Thursday 16 February 2012

Google Book coiney "scholarship"

Collector-with-conviction Jorg Lueke writes (Wednesday, February 15, 2012, 'William E. Metcalf on Coin Hoards and Archaeology') that Oxford University Press [has] just released The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage, edited by Yale's Prof. Metcalf. In his discussion Lueke focusses on "the introduction and some comments Professor Metcalf makes regarding hoard and site finds". Why? Metcalf's compilation is intended as a handbook a "to provide numismatic background" (p. 8), and the introduction to the book is written for "the uninitiated" (p. 3). So not exactly pitched at the highest levels of scholarship. To use this text as Lueke does to attempt to instruct archaeologists where archaeological finds are found is therefore immensely comical.

I also think he is deliberately manipulating what Metcalf wrote. Let us add the sentence preceding the quoted text (p.7) on hoards:
[Where it is abundant, the evidence of hoards is second only to die links in importance, with the caveat that it is susceptible to contamination in modern times.] Hoards are infrequently found in controlled archaeological contexts, and there is almost always some doubt about the integrity of lots even when they are intrinsically plausible. A dealer will always have the inclination to skim the rarest coins, or those in the freshest condition, because of the commercial premium these demands. And it is no help that institutions are no longer competitive for acquisition of whole lots, on grounds of finance as well as specious ethical arguments.”
Now it is quite clear that Metcalf here is writing of hoards as a source of numismatic information. Lueke wants to make of this something else, he wants to use it as evidence of coin elves:
"Many voices have stated that hoards, the source of most coins in auctions and profits, are rarely found in controlled excavations. Here is another voice set against those radical archaeologists who want to paint a picture of tomb raiders with metal detectors plundering archaeological sites. Resorting to such extremes is certainly a tactic in line with those who would make specious ethical arguments to advance their cause".
I think it is here Lueke is making specious arguments, comparing numismatic chalk with archaeological cheese with a huge illogical thought-leap into the bargain. I do not know many archaeologists who would claim that hoards are always found in excavations, or in on-site contexts. They very frequently are however. I have found one in the floor of a basilica (a market hall probably by this time) in the centre of the Roman town at Wroxeter, several others were found by Bushe-Fox in his earlier excavations. They turn up on towns and villas, not to mention temples all over Roman Britain (just to take one region of the Roman Empire). [Metcalf presents them all simplistically as economic in origin, ignoring a whole load of literature and ethnographic comparanda indicating such deposits could have had cultic significance too.]. By the way, nobody is measuring archaeological damage by the "profits" that coin dealers make, nor saying that all metal detectorists must be raiding "tombs".

What Lueke is saying is that the majority of coins collectors collect "come from hoards" and "hoards are not archaeological findspots", so therefore digging coins out of the ground without making any proper record is "not damaging any archaeological information". That is of course nonsense - and in deliberately cutting out what Metcalf himself writes in the preceding sentence he is manipulating the text in a manner not intended by the author on precisely that point. Metcalf is bemoaning the fact that they are recovered by looters and accidental finders rather than in a situation which allows control and documentation of the original associations. Quite clearly coins in hoards are enough of an archaeological findspot for the Treasure Act being set up in Britain to protect hoards from dispersal before they can be properly recorded, and the PAS and associated specialists to engage in doing the recording. Where groups of associated objects such as coins are not properly reported before the whole lot are dug out, information often IS damaged by their removal from the archaeological record (a hoard) to the market.

I would like to see some scientifically verifiable evidence of Lueke's assertion that "the majority of coins collected by coin collectors" - like the 97,691 Items (total value $22,577,744) being sold by 157 V-Coins dealers today - have "come from hoards". I can see very few coins on V-coins giving any kind of collecting history confirming that assumption of Mr Lueke's. If these 97000 coins are from "hoards", where is the full documentation of each of those hoards? Can the purchaser of a coin from one of these "hoards" see a record of what also was found in it so they can see their object in the context of the original find, and perhaps strive to find other examples of coins from the same "hoard" on the market? Where is this information available? If it is not, how can lueke or anyone else claim that information is not being lost when such items come onto the market completely disassociated from such basic information?

I really wonder at the next quote. Metcalf says:
“Site finds are another matter. Unlike hoards, which can be placed in time with greater or lesser certainty, coins recovered in excavations have no fixed chronology of loss".
What on earth does that mean? A coin is trodden into a layer from the market hall floor of the 360s, it was lost by the 360s. Or a coin in a grave of the 360s, or in the infilled flue of a pottery kiln of the 360s. A stratified coin has indeed a fixed chronology of loss just as precise as the hoard, indeed more so if the nature of the stratigraphy provides a terminus ante quem (an isolated hoard can usually ONLY have a terminus post quem). The chronology of loss of coin assemblages from Roman sites of different types was being studied by Richard Reece back in the 1980s and was a useful source of - yes, numismatic too- information. This is all published and long discussed, yet in the text Lueke cites Prof Metcalf ignores it why? The reason why, Mr Lueke is you are reading a "Noddy Book" introduction of numismatics, and not a full presentation of the evidence.

Lueke goes further, quoting Metcalf:
"the fact that these are lost coins, rather than hoarded ones, defines the nature of the material: ­mostly base metal and generally lower denominations.” This quote merely reinforces the previous one, coins found at controlled excavations are generally not the types that collectors buy and certainly not the ones that drive the majority of profits.
Well, once again, nobody is measuring damage by profits to the exploiters. But in this comment, it looks as if Lueke has totally forgotten the above bit of Metcalf's text discussing currency (as opposed to savings) hoards. The lost coins come from the same currency pool as the currency hoards, don't they?

Now, of course as we all know, no coin dealer (either in the US or over here on the European continent) ever stocks an ancient copper alloy coin under a certain diameter and artistic quality. The coin fairies take all of them off the hands of the looters and other finders and take them to Fairyland and they are never seen again. The coins bought in bulk lots for "coin zapping", the ACE project and the collectors of Late Roman Bronzes (campgate star-point counters, Fel-temp-rep-variety freaks, Gallienus' zoo aficionados and all the rest of the related aberrations of the coin fondling fraternity) are produced in the Elfen Caves under Munich. They are made by the Coin Elves from magical transformation of beech leaves and sunbeams. That's what the coineys want us to believe. Talk about "specious arguments".

Is it true no damage to the information about the past is caused by ancient dugup coins "surfacing" on the market? I suppose if you take the view that studying the pictures and writing on them is the only "window to the past" that matters, then perhaps that is what the coiney Metcalfs and Luekes of this world could argue. Metcalf mentions the word "archaeology" once (I think, I only skimmed the text as rather too superficial a coverage to be any interest to me).

Puzzling is the reference to "excavation catalogs" (eh?) where apparently "the exact locus of the find" is "seldom critical, and indeed is seldom reported". Well, one wonders at the use of the term "locus" and what kind of excavations Prof. Metcalf has in mind that do not record the findspots of coins (none is mentioned in his CV). Yet for coiney Lueke, what he says about excavations is Gospel
Here we have some reinforcing evidence that numismatics can function without exact archaeological context, an idea that seems foreign to a few of the radicals out there but one that should make sense to the majority of collectors, dealers, and archaeologists.
I really do not see the logic in this. Coins have pictures and writing on them. "Numismatics" is in effect the study of the pictures and writing on pieces of metal. Yes, you can do that without exact archaeological context. You can also do it without coins, with photographs, Stuart Rigold used to use electrotypes (I know, I once helped make some when I worked in the DoE Ancient Monuments Laboratories).

: :

Here are some beer bottle labels, people collect them too. You can look at the pictures and writing on them too and draw all sorts of conclusions about where and when they were made, which are earlier which later, the prices printed on them tell you something about economic change in the region where they were used, what is written on them about what beers are made by which firms and where, what kind of images they evoked in their advertising and so on and so on (it's no joke, I do not imagine it is just in Poland that there are 'beerologists' who make a big study about all this). Now you can also do all this without knowing anything about where the beer was bought, by whom, who soaked the labels off the bottles.

So what? The ability to use things with pictures and writing on them as a source of information has not at any time been in question, or the question
. The point is one cannot write many kinds of history from the pictures and writing on decontextualised beer bottle labels, in the same way as one cannot write many kinds of history from the pictures and writing on decontextualised coins.

What is in question is how the coins which "surface" on the market are procured. It does not matter if it is produced from the unreported removal of a 'hoard' from the ground, or the unreported looting of a villa or temple, or midden from the sweepings of a market area. What mattered is the erosion of our ability to use the finds of the coins to provide information about the past which goes beyond that we can learn from the pictures and writing on an object

The book's blurb promised a chapter "on the application of numismatic evidence to the disciplines of archaeology", but it apparently failed to materialise. Also how these days one can produce a book like this not mentioning the ethical issues about the trade and collecting of such items beats me. Still, the introduction will suit the ACE crowd, and Mr Lueke obviously thinks he can learn something from it...

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