Tuesday 23 August 2011

US Coiney "Numismatics" : An Analytical Discipline or Merely Ordering Raw Data?

It seems coineys in the United States and I differ profoundly in our evaluations of what we understand by the word "professional discipline". In his rather nasty and hasty reply ("The Gospel according to St. Paul Barford") to my recent comments on what in terms of its status as a discipline I consider the words "professional numismatist" to mean, ACCG representative Dave Welsh writes:
Archaeoblogger Paul Barford may have actually taken leave of his senses: I caution all observers to realize that Mr. Barford is apparently afflicted by what is at best confusion, and at worst delusions, as to what really constitutes professional numismatic expertise and qualifications.
Perhaps it is Mr Welsh and his fellow numismatists in the US who are instead confused about the issue. The reason behind that insulting remark?

It seems to this observer that Mr. Barford has once again confused academia and its academic "qualifications" with genuine professional expertise.
Now this is comical when (if anybody is still following his pathetic thrashing around for self-justification), we remember his grounds for assessing me in his earlier attempt at interrogation were not practical "professional expertise", but paper qualifications.

Yes, I think if we are looking at something like numismatics in terms of it being a real discipline or not (which is what this discussion revolves around), then whether it is one that can be taught and assessed within an academic context is indeed one of those criteria. What is represented as such but is not is surely nothing but pseudoscience. How else can a discipline be defined?

Welsh then defines "professional expertise" as defined (in the discipline of numismatics) by ability to sort through a bulk lot of ancient coins. We are obviously talking about different things here. Whatever Welsh thinks it is, when I talk about a professional, I mean somebody with qualifications that go beyond mere hand-eye coordination. I think most of us equate the word "professional qualifications" in a discipline as consisting of something on paper, exams passed, courses completed, academic publications in peer-reviewed journals, that sort of thing. Throwing a pile of potsherds down on a table in front of a student who has completed the 'Prehistory of Poland 101' course and examining them on their ability to decide which are TRB neolithic and which Lusatian Culture (or whatever), is what we do at the end of the first year of a five year course. It's not a professional qualification, but a first year exam topic. Would Welsh consider a field-walking arrowhead collector in the States to represent a "professional discipline" comparable to his because he can sort them into types, from Agate basins to Yonkees? Or a British metal detectorist sorting 'grots' and 'partifacts' from 'trash'? Being "able to sort stuff into the right piles/boxes/coin slips" does not seem much on which to base a claim for such sorting to be a professional discipline. Nor fundamental to any discussion of the ethics of the antiquities trade.

Which is nothing but confirmation of what I was saying earlier about the great gap between what the US coineys consider to be "science" and what the rest of us would consider to be a science. Welsh is clearly talking here about a basic ability to sort data (as I say, sorting 'heaps of coins on a table' ) and not much else. I am talking about a discipline which consists of an ability to analyse data and interpret them within a methodology as I pointed out in my little essay on what real professional numismatists do with coins in the country where I am based and which Welsh now ridicules.

Welsh adds insult to injury when he says of what I wrote:

I do not think [...] very many of those whom he reveres as "academic numismatists" would do well in such a simple test of elementary qualifications.
That seems going a bit far. I doubt whether Mr Welsh has ever even heard before the names of the people I quoted in my earlier post, let alone met them at any international numismatic conference he's been to, and here he is judging and denigrating them. I would not be so dismissive of their abilities, I have seen some of them in action on excavated material, and would be interested to see how Dealer Dave would fare against them, especially when dealing with the material with which they would be more familiar than he. We do have rather high academic standards in this country (especially compared to what passes for 'education' in the US, speaking from the experience of having just had a bunch of US exchange students and their professor over here for a term) and Welsh in his self-advertising buffoonery is here overstepping the mark.

Certainly I do not expect I could (or would want to) sort a pile of Mr Welsh's coins to a degree that would satisfy him, but then I doubt whether he could say much about a pile of Early Slavic sherds, or an excavated Romano-British pottery assemblage (I bet he cannot even tell the difference between South Gaulish and Central Gaulist terra sigillata, let alone cope with the other imported finewares and amphoras found in Britain). Unlike him, however, I would not find that a justification for calling him names and saying he is "deluded" and knows nothing. I happen to have gained a fair working knowledge of certain artefact types because that's what I worked with at one stage of my working life. I cant do snail shells, or bird/fish bones or seeds, while there are others for whom its as falling off a log. But sorting things like that is a practical 'craft', not part of the analytical job of the archaeologist. Sorting the potsherds into piles and identifying Rhenish and Gaulish colour coat is just the beginning, counting and weighing them, assessing abrasion and sherd size are all technical operations - equivalent to what Welsh evidently considers the pinnacle of "professional expertise". In many units however this is work carried out by supervised volunteers and students and the main pot specialist does not dirty his hands with it. (Of course they earlier themselves served 'apprenticeship in the craft' by sorting). What the pot specialist does is look at assemblage composition and taphonomy and from that analyse the results in terms of the use, discarding and deposition of the material across the site, not in terms of individual assemblages, but the intrasite patterning of assemblages. In big units, the specialist takes tables of numbers from the sorting, and turns them into analytical reports.

Perhaps here is the root of the problem we have getting through to collectors what the issues are, they are seeing this all the time as a function of individual isolated objects which are to be "sorted" (merely identified), because that is all they do with the material they buy and sell ("oh, look a Gallienus not listed in RIC!"). They are fetishising the object rather than seeing the analytical and methodological issues, because in their own use of the material they do not analyse and have no methodology more sophisticated than an art-historical/typological approach developed in the 1870s. As a result they perhaps cannot imagine what else could be done with them.

I expect the toothless old peasant orchard owner who drives in to Warsaw from a village near Grójec in his battered old van to sell apples on the market near me would be able, if the boxes got mixed up, to separate by eye the 'jonagolds' from the 'chempions' and all the other local breeds of apple (we have a few, some not found anywhere else in Europe) without mistake into their correct piles by size, colour, appearance of the skin and density and other characteristics barely distinguishable to the average customer. Has that toothless, dirty old man an expertise that in the eyes of Mr Welsh and his fellows would merit the term "professional" and does that mean that he is an expert "malalologist" on the same "professional" standing in the eyes of a US "numismatist" as (or maybe better than) an eminent professor specialising in fruit tree husbandry at the Main Agricultural Academy here in Warsaw? Or is he just a market stallholder who knows what he is selling - a shopkeeper?

Vignette: coin collecting like stamp collecting, ordering "things". It is a little-known fact that FDR had six digits on one hand...


kyri said...

paul,you are obviously a very knowledgeble man but these "coin fondlers"as you call them know their stuff to.john hooker probably knows more,or on a par with about celtic coinage than any other profesional numismatic. ,robert tye has wrote some very intresting papers on indian coinage,even dave welsh knows his stuff.collectors dont just want to put lables on things,many of them study their pieces.one thing you cant accuse these people of is not knowing numismatics.of course,likewise,they shouldnt be saying similar things about you.if you get right down to the bone of it,your all very knowledgeable people but all your combind knowledge gets lost in all the rhetoric and name calling.from the outside to a neutrall observer,it looks like a dick measuring contest.

Paul Barford said...

Kyri, to be frank, I'm more than a little disappointed that you got to the bottom (I hope) of that text and then come back with such a comment. Did you get to the bit about the apple seller? He's a knowledgeable man too, knows his stuff (apples), but does that make him an apple scholar?

Well, I'm not going to comment on Hooker and Welsh, have a look at earlier posts here, especially Welsh's interpretation of hoards. I am glad though you bought up Tye. Yes, and look at the difference between what Robert Tye produces, books which actually link the coins with something other than king lists and the number of prongs on the star above the camp gate. Now THAT is what I am talking about.

OK, so we are to justify what happens to sites to produce these coins used by scholars. So how many of them are of (let us say) the Robert Tye ilk as opposed to the prong-counters? 50 000 coineys in the US, how many of them are prong counters, and what percentage are capable of more?

I have asked for a bibliography, you would think it would be in the coiney interest to lay out the evidence for the claims they are making about coiney scholarship. Why aren't they?

"collectors dont just want to put lables on things"

I said "tables".

Paul Barford said...

Frankly, from what has trickled over to me from the forums (one guy comparing me to "Hitler" of course, we'll be looking at his V-coins offer in due course), it seems that actually nobody has actually read what was being discussed. The usual coiney superficiality - "discussing" something they have not bothered to find something about themselves.

The point is that the coineys are strongly opposed to academism - and I think that came out very clearly from what the dealer wrote (and in particular in the subsequent hidden Moneta-L discussion). They furthermore see the root cause of the restrictions as due to academics (whom they label "archaeologists" irrespective of what they actually do). They insist on the other hand that their scholarship is such that it makes up for the destruction the no-questions-asked trade causes to the archaeological record and a countries cultural resources. I would say then that it is incumbent on them to demonstrate that what they mean by scholarship is what the rest of the world (including those they oppose) consider that to be. Prong-counting of stars over campgates and ability to sort constantinian grots into the right piles is not really going to cut the ice. This has nothing to do with as you put it (ahem) "dick measuring", it is a matter of defining what is, and what is not, scholarship in 2011. Basically if these people cannot show they even understand what "scholarship" is, let alone show that more than 0.34% of them have ever done anything that can fall into that definition, then obviously, we and they will have to disregard that argument of theirs.

let us see a classified bibliography of the scholarly works produced by 50 000 amateur no-questions-asked coineys since - say 1990 (when the first bulk loads of metal detected coins from the Balkans started travelling probably on the old drug routes into Europe and the USA). That would be a good basis for discussion.

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