, especially their access (sic) to a wide range of individuals from scholars both public and private to indivisual (sic) collectors. Ancient coins are the most accessible primary source material. There's no question about subsequent alterations of texts, no chance of altering a legend or devices. They tell an unaltered story about the past, sometimes the only primary sources that exist are coins. Ideally they would be preserved and studied by the largest pool of people, and the market is clearly the best tool for all but the most rare items.
This is laughable. Rarity of course has nothing to do with it, an irreplacable archaeological context is destroyed by the removal from it of a common late Roman Bronze worth a few dollars or pence as much as it is in removing a unique medallion worth tens of thousands of dollars or euros.

Lueke claims that the “story of the past” is constructed from the interpretation of “legends and devices” on coins, and not from any other “primary source” which can be “altered” (I presume he means written sources such as chronicles and charters). It does not seem to occur to Lueke that the legends on coins were created to achieve the same propaganda as the written sources which he dismisses. One might take for example the “Fel. Temp. Rep” reverses. The worst and most disasterous reigns of any monarch will appear on their coins and other mass media as the time of shining glory and enlightened and successful social policy. It is therefore difficult to see why writing should necessarily be more "reliable" just because it has been impressed into little metal discs rather than inscribed on stone or on parchment.

Mr Lueke seems (deliberately?) to ignore archaeological evidence. Nevertheless the archaeological record is a valuable primary source too, but is “altered” by artefact hunters burrowing into sites randomly to obtain saleable collectables. The “story of the past” the archaeological evidence tells however is not that of “kings and battles” concerned with the succession of monarchs and pharaohs which is the most numismatists can create from their "legends and devices", but of the everyday life, some might say the everyday experience of life, of the ordinary man who inhabited the landscape we now walk in.

In a site at Westgate Street in Canterbury, England is an infilled cess pit which was sealed by the extension of the timber outbuildings in the yard at the rear of a plot which we know from the twelfth century rent rolls of the monks of Christ Church Canterbury was owned at the time by mercer Richard de Barefoot. In its fill is preserved a leather shoe with the pattern of wear caused by everyday use by a twelfth century inhabitant of the town. There is also rich environmental evidence telling us what was growing in the yard. These have a different story to tell from the legend HENR]ICVS RE[X] /[ ] ON LVND (or whatever here, here and here for example) and "devices" (a cross and some grouped round bobbles) on the halved silver coin that is lies alongside them in the same pit.

We know quite a lot about Henry II. The places where coins were minted for him, the names of the moneyers and the number of dies used at different times etc, are part of that story of course, but only a small part of the story which the recording of the context of finding of that coin contributes to. Deliberately digging through the remains of the timber building and trashing a context to hoik out a coin that will then appear on “the market” without any indication where it came from is simply vandalism. In most countries (with the major exceptions of Britain and the USA) such vandalism of archaeological sites is treated as a crime.

Mr Lueke narrows his view of the past to what “coins” can tell him, he does not seem to appreciate that creating the “story of the past” can and should take other sources of evidence into account. As in investigating a crime scene, just finding a bloodied knife next to the body is not enough to build a case that will stand up to the scrutiny of the defence team without collecting fingerprint, DNA evidence, examining the house for signs of a break-in and so on. The mere information that a a moneyer made a portrait of a slightly dorkish looking guy with effeminate hairstyle and labelled it Henri[cus] who was regarded as a “rex” (but did not claim it was Dei gratia) tells us nothing whatsoever about the nature (or even extent) of Angevin kingship. Furthermore it tells us nothing about the life and household of Richard de Barefoot and in what kind of streets a member of his family trod in those worn out shoes.

PS. The cess pit and shoe are no doubt there (though my photo from a Canterbury Archaeological Trust website shows another site), but I made up the name of the plot owner, my copy of William Urry's magnificent work "Canterbury under the Angevin Kings" is a long drive away from where I write this. I cannot imagine however anyone taking a spade to twelfth century Canterbury and trying to interpret the results without using the written evidence summarised in that book (and in earlier and later studies). Likewise I cannot imagine the same archaeologist ignoring the results of numismatic study of the coin types they find - which is itself a branch of artefactology which is part and parcel of the interpretation of archaeological evidence. So why do coin collectors like Mr Lueke ad his ACCG pals seem intent on turning their backs on the value of the other archaeological evidence?

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