Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Provenance and the Follis

How odd it is that cultural property advocates say that the Portable Antiquities Scheme of England and Wales is such a superb way of meeting the needs of archaeologists, society and collectors that everybody should have one, and yet they have not the foggiest idea what the PAS is or does, who set it up and why. This of course is well in line with the general intellectual superficiality of the whole of the pro-collecting arguments.

One of them decided last night actually to have a look at what the PAS database has to offer him: "I went to the PAS website and did a search for the coin denomination "follis" (which is the most common type of Roman bronze coin). These are the results returned by that search:" He then appends a table of five coins from Norfolk.
I do not know why he chose just objects entered by Norfolk Museums Service, was this deliberate, or an accident? Anyhow, he then says:

"I opened the first record to examine it: Here is what appeared on my screen: [...] There is no image, no information as to the dimensions of the coin and no record of its weight. The type descriptions are not given, nor is any attribution information other than the legends and a RIC number. It does not appear to me that such a sketchy record as this would be adequate to describe a coin for purposes of provenance/ provenience. As a minimum, the diameter, weight and a good quality image of both sides of the coin would certainly have to be added. I would like to know what others think, and what information they may have regarding the PAS database. Is this really a typical example of a coin entry? Is the PAS presently capable of creating and recording tens of thousands of high resolution images so as to be able to document every coin in a find such as the Shrewsbury hoard?
Well, let us deal with that last point first. The "near Shrewsbury" hoard is a find falling into the legal category of Treasure by English law. The PAS was (as the collecting community should be well aware by now) set up to make a record of non-Treasure finds made by members of the public. The coins of the "near Shrewsbury" hoard will not be appearing on the PAS database (I have actually already pointed this out to the same bunch of collectors but as a group as we know they seem more prone to trying to shout other people down than digesting what they said). It would be nice if those shouting from the rooftops the virtues of the "English system" would at least first get sorted out in their heads what it is responsible for and what it is not! There is after all copious literature on the topic of the PAS.

Now I would have thought any rational person would have realised that among the 400 000 objects recorded on the PAS database, there are actually more than five (sic) of these Constantinian coins recorded there. The investigator should have questioned this and realised he had done something wrong. Why did he choose Norfolk? Well, one reason might be that he knows that a large number of these records were made by transferring paper records to the database, this would explain the lack of the digital image (this is presumably attached to the paper records, but by the time the data were transferred, the object was back with its finder). That is one explanation. Another is that these coins were shown in a rally when the conditions (British weather for example) did not allow camera use at the time these coins were briefly made available for recording by their finder. There could be a number of reasons. The investigator asks if this is typical, no I'd say this is not typical, the PAS pride themselves on the number of digital images they have online.

Yes, this record is sketchy in the extreme, certainly not one the PAS should be proud of. An archaeological object has been removed from the ground for the sole purpose of collection or sale, and this is the only chance we had of recording everything about it ('preservation by record") before it disappears into the anonymity of Numislandia. In this case what we see here is not "preservation by record" it is a bare presence/absence record. Nevertheless data fields are there in the database format for the information lacking, it is just that they have not been filled in. Is this typical? Sadly there are a lot of artefacts recorded there which have less than the full information one would need for it to be a full record of an object that once the PAS hands it back to the finder we lose sight of totally.

But what is totally incomprehensible is the suggestion that these PAS records are inadequate "to describe a coin for purposes of provenance/ provenience". The provenance of the object is where it came from in the ground, there is an NGR (National Grid Reference) for each of these coins, there is fuller information in the next level of the archive which is not accessible to the general public. Recording this is the fundamental task of the PAS and it really is unclear why this investigator does not think provenance has been recorded in this case. Certainly I'd be the last person to say that the PAS is perfect (in fact I am sure the PAS would be the last people to say the PAS database is perfect), but I do think that in this case these transatlantic criticisms are ill-placed and prompted by ill will and a refusal to look more deeply into the matter. Pro-collecting superficiality through and through. Taking the record of one object out of 400 000 as pars pro toto is a typical tactic of this milieu.


Daniel Pett said...

Just as a note, we use nummus and not follis. Can't comment on other bits today. Sorry.

Paul Barford said...

"Can't comment on other bits today"

No, no need to bother, it's only Dave Welsh. Really no need to bother with him.

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