Saturday, 5 September 2009

The "Numismatic Method" and Archaeologists

This week saw the end of the International Numismatic Congress in Glasgow. Although I had previously scanned the part of the programme dealing with coins dug out of archaeological contexts for the papers that were no doubt delivered by the “professional numismatists” of the ACCG, I could not find them. Andrew McCabe was there, but I do not know if he is an ACCG member, but he has just published his impressions on Moneta-L.

He was surprised that from the archaeologists attending the Congress he did not get any “bad vibes” which “one sometime reads about on this list” [Moneta-L] (probably from the ACCG scaremongers). In fact he seems a bit surprised that there were archaeologists attending a numismatic congress at all. Who would think it? After all heap-on-a-table coin collectors are adamant that dugup ancient coins are not archaeological artifacts and many insist that ancient coin-shaped artefacts should be "saved" from getting into the hands of archaeologists, and that is what many coin collectors and dealers are aspiring to do.

Indeed, many of the archaeologists present at the Congress even presented papers which the numismatist had to admit “were usually quite excellent, with material properly analysed and conclusions properly drawn”. Well just fancy that. While coineys apparently picture archaeologists as devils with two heads with horns springing from them, it obviously would come as a surprise to them to find some that actually can analyse archaeological material properly.

McCabe goes on: “Sam Moorhead of the British Museum for example presented [one] on finds of individual Roman Republican coins under the Portable Antiquities Scheme”. Well, first of all the finds are not made under the Portable Antiquities Scheme, they are made by artefact collecting metal detectorists in England and Wales and the PAS records the information that would otherwise be lost (among coin collectors and dealers - see below) about where they come from. Of course Dr Moorhead’s party pieces on Republican coin finds and so-called “grots” in the UK recorded in the PAS database are the chief causes célèbres currently being trundled out to justify PAS “partnership” with artefact hunters. Secondly although Dr Moorhead studied archaeology his current field of work is in numismatics and he works in the BM's Department of Coins and Medals [There’s a real professional numismatist against whose work the ACCG Congress-skipping self-proclaimed ones can be measured].

I was extremely puzzled and ultimately irritated however by McCabe’s comments concerning another metal detecting cause celebre:
The systematic manner in which Frank Berger approached location finds to prove decisively the location of the Teutoburg forest battle in AD9 was a great example of how well-applied numismatic technique can answer questions that historians and archaeologists have failed at. Frank demonstrated that the exact mix and volume of coins together with related artefacts […] provided a closely bracketed date in the range 7-11A D for the site he proposed, whereas sites proposed by others fail on the numismatic evidence with coins that are either too late or too early.
A site he proposed? “A” site? Eh?

Well, firstly I am not sure that pinpointing the sites of ancient skirmishes mentioned in old texts really is one of the chief tasks of modern archaeology. Secondly, I was not at the conference like Mr McCabe, but as far as I know Dr Berger has been working for some years on the numismatic material from Kalkriese site discovered in 1987 by British metal detectorist Major Tony Clunn searching in a location suggested by archaeologist Dr Wolfgang Schlüter (himself basing his hunch on something written by Theodor Mommsen in 1885: Die Ortlichkeit der Varusschlacht). In the past large numbers of coins, both gold and silver - all of the age of Augustus - had been found in a specific area somewhere to the east of the town of Bramsche which was called  Goldacker (field of gold).  The site however had produced no military items, in 1987 the site was revisited by Clunn and Schlüter as an archaeological project, and lead sling bullets were found. This site has since 1994 been regarded by most archaeologists who know the material as the site of the battle of the Teutobergerwald. Is Berger now proposing “a”[nother] site as that of the battle which is the background to the coin collector’s patronising remarks about German archaeologists? Or was the presentation (as I suspect was the case) actually about the Kalkriese coins and the coin collector has simply failed to keep up with the archaeological literature of the last decade and a half?

Of course, let us note that what happened here has nothing in common with the "numismatic method" as commonly understood by no-questions-asked coin collectors and dealers. We are told time and time again by coin collectors (and dealers) that archaeological context is unimportant for the study of coins (unless they come from hoards, which they do not regard as an "archaeological" context). What the "numismatic method" (Sc. numismophillic "method") advocated by the disciples of Petrarchian coin fondling is you have first to get somebody to dig them out of the ground as quickly as possible (so the coin pixies do not get them), then you have to mix up all the stuff in big sacks, making sure that they contain material coming from several sites, and better still several regions, to make its source even harder to ascertain. Such decontextualised coins then have to be shipped off through some European or Middle Eastern warehouse to a foreign land acoss the wide ocean, and - this is very important - they must be accompanied by no paperwork, most dealers don't really like to know where the coins have come from, then they can disingenuously plead ignorance. The goods then have to be sorted into "lots" of various size and quality to allow the home-grown erudites to bid for them through the Internet. When they've won them, they heap them all up on a table and look at their "numismatic context", that is they look for die links with other coins and iconography (pictures on them). Whoopee, what larks.

Sadly for the dealers and collectors of such Classical geegaws, Major Tony Clunn did it all wrong from the point of view of the heaped coins numismophilic "method". He took his initial finds to the archaeologists (this was ten years before there was a PAS trying to persuade other metal detectorists this would be a jolly good idea). He obtained official permission to continue searching and reported subsequent finds to the archaeologists. The site was then excavated and more coins - the ones Berger has been studying - were found in an archaeological context.

Theodor Mommsen knew of a nineteenth century landowner's collection of coins including some from this site, but there was no information about which were from where. It was only the recovery of a discrete group of coins from a known context that allowed the numismatic method to reveal the information which clinched the date of the deposit and thus identify the site. How anyone who knows anything about examples like this can assert that in the case of coins archaeological context is "unneccessary" beats me. Either I am missing something, or they are.

If Tony Clunn had followed normal numismophillic practice and bundled the whole lot up in sacks with material from other sites and sent them to the Sayles and Lavendar-run ACCG "benefit auction", then no amount of heaping on Wisconsin and Missouri tables, no amount of "spot-the-difference" die-linking, no amount of asking ther Moneta-L members what catalogue number a particular coin reverse has would have revealed the information that would be irretrievably lost by ripping them from their context and mixing them with other coins in a "dealer lot". Their context (in the "fields and forests" which US coin collectors refuse to think might be where European archaeological sites like Kalkriese are) would be lost. Their value as historical evidence is destroyed by the coin trade.

This is Kalkriese, a mouse click away from the average coin collector on Google Earth - the first finds were made in the field in the centre of the frame, to the north can be seen the excavation trenches of the 2000 season. Note the fields and forests covering the site of the last stand of Varus' legions.

The Quest for the Lost Roman Legions (book, first published 1998)

Interview with Major Tony Clunn

The site website (its the 2000th anniversary of the battle this year, the festivities are finishing in a few weeks)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant stuff, Paul-- I especially like the demolition of "numismatic context", which is really nonsense, and the demonstration that the identification of the Kalkriese site as the site of Varus' defeat is simply dependent on, well, archaeological context.

Imagine the same sort of argument for other artifacts, e.g. helmets (or, indeed sculpture)-- how can there be a "helmetological context" (or indeed an "art historical context") for objects ripped from their archaeological context and studied in the abstract, as knick-knacks, compared to other knick-knacks ?-- It's findspot that gives us date, context of use, context of loss, meaning.

I remember once reading in the Daily Telegraph, ca. 1993, a metal detectorist saying that he could hold objects (e.g. brooches, belt buckles) for hours, wondering about the lives of those who had once owned these objects-- whereas, of course, he had just destroyed all possibility of finding out.

J. Ma

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