Sunday, 16 August 2009

Coin "zapping" in the numismatic literature

In tapping away at my keyboard trying to finish a text for publication on the corrosion of archaeological metalwork in the topsoil, I found myself writing that the condition of a certain group of coins was no different from those that are commonly sold as "bulk uncleaned lots to coin zappers" and it struck me that my readers might not know what "bulk uncleaned lots" of coins are and who or what "zappers" (sic) are and do. I wanted therefore at this point of the text to add a reference for clarity.

Now, there are lots of websites about coin zapping:
- how to get the coins and not get cheated (even some that admit where the coins come from, but many that present a fairy tale),
- how to "zap" (makes one to cringe to read them),
- what to do with the zapped coins (they normally only talk about the ones that are not irrevocably destroyed by the proposed method of treating these ancient artefacts),
- how to identify the coins and so on....
But I wanted some literature on paper to cite in my text. Maybe readers of this blog can point me to some texts in peer reviewed numismatic journals that discuss the methodology of "coin zapping"?

We are constantly told ad nauseam by dealers' advocacy groups like the ACCG that the heap-of-loose-decontextualised-coins-on-a-table-top-collecting is "numismatics" ("like wot Petrarch did", "Regal Grandmother of all the Historical Sciences" and all that) and that it is such an important discipline to which we "must" sacrifice archaeological context to allow it to flourish (and "incidentally" of course commerce in these items, which is what this is all about really). My response to that has been, that to qualify as a separate academic discipline, it must have an independent methodology which is formulated in textbooks. Otherwise it is just like stamp collecting. As an archaeologist, I have a lot of contact with numismatists, and most of the real numismatic methodology I have come across refers to the interepretation of coins in and from a context (there is a lot of valuable methodological work on this in Polish for example, going back at least to the 1950s). I cannot imagine the methodology which says "ignore all that, just make a heap of the coins on a table and by comparing one with the other something will come out of it". As a result of my lack of imagination in this regard, I have several times asked professional numismatists advocating "decontextualised numismatics" where I can find the methodology of this "discipline" formulated so I can learn about it. Where are the textbooks? So far I have received not a single reference to check out.

"Coin zapping" is an important part of the current shape of this brand of decontextualised numismatics. The "uncleaned lots" are the discards from bulk loads supplied by metal detectorists to a middleman who sorts them into various grades of commodities to send to external markets. Coin zappers consume the coins no dealer would want to have in his stock in that form and nobody in the trade feels are worth cleaning to make them presentable. By far, most of the coins ripped out of archaeological context in "source countries" like Britain and Bulgaria are doomed to go straight into these bulk lots for marketing, tens of thousands of them monthly, year in, year out. So why is this whole area of numismatics apparently so poorly represented in the numismatic literature?

Or perhaps it is not. Maybe one of my readers knows some articles on the numismatic worth of decontextualised bulk lots of metal-detected finds which have been published in the peer-reviewed numismatic journals? How seriously do they treat heap-on-a-table numismophily? How many coin zappers are talking at, or even going to the XIV International Numismatic Congress in Glasgow at the end of the month? I cannot see a session devoted to bulk buyers in the programme.

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