Wednesday, 27 July 2011

On the "Social Usefulness" of Collecting Dug-Up Artefacts Plundered from the Foreign Archaeological Record

Dugup collector Steve Exx (Steve Rose, a computer software engineer from over the US Northwest coast) has a few things to say about the context of collecting. One gem of coiney wisdom he imparts to his coiney pals making a post over on Moneta-L is:
I think collecting is the most socially useful destination for most ancient coins. Museums and public collections are fine but they don't have the money or the focus to catalog and make available more than a small fraction of the coins we document and preserve. Protecting the world by not touching it and not learning from it at all is a strangely anti-intellectual and anti-science.
How about protecting it so it can be used as a resource for learning from? Trashing archaeological sites just to get a few collectable geegaws out of them is not a particularly "scientific" and certainly not sustainable way of using a fragile and finite and increasingly scarce resource. Yet this is precisely what these object-fetishist collectors are advocating. We see here the consequences of the coiney once again seeing the world purely in terms of "coins" (material objects), which does seem an exceptionally blinkered way to look at the past and the way we can find out about it. So he talks of the "most socially useful destination" for archaeological artefacts, without recognising that the most socially useful place for them is where they can be used for the benefit of all of society through proper archaeological investigation and holistic documentation of the site that contains them and dissemination of the results, rather than crudely mining it for collectable geegaws so a few selfish individuals can pore over what is left from the destruction of that site by looters.

The anti-museum stance is surprising, because of course what these collectors are trying to do in effect is to create a museum in the place where they keep their collection. But look at the reason given. Museums "don't have the money or the focus to catalog and make available more than a small fraction of the coins we document and preserve". I've asked before but did not get an answer; what is meant here by "making available" and to whom which of these coins? I've seen it myself, what the average member of the public does when faced with a showcase with serried rows of hundreds and hundreds of Roman coins ordered by emperor and denomination with a representative range of obverses and reverses... and all with findspots given. He hurries past to the lead coffins. That is how they were displayed in the museum of my childhood. A long row of cases that hardly anyone spent more than ten seconds peering into.

The display of part of the huge numismatic collection of the Alpha Bank in Athens looks pretty palatable from this photo.

There are some selected coins in their cases at a level where you can really get your nose against the glass. And instead of just rows and rows of tiny grubby metal discs with pictures and writing on them, there are information boards telling the viewer what each individual one means. How many of them can the average visitor look at in an average visit? In which case, what more than that number doubled for the real enthusiast, should be being "made accessible' to the average visitor? What more do they need? I do not accept the validity of mr Exx's statement that just because every museum in the country has on display every single coin in its collection, it is doing a bad job. I would agree that if its accession registers are not as detailed as they should be, that there is room for improvement. I do not accept even then that the only answer (or even one of the answers) is to scrap those collections and let the whole lot rest in private hands.

Turning that sentence around, what Exx is saying is that private collectors have the money and focus to "catalog and make available" a considerably greater number of coins than museums. So where are in fact these catalogues? Do we have a catalogue of, just to take a random example or two, the Peter Tompa collection of Greek coins and Hungarian denarii, the Steve Exx collection-of-whatever-it-is-he-collects? No. (And the only way I am aware of that Peter Tompa makes his coins "available' is donating them to the ACCG benefit auction). Some collectors have websites (but not all of them can be considered as any form of publication)- dealers do too. Some collectors have published a group of coins they have. Some have published monographs of a specific type or series, or specific mints, or whatever. But the ACCG claims there are 50 000 collectors of dugup ancient coins in the US alone, the Germans estimated they had 250 000 of them. So where are all these tens of thousands of studies of the decontextualised coins these people have collected over the years? How many actual proper studies (ones still considered to be of value today) have been generated by the present generation of collectors? Let us say over the past thirty years (1981-2011)? And how many coins have passed through the no-questions-asked US and German markets in that period?

Where is the actual evidence that no-questions-asked collectors actually ARE "documenting and preserving" their coins on a standard on a par with the average museum in the US and Germany? I am thinking here particularly of the Fundmunzen project, we have something similar for Poland (both Roman and Early Medieval coin finds). Collectors participate, but are not the initiators of these projects. But of course these catalogues are catalogues of coins with findspots, not the decontextualised "another coin of Maxentius with a xxx reverse, Fortescue and Scroggins 917" of the stamp-collector type of "numismatist".

How "socially useful" is it making personal and ephemeral collections of objects gained from the trashing of archaeological sites and clandestinely removed from the country of origin? (collectors always put the word STOLEN in inverted commas, but I do not see why; the law is the law whether they like it or not.) Is not the process itself, or the blinkered object-fetishist nineteenth century way in which most collectors of ancient dugups do it is in itself clearly an activity which is less "socially useful" than antisocial, selfish and "anti-science". In the way it is done today it is exactly the equivalent of the no-questions-asked collectors of geegaws made of freshly-'harvested' elephant ivory of an earlier post here, and poses exactly the same conservationist problem. Let the collectors of freshly "surfaced" dugup artefacts show it is otherwise.

I wonder whether Mr Exx feels that pot-digging on ancient Native American settlement sites and burial grounds in his home area or down in the Four Corners area is an equally "socially useful destination" of the plundered artefacts and "injun" skulls? Or is that somehow "different" from buying the proceeds of other people's diggings on V-Coins or eBay?


Cultural Property Observer said...

Talk about a rant.... I'm all for museums, but there are too many coins out there to all be preserved by museums or archaeologists. The Alpha Bank has a fine museum, but you might also note that the coins are bought from the same sources you roundly condemn-- at least when the purchasers are in the US rather than Greece! And as for all talk about the importance of preserving context, when exactly are they going to get around to publishing the 60,000-70,000 coins found in Rome in the 19th c? Your position that there should be a clamp down on collectors so that archaeologists will be able to study the millions and millions of coins decaying somewhere out there in the ground is the height of absurdity.

Paul Barford said...

I think if you merely dismiss everything I say as a „rant” with no content, then you might as well give up doing your uncomprehending „cultural property observing” here, because you are clearly wholly missing the point.

Watch the lips „object fetishisation”.
Do you understand what I mean by that? If you did, then read your reply again, and pick out where you do precisely that, fetishise the object, rather than listening to what I wrote. You do not have to agree with me, but I wrote something and if you are commenting at least read it with some understanding of what I am getting at. It’s not rocket science.

there are too many coins out there to all be preserved by museums or archaeologists
„Out where” Mr Tompa? Out in archaeological contexts in the soil you mean? Now frankly I simply do not accept your assertion that they are all „decaying somewhere out there in the ground”. I imagine the coins you buy which have been lying in the ground for 2000 years are not „decayed” are they? Heard of a „desert patina”, I bet you have. Is that decay? Yet these coins are soughtafter aren’t they even though you are not „rescuing them” from anything except a camel stomping on them.

So what you are saying is that we should allow the continued trashing of archaeological sites so you and your coin fondling mates can „preserve” the COINS for us? Can you explain the logic of that in the light of what I actually said here about the actual object of archaeological preservation? Becausae of course as I keep pointing out, what the archaeological preservation standpoint is that we should be preserving quite a lot more than just the coins. In fact preserving the coins is the least of the problems. When a site is professionally excavated, the coins take up much less space in the archives than virtually any other kind of artefact (intaglios maybe excepted). I’m sorry, but it is not me being „absurd” here.

Paul Barford said...

The Alpha Bank has a fine museum, but you might also note that the coins are bought from the same sources you roundly condemn

Yeah, I know, the "coin elves".

Well, I'll not be doing any banking with a firm that supports the coin elves!

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