Friday, 6 January 2012

"Brothel Token" from London?

The Telegraph calls it a "brothel token", the PAS call it (like eBay) a "spintria" LON-E98F21, and its getting a lot of news coverage (Daily Mail, Grauniad). These stories all have the same traditional components all from the PAS press release mould:

The discovery: "It lay preserved in mud for almost 2,000 years until it was unearthed by an amateur archaeologist (sic) with a metal detector [...] near Putney Bridge in West London".

The Normal Bloke makes Good bit
: The token was found by pastry chef Regis Cursan, 37, [M. Cursan is a French metal detectorist (his detecting forum avatar is shown top left). Happah discussion here].

The Ordinary Guy Surprises the Experts bit: Experts believe it is the first example of its kind to be found in Britain.

The twist in the discovery story: "At first I thought it was a Roman coin, because of the thickness and diameter. When I rubbed the sand off the artefact the first thing I saw was the number on one side and what I thought was a goddess on the other".

The Trite Narrativisation: "On the reverse of the token is the numeral XIIII, which historians say could indicate that the holder handed over 14 small Roman coins called asses to buy it. This would have been the equivalent of one day’s pay for a labourer in the first century AD. The holder would then have taken the token to one of the many Londinium brothels and handed it to a sex slave in exchange for the act depicted on the coin.

The Deep Meaningful Social Relevance bit: Curator Caroline McDonald said: “This is the only one of its kind ever to be found in Great Britain. “When we realised it was a saucy picture, we had a bit of a giggle but there’s also a sad story behind it because these prostitutes were slaves. It has resonance with modern-day London because people are still being sold into the sex trade.”

Yeah, right. So? We should all rush out and buy metal detectors to get a social conscience?

Now what kind of archaeological context is "in the mud near Putney Bridge"? That is a pretty important question because there has long been discussion about these so-called "brothel tokens" in the literature, and the fact that most of the many on the market (how could there not be?) are fakes, or "probably fakes". Meaning not genuine Roman antiquities. So how can we be so sure about this one? Because its got green crud on it and was found by an "amateur archaeologist ("with a metal detector")"? But was it dropped in the mud near Putney Bridge in the 1940s? 1840s? 1740s? Or was it thrown there a few years ago by a disgruntled widow clearing out the house whose late hubby "spent more time with his flipping coin collection than he did with me". How can we know from the circumstances of discovery?

Now Mary Beard ('A Roman brothel token?') has joined in and straightens out some of the collectors' myth-making ["I think someone had better give a different version from the torrent of lurid stuff now pouring out about the sex-life of Roman London"]. So much for PAS outreach. The term the PAS use to describe it is the Cambridge don tells us "a Latin word for male prostitute" and thus not the name applied to these tokens or whatever they are by the Romans. She suggests these were gaming tokens.

The British Museum points to the very close similarities between this new one and an example in the British Museum Department of coins and medals collection registration number R 4476

Object described by the British Museum as a Roman "spintria" © Trustees of the British Museum

Come on BM. Tell us why the one in your collection is not a cast chemically patinated fake. That's what it looks like to me and what I think the average experienced dugup coin buyer buyer would say if they saw that photo on eBay [click on the photo so it appears at a larger size and take a good look at that "patina" and the soapiness of the details, where is the cuprite, why has it filed edges?].

So what actually have we gained from all this? Some newspapers have a titillating story to tell, maybe sell a few more copies, PAS again gets its five minutes of attention, metal detectorists get some good press. But quite how that whatever-it-is got where it was reportedly found will never be clear, whether it is what the papers excitedly say it is will probably also not be resolved, and what is the BM doing posting up on its website that cruddy piece of brass R 4476 and saying it is Roman? Where did THAT come from, and if not from the UK have they got any export documentation for it?

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