Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Vanilla Source

It is disturbing how frequently collectors keep coming out with the same arguments in favour of no-questions-asked trading even though they have been discussed and shown to have no basis in fact. It is almost as if these 'justifications' serve as mantras to be repeated by the faithful as some kind of talisman to ward off the 'evil eye' of those scrutinising their practices. One such mantra is the coiney "not from archaeology" argument. It goes this way, coins are "common antique collectibles" but nevertheless they were not used, lost or deposited on archaeological sites. Recently Dave Welsh has trotted out this nonsense again on Tim Haines' "Yahoo Ancient Artifact Collectors" discussion group:
Those genuinely knowledgeable about ancient coins are, for the most part, agreed that while digging them up surreptitiously may be illegal in source States and is not condoned by the pro-collecting advocacy, it is also a very different thing from tomb robbing and attacking archaeological sites with excavating equipment. Prospecting for ancient coins with metal detectors in out of the way places such as fields and woods, and digging them up with hand tools making relatively small holes, is not a major threat to archaeology.

While zealots seek to paint a different picture, statistics kept by the British Treasure Act and PAS system make it clear that 98% of coin discoveries are made by accident in the normal course of daily life or by detectorists in out of the way places, and that these discoveries are nearly all made in the upper layer of disturbed soil, where the original archaeological context (if any) has already been lost. Archaeologists find VERY few coins in excavations compared to the numbers found elsewhere. Moreover, nearly all coins found by archaeologists are unattractive to collectors because of their poor condition.

The extent of surreptitious coin discoveries that can fairly be described as "looting" in a sense that threatens archaeology is really very small. In our view, it is misguided and wrong to seek to close down the numismatic trade (and consequently also private collecting of ancient coins), in the hope that this would somehow eliminate whatever very small portion of illicit coin digging really damages archaeology.

Those who best understand ancient coins and the numismatic trade do not believe such a hope is at all realistic. They see clearly the immense damage this would cause, and believe that no actual benefits would result -- very likely, the situation would instead worsen.
Let's start with the conclusion of this sorry text. Nobody is seeking to "close down the numismatic trade" neither is it closing anything down to ask that it is done with better paperwork. But that is not the main point I wanted to discuss.

The reader will note that it refers twice to "Those genuinely knowledgeable about ancient coins" (I presume Welsh counts himself in that group) who are opposed by "zealots". It also refers to some "statistics kept by the British Treasure Act and PAS system" which are called upon to allegedly show that no-questions-asked artefact trading does not damage the archaeological resource.

It so happens that both the PAS and Treasure Unit are run by a classical numismatist. Maybe Roger Bland's next PAS conference should be to look at this very problem, invite Mr Sayles and Welsh to come to London and present their views to the PAS and gathered metal detectorists. Let us see if the PAS staff and responsible metal detectorists from England and Wales agree with Welsh that clandestine illegal excavation "with metal detectors in out of the way places such as fields and woods, and digging them up with hand tools making relatively small holes, is not a major threat to archaeology". Is nighthawking really not a threat to archaeology Mr Welsh? Come and tell the Brits that, because those genuinely knowledgeable about where dug up coins come from think differently.

Mr Welsh comes from California which was only settled by his white forebears in the 1760s (the Spanish Missions) so perhaps it is understandable that he finds it difficult appreciating that a place which in 2010 may be regarded as "out of the way" (if really one can say this about any part of Lowland Britain) may have been a centre of settlement in the past. The Roman towns of Durobrivae (Water Newton), Wroxeter, Silchester, Caerwent and others and many Roman forts, small towns, Medieval market and trading places and a host of other "productive" sites are now in the middle of green (or brown) fields. One of the aims of archaeology (and some suggest artefact hunting too) is to study the way that the modern landscape developed from the entirely different landscapes hundreds and thousands of years ago. "Out of the way today" does not mean that the area is bereft of archaeological sites and archaeological significance. Think of Salisbury Plain today and look at bthe Neolithic and Early Bronze Age monuments there (like Stonehenge for example).

Does the PAS consider that no-questions-asked collecting is not a threat to the archaeological record? Well, the answer is no, because the PAS is based on the very premise that responsible collecting is noting and registering the provenance (findspot) of an artefact. That is what its database registers. The PAS also has a guide to buying and selling antiquities which emphasises determining provenance as a means of determining title to sell. The PAS reminds buyers and sellers to comply fully with export licence procedures. All this of course is directed towards what the PAS considers as responsible buyers and sellers.

Welsh's text is a sad commentary on the effects of PAS outreach which here has been so totally misconstrued, and the PAS is not lifting a finger to counteract this. Why? It is a sad comment on so-called "responsible" collecting on the "Yahoo Ancient Artifact Collectors" forum that allows this sort of junk to pass unchallenged and replace reasoned and informed debate.

IS looting of archaeological sites "with metal detectors and hand tools" going on all over the ancient world? Yes. Do these sites produce metal artefacts of many types including ancient and medieval coins? Yes. Do we honestly believe that metal detectorists set their machines on discrimination to avoid digging up coins? No, no we do not believe that. Coins are precisely one of the artefacts metal detector using artefact hunters are after (in the States too).

Welsh cites the PAS. Let's take a look at Bland's text in the 2009 book 'metal detecting and archaeology'. Here (Bland 2009 p.72 fig 6.5) shows clearly that there are more coins than any other type of metal object in the PAS database. It is a complete nonsense to say that metal detecting of archaeological sites "in fields and forests" does not produce collectable coins. The PAS database is of objects people have collected. We can look at the UKDFD website, we find much the same, 11000 coins in 18000 pre-1650 items on display there. It really is impossible to deny that coins ARE being dug up and ARE being collected by metal detectorists. More so than any other type of artefact.

Welsh (mindful of the earth stripping on source sites like Archar in Bulgaria) suggests "digging them up with hand tools making relatively small holes, is not a major threat to archaeology". Digging many hundreds of thousands of holes on many tens of thousands of accessible archaeological sites is destructive no matter how narrow the holes. The PAS' 415,490 records, 90% of them the result of metal detecting is at least 370 000 holes in the archaeological record which produced recorded artefacts, that is the tip of the iceberg, many holes were dug that produced other metal artefacts which - though archaeological evidence - never made it to a collector's cabinet and the PAS record. I would say personally that this sort of manner of treating archaeological sites in indeed a major threat to the integrity of the archaeological record. Even on a ploughed site, where the evidence for what the Americans call "systematic pedestrian survey" (we call it systematic fieldwalking) is removed selectively and randomly by these people. It is simply not true to say that denuding surface sites of archaeological evidence is not damaging them.

"Archaeologists find VERY few coins in excavations compared to the numbers found elsewhere. Moreover, nearly all coins found by archaeologists are unattractive to collectors because of their poor condition".
We have seen earlier that Mr Welsh would have us believe that the vast majority of collected coins these days come from hoards. We have also seen he has some romantic idea that hoards were buried on the edges of battlefields, and so away from any place where there are any archaeological remains. Both these statements are complete nonsense.

It so happens that the same 2009 volume of collected papers has a text by a metal detectorist (who actually delivered a very similar paper at the Newcastle conference so ACCG Executive Director Wayne Sayles is aware of the conclusions) which examines this "collected material mostly from hoards" model in some detail. The results are pretty convincing. ACCG members should all buy and read this book before spouting off about "what statistics kept by the British Treasure Act and PAS system show". Spencer shows that the assemblage of coins on the market changed markedly about 1975 onwards. Different types of coins were now appearing in different quantities. He attributes this to the number of single finds from archaeological sites (and offsite contexts) now coming onto the market - to be clear, the collectors' market - due to metal detecting. In other words, the bulk of the coins on the market before 1975 had arrived there from hoard finds rather than single finds, hence the rather peculiar composition (for certain coin types are common in hoards, others less so). Coins that were simply not on the market in any quantity before 1975 are now present on the market in rather large numbers - all having been dug up legally or illegally since 1975 (so after the 1970 UNESCO Convention). This is really rather conclusive evidence against the picture that coin dealer Welsh is trying to paint. It really seems reckless of these people to attempt to discuss "what we know from the Portable Antiquities Scheme" and extrapolate it to the situation all over the ancient world if they are simply not reading the source material. There should be 6000 ACCG coin collectors out there buying this book tomorrow to follow the arguments of their "leaders".

Can we see some informed debate of these issues using modern data and modern thinking and not some regurgitated arguments akin to those who used to claim that shooting at dodos "in out of the way places with small guns" was not any threat to the world's ecosystem.

Suzie Thomas and Peter Stone (eds) 2009; 'Metal Detecting and Archaeology', Boydell and Brewer, Stowmarket.

Roger Bland 2009, The Development and Future of the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme, pp 63-85 [in:] Thomas and Stone (eds) 2009.

Peter D. Spencer 2009, 'The Construction of Histories: Numismatics and metal Detecting', pp 15-136 [in:] Thomas and Stone (eds) 2009.

Vignette: The book every serious coin collector in the US should buy (to engage in the discussion about the portable Antiquities Scheme.


Anonymous said...

That's quite scary, such a depth of feigned ignorance on display about British metal detectorists.

To say they don't get their coins from archaeological sites simply couldn't be more the opposite of the truth if he tried (and he's obviously tried).

In case there is anybody likely to believe him, the plain facts are these:

1. There are many thousands of active British metal detectorists (says PAS)
2. There are up to a million British archaeological sites (says English Heritage)
3. EVERY metal detectorist (bar none unless Mr W. can cite a single one) targets those in preference to non-archaeological locations. Ask them! Ask PAS! Ask anyone! He is asking his US customers to believe that British artefact hunters are utterly stupid and search where their finds rate is very low in preference to the places where they will be more successful.

Utterly ridiculous. This is not a sincere debate. The man is clearly just saying anything at all in order to support his business.

Paul Barford said...

Agreed, but what is more ridiculous, that he comes out with all this nonsense [in defence of what seems to be becoming more and more indefensible], or that a whole generation of US coin collectors (and goodness knows where else) swallow this without a murmur?

Is there such a lack of critical thinking in the milieu?

Do these people not read books, do not think things through, look up the metal detecting websites and forums to see whether what they are told bears any relation to reality? It seems not. They let themselves be led by a group of people least qualified to pass objective judgement on any aspect of the issues they meddle in. The ACCG knows nothing what soever about archaeology but opposes it vigorously with the most vaccuous of pseudo-arguments.

I really DO think the PAS has an obligation to step in and set these clowns and their supporters straight about what it is the PAS does and what the PAS database shows about the relationship between "ancient coin collecting" and the preservation of the archaeological record. To show how it is being misrepresented and exploited by groups like the ACCG.

Telling the public "how it is" surely is exactly what it was set up to do.

Anonymous said...

Indeed. But in fairness to PAS they DO advise people not to buy artefacts unless they are SURE they are licitly and responsibly obtained and Mr W. has publicly told British archaeologists he won't comply.

It's clearly a case of someone being deliberately deaf to the realities and wishes officially expressed in Britain in order to make lots of money, so nothing PAS or you or anyone else says is going to cause him to change his behaviour.

I do agree with you though that it's tragic that his customers don't hear and heed the truth from officialdom on this side of the water (in this "source country" as we are so insultingly labelled). THEY are the ones PAS should be outreaching to. Collectors over there ought to know that there are dealers over there that like to project a sophisticated and ethical, nay, academic persona whereas they are actually in financial league with some of Britain's roughest ruffians, people American collectors would not wish to rub shoulders with, and the arrangement is NOT approved by the rest of us over here.

A couple of full page ads in the States refuting all the fictions that Mr Welsh, Mr Tompa et al have been telling collectors about our country might do wonders for heritage protection here.

Paul Barford said...

Not even ads, the BM has a press office, they need to make contact with the arts journalists of the New York Times, the LATimes etc and a couple of press agencies.

But we all know the PAS has narrowed perspectives, only looking as far as the next financial review...

Anonymous said...

Of course, his argument also assumes that PAS figures are in any way representative of what's being uncovered.

Out of interest, I just had a quick look at the PAS database to see if I could find the object mentioned here:


I could be wrong, but on a quick check, I couldn't find it. If something like that's not recorded how many coins never make it in?

Paul Barford said...

It may not be, the PAS database operates alongside the Treasure Act and is not a Treasure database (surprisingly there is not one, just the printed Treasure Unit reports). Oddly though some Treasure finds do find their way into the PAS database.

I am quite sure that the PAS database is not at all representative of what is coming out of the ground. It is certainly not the case that archaeological sites of any period produce assemblages where one in two of the metal objects is a coin, and virtually no iron.

But that emphasises the point, the coins are being taken from sites (and the nails left) precisely because people collect them. After that, they end up on the market when those collections are sold.

Coin dealers like David Welsh may have problems accepting (admitting) that, but you just have to look at the evidence to see that they are all spouting indefensible rubbish and hoping nobody will check.

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