Monday 22 August 2011

Qualities of a Professional Numismatist

In partial answer to the Ancient Coins (sic) blog: Numismatic Qualifications (more on the topic on my metal-detectorist-nonsense ghetto blog here, and here). This accusation keeps coming up time and time again and I am getting utterly fed up with it. Let's have a look at this and whether it is at all relevant.

Among the groups who consider that they should be exempt from criticism here are coin dealers. After all, they argue, if Paul Barford is not a coin collector, how can he possibly understand the special needs of the coin collector for illegally dug up and illegally exported coiney things? Fortunately collectors of shabtis, Peruvian textiles and mummy parts and Greek pots (about which I also write) have not yet cottoned on to this ploy. Anyhow, recently I've been interrogated on my qualifications in "numismatic science" (a subject I have never claimed any qualifications in, it is true). The verdict of the interrogator is that he's an esteemed professional numismatist and I am not a professional numismatist, so I should - he says - stop criticising the no-questions-asked trade in coins.

I think there is a great difference between a professional numismatist working for a museum, such as the British Museum, or the Fitzwilliam, or Yale University, and somebody who merely sells dugup coins. Dave Welsh, coin seller and website owner - who calls himself grandly "professional numismatist" disagrees, he calls my assessment a "characteristic (and utterly misinformed) sneer":
Mr. Barford's profound ignorance regarding ancient numismatics as a profession goes very far toward explaining his antagonistic attitude toward dealers in ancient coins. I do not believe that there are more than perhaps two dozen "professional numismatists working for a museum, such as the British Museum, or the Fitzwilliam, or Yale University," or holding teaching appointments in universities. As I pointed out above, numismatics is a distributed science, and the vast majority of professionals in the field of ancient numismatics are dealers. Dealers and expert collectors have contributed perhaps ten times as much to the immense literature that has been published on that subject as have academics and those employed by institutions.
What an odd statement. Mr Welsh assumes much, but seems unaware of two things, first there is a world outside the US of which it seems (even as Chairman of the ACCG's International Affairs Committee) he knows comparatively little, and secondly the fact that for a number of years I was employed by the editorial board of the Polish academic numismatic journal Wiadomości Numizmatyczne, though sometimes my name appeared on the cover (like vol XLVIII zes. 1 (177), 2004 which I have before me), some of the time it did not.

So actually, I know quite a bit about how professional numismatics looks in a European country where it is well developed. From what Welsh says, it certainly is better developed in the country where I have worked alongside numismatists for many years, than it appears to be in the USA. Far from being a "distributed science", here it has a structure and a place within the academic establishment. Oh, and it also has very close ties with the archaeological establishment. We all work together here, often in the same institutions (see below). In the United States one often hears coineys expressing extreme hatred and loathing for archaeologists ("a wolf in sheep's clothing"), the term is commonly used in coiney circles a pejorative one. I have never heard of that happening here in Poland.

Welsh - in explaining why he himself can call himself a "professional numismatist" while he has no academic qualifications in the field - claims that there are very few university programmes of studies. Well here there are a few in this one country alone. He will find that in Warsaw there's a choice of at least two places to study the subject to doctorate level. It is taught at other Universities too - one of them is Poznan, I think Łódź (I'd have to check that), probably others (we have a lot of universities now).

Welsh says that the reason why he is a professional numismatist but has no formal post as such is that there are only "two dozen" professional numismatists employed anywhere in institutions in general. This I find an odd statement. I studied in London, UCL, Institute of Archaeology, and - among others - learnt Roman archaeology literally (his lectures were very popular) at the feet of Richard Reece who I suspect has more numismatic knowledge in his left foot than Welsh has in his spiteful engineer's head. When a few years later I was working on some material in the storerooms of my local provincial museum, I had my tea breaks with the museum's numismatist; working on material from the same site, I went along to the Ashmolean (that's in Oxford Mr Welsh) where I met two numismatists to discuss the finds, corresponded with another. The British Museum has numismatists, though I've only corresponded with some of them. I've travelled to a number of provincial museums in England doing finds research, I cannot say how many numismatists they employ, but I think that its a fair bet that in England alone between the provincial, national museums and universities there will be more than "two dozen" numismatists employed professionally in that one country alone.

In Warsaw, at the University (Institute of Archaeology) where I studied and then was subsequently employed, I was able to take part in seminars on Early Medieval numismatics led by Stanisław Suchodolski, again a brilliant scholar. In the archaeological Museum I know two numismatists, in the Coin Cabinet of the Royal Castle there are I think several, in the (my) university several in teaching and research posts (Institute of Archaeology), in the Academy of Sciences I think now there is only one (hard times) and one professor emeritus. Certainly in Poland there are more than "two dozen" professional numismatists employed as such. Coin dealers are coin dealers here, no more, no less.

I would guess the same would go for Germany which has a huge number of publications produced by numismatists working in academic posts. Probably Nathan Elkins might be able to fill out the details. I would say in central Europe generally - to judge by the publications in the Institute's library the situation is similar in many other countries.

So what do they do? Picking up the random number (2004) of Wiadomości Numizmatyczne which I mentioned, taken at random from the clutter on the shelf in a hallway of back numbers of volumes I worked on, we find inside articles by: first eminent numismatist Boris Paszkiewicz (University of Lublin). Then one by Andrzej Bartczak (University of Cracow) - together with archaeologist Marek Jagodzinski (Museum in Elbląg) and eminent numismatist and all round decent bloke Stanisław Suchodolski (University of Warsaw Institute of Archaeology, Polish Academy of Sciences Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology). The next article is by Mateusz Bogucki (numismatist, Polish Academy of Sciences Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology), another article by the productive Paszkiewicz (U. of Lublin), then one by Michał Zawadzki (numismatist, Coin Cabinet, Royal Castle Warsaw), then one listing recent finds (Andrzej Milewski - not sure where he worked, possibly Academy of Sciences). Then we find 12 academic reviews of foreign numismatic publications by several professional numismatists employed in the University of Warsaw, museums and other institutions (though I do not recall all the names of the reviewers but I do not think any there are either collectors or dealers), then the "Chronicle" of events, a jubilee of a scholar - Jerzy Kolendo with his bibliography, New Doctorates and Master's theses from the universities (four mentioned here in this fasicule alone), a reportage from current numismatic exhibitions in museums in Poland, report of the work of the Numismatic commission - in which collectors are active alongside the academics.

The articles in this number of the numismatic journal are fully academic in their structure, with full critical apparatus and all peer-reviewed. They are not "new type of Gallienus - not in RIC" type articles of the average coiney collector, they are analyses of assemblages, coinflow chronologies worked out from stratified associated finds, a synthetic account of a phase of economic history and that sort of thing. So not merely what we call here "materiałówki" - presentation of the raw "things".

I'd like to point out that this is not the only academic numismatic publication in Poland, there are others and monograph series (as well as at least three trade and hobby magazines).

The sort of articles that fill these numbers is what I think numismatics should look like, and the fact that I've got a whole row of number after number which I worked on with lengthy academic articles presenting it in that way (all of which I have personally read through) showing the same pattern indicates to me that this is what professionally done numismatics CAN look like. While I am not so excited about a text of a "new type of parvus of Bolesław III Duke of Brześć", many of the papers produced here provide information in its historical context about past economic systems of which of course the coins are a part. This is in part a result of the holistic and mutually connected manner in which the humanities were organized for several decades after the War. This led to a great degree of interdisciplinarity in approach. Looked at from that background a manner of dealing with a subject in what Welsh calls a "distributed" manner and largely by isolated amateurs instead of in an interdisciplinary academic context really looks to me in comparison wholly inadequate and - no other word for it - amateurish. It certainly makes me very sceptical of the ACCG claims that without a no-questions-asked trade in coins, there would be no numismatics. Our antiquities laws differ from the 'anything-goes' system in the US and UK, and yet numismatics not only survives, but is not doing badly, thank you. (In fact it seems to have weathered the changes since 1989 marginally better than archaeology now I come to think of it).

There is in fact very close connection between professional numismatists in Poland and archaeologists. They are working alongside each other in the same institutions, carry out joint research projects (often with the participation of other scholars such as historians). Numismatists are employed as experts in the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage alongside archaeologists for dealing with reported accidental finds and other matters. The lack of conflict over access to finds comes from the legislation which makes all such material state property, unless disclaimed, that includes coins found in hoards or singly. Equally due to their position in institutional bodies, they are subject to the same codes of ethics.

Welsh may like to label others who see things in a different way, and with different experiences to his own "profoundly ignorant" and "misinformed", that does not change the fact that he really has not made the case that the system he and his fellow ACCG members promote (together with the wholly dubious manner in which these amateur homegrown numismatists get the source material for their studies) is in any way superior to that I know here. Neither has he demonstrated that the results of this system are in any way superior to the numismatic publications and development of the discipline produced within the professional and academic system in the country where I and my colleagues work.

Mr Welsh and his fellow ACCG rebels are rarely able to point us to the much-vaunted products of the intellectual efforts of coin fondlers in the US. John Hooker keeps plugging his atavistic culture-historical book about Corisolite coins which nobody uses. On rare occasions we are shown something where ACCG coin fondlers proudly say "this is the numismatics we do with the dugup coins we buy". Sadly, alongside the sort of texts I have mentioned above that usually turns out to be just comically pathetic compared with the breadth of scholarship produced by the numismatists with whom I have worked. Please do get the Polish journal from a library and look through it and compare it with the US coineys' websites. Then ask yourselves who is "profoundly ignorant":
- those who expect of professional numismatists something more than the sort of stuff US hobbyist coineys produce on their websites or in Celator (or the Sayles' scissor-and-paste popular guides to ancient coins)?
- Or those who consider that this amateurish made-in-America sort of thing is in some way the pinnacle of numismatic science because all-American and they know of nothing else?
If the fact that in America, "dealers and expert collectors have contributed perhaps ten times as much to the immense literature that has been published on that subject" is to be used as some kind of justification for maintaining the damaging status quo, why is there no categorised bibliography demonstrating this fact and the beneficial effects of this amateur collaboration? Surely if this is an argument Transatlantic collectors are relying on in order to be left alone, it is in their interest - and as researchers capability - to produce as soon as possible such a bibliography and disseminate it as widely as possible. Let's see it.

I have also asked these people time and time again, where is the methodology, the theory of their "heap-of-decontextualised-geegaws-on-my-table" type of numismatists. They have failed to point to a single book written on the topic, let alone one written (or even edited) by one of their number. Yet without a discrete methodology and body of theory, how can they talk of a "discipline"?

All these people are doing really is coin fondling, and on the whole - in the texts they have pointed me to as the best examples - comparing the pictures on their coins with pictures in books and spotting differences ("die studies", "finding new varieties"). That is not really my idea of "scholarship", any more than a kid doing a "Find Wally" or "spot the difference" puzzle. Especially as much of it seems to be leading nowhere much, and often seems an exercise done for the sake of it because somebody's got a heap of coins and wants to "do something" with them. That is not science. So we get a size of emission - so what? Where does that on its own lead? The problem is that if one wanted to look in detail at the fluctuations of spread across a region of a particular group of dies to study regional microeconomics or other questions, you can only do that when you know where and in what circumstances the individual coins were found, and you can't do that because they arrive in Dealer Dave's trays without any information at all of that nature, neither general nor specific.

There are books and papers here in Poland on the methodology of numismatics, a classic By Ryszard Kiersnowski for early medieval numismatics, Suchodolski has written a huge number of theoretical papers (among his others on typology etc) there are a number of seminal works on coins and their use by Polish archaeologists (Bursche for example, earlier Tabaczynski and Śląski). I have in fact read a fair number of these books and papers, have edited a number of them, I have many of them somewhere in my library. I have a feeling I might have reviewed at least one. yet the ACCG coineys cannot point me to a single example of comparable literature written within the context of the US no-questions-asked heap of coins collecting which is the topic of my (and not only my) criticism. Why not?

The important point is that in contrast to countries like the USA where the discipline is obviously less well developed, most of this truly academic work is NOT being done in Poland by "collectors" or "dealers". There is no need for it, the academic basis of numismatics in Poland is strongly enough developed that the processing and publication of new finds, the theoretical and analytical work can to a large extent be done by specialists employed in academic and scientific or cultural institutions. In fact, I am trying hard to think of a recent monograph that has been produced by collectors or dealers, all I can think of are catalogues of the 1970s going on into the 1908s of the coins of individual rulers produced for collectors, but in fact the editors of those works were academics too. There was a privately produced book a while ago about "how to invest in coins" which looked a bit like a paper version of a Glenn Beck commercial.

It seems to me that all this "Barford knows nothing about numismatics" from coiney dealers the other side of the sea intent on getting their hands on as many dugups without bothersome regulations and paperwork is a pathetic smoke screen. Firstly coin fondling in the American variant is not by any means rocket science (or if it is, nobody has taken the trouble to show anybody outside the 'discipline' that it is - so that's a breakdown in outreach and communication). Secondly one does not have to know very much at all about elephants (beyond they need somewhere to do their thing peacefully and bleed and suffer pain if you prick them) to be concerned about the ivory trade and ivory poaching and illicit trade. Thirdly, what Barford does know about numismatics from contacts over a number of years with REAL numismatists suggests that the people over the other side of the Atlantic making the most noise in favour of a continuation of the no-questions-asked trade give the appearance of being a bunch of blustering amateurish buffoons claiming to be professional numismatists and "distributed scholars", when by comparison with real professional numismatists and scholars, they are in fact nothing of the kind. They are shopkeepers and coin fondlers most of them.

Let's have no more of this time-wasting and unpleasant nonsense and get on with talking about portable antiquity collecting issues.

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