Sunday, 4 March 2012

Numismatics and the Philosophy of Science: History is Bunk?

Optical physicist Dane Welsh over in the USA is an aficionado of dugup coins and has recently written an opinion piece ('Archaeologists and their pretensions') trashing historical study. "History is Bunk" he says , echoing the opinion of another US industrialist. He argues that the world should "cease extending automatic acceptance of and respect to archaeologists as scientists". This is because: "archaeologists are not, by any defensible definition of that term, scientists. They are instead purveyors of unproven and in too many cases, illogically formulated opinions". Welsh's definition of a "science" is:
"That which is not measurable or rigorously provable according to the laws of mathematics logic and experimental verification is not science". [...] No reasonable construction as to what constitutes a science, however, can possibly be stretched so far as to include archaeology. I view the intellectually loose, disorganized, illogical, ideologically driven approach of "mainstream" doctrinaire archaeologists toward what might charitably be described as their "discipline" as contemptible according to a Rutherfordian perspective. Archaeology is in reality a very imperfectly organized body of thought, a loose collection of the opinions of thinkers and investigators united to a very elastic degree by unverified and inherently unverifiable doctrines of experimental procedure and theory, which may best be viewed as possibly constituting a science in the making -- as astrology eventually gave rise to astronomy, and alchemy to chemistry. In this observer's opinion, archaeology still has a long way to go. [...] Looking at the many difficulties and actual injustices the anticollecting perspective of mainstream archaeology has caused to those who do not subscribe to their ideology, it is difficult to justify automatically extending the respect one instinctively accords to a scientist, to those who identify themselves as archaeologists. What basis is there within the accepted definition of a science for that? Should we not instead first require definitive affirmative proof that archaeology really does deserve to be considered a science?
I think the trouble with Welsh's whole argument is that it seems the latest book on archaeology he must have read would have been of 1962 vintage. This is about the time that some young idealistic technology-enthused archaeologists over in the US tried to convince themselves (and research funding committees) that by investigating the past they were doing "science". The rest of us see the historical sciences as part of the humanities.

One of the characteristics of any academic discipline however is an explicit methodology. So to return to Welsh's arguments, we might ask to what degree his "numismatics" is "measurable and rigorously provable according to the laws of mathematical logic and experimental verification". While one may weigh coins and establish their alloy composition by physical methods, die analyses on the other hand are a subjective process of comparing one picture with another and saying to what degree they are the same or not. Hooker's analyses of Armorican coinage involves a number of implicit evolutionary assumptions which remain untested. The assumption that hammered coins which say quite explicitly Henricius or Stefen were issued by other rulers is an unproven assumption. And where is the formulation of the methodology of the sort of heap of coins on a table numismatics practiced by Welsh and his ACCG mates? They have not been able to name a single textbook outlining the methodology of the manner in which they treat the evidence of coins to write history and then verify the results. Why not?

Welsh suggests that archaeologists utter "much nonsense":
among which is the unproven, unjustified concept that looting of archaeological sites is caused by collecting. No verifiable data supporting that assertion in a manner consistent with fact and logic has ever been published nor will it ever be published, since this dogma is factually and logically indefensible.
Of course if that is to be regarded as a false hypothesis, the opposite of this is the "unproven, unjustified concept" that looting of archaeological sites is NOT caused by collecting.

This model would presuppose that looters spend time searching acres of fields with metal detectors, or digging deep holes in tells, often in the hot sun, in the search for artefacts that they do not intend collecting or selling to antiquity-dealing middlemen.

The dealers lobbyists claim they do this to find small scraps of corroded non-ferrous metal for sale as scrap. I have suggested that they might like to verify the validity of this model by demonstrating that it is possible, nobody yet has taken up the challenge. But in lieu of experimental data we have observations of real scrap metal collectors at work, they steal cables and pipes, and electrical fittings, statuary, memorial plaques. I have never met a report of metal detector wielding scrap metal seekers raiding an Iron Age hillfort or Roman villa purely FOR the scrap metal (as opposed to selling the surplus scrap after they have removed for themselves or sale of the collectable items). We have observations of tomb-robbers in various parts of the world which show that in remote locations, the diggers leave behind that which has lesser market value, and take that which is more readily saleable. Mr Welsh might like to ask on a UK artefact hunter's forum, "why do you do this?" and will hear that these people are looking for things to collect because they are interested in history, not for the money they can get for melting down old coins and ornaments. This observation of real people in the real world doing real damage seems to me to be adequate partial validation of the "collectable-seeking" as opposed to the dealers' "scrap-metal seeking" models.

I think it is true that "no verifiable data supporting in a manner consistent with fact and logic" the assertion that looting of archaeological sites is NOT caused by collecting has ever been published by the dealers' lobbyists nor will it ever be published, since it is quite clear that such an assertion is factually and logically indefensible.

Basically in order to uphold it, one would have to propose a mechanism by which the objects that are being dug up on ancient sites are somehow disappearing without reaching the antiquities market. We would also have to accept a parallel mechanism by which large quantities of previously unrecorded artefacts are appearing on the antiquities market which are not identical with the items being dug up. In other words, that the activities surrounding looting, and the activities surrounding the commerce in freshly-surfaced artefacts are two completely separate and closed systems. Is there any evidence that this is the case? Are there any verifiable data supporting that assertion in a manner consistent with fact and logic which has ever been published, or will we have to accept that since nobody has provided evidence that they are two separate and closed sysetms that the notion that there are is "factually and logically indefensible"?

The only way around the dilemma is to accept supernatural forces are at work. It seems many coin collectors and dealers believe that looters and metal detectorists are relieved of the items taken out of the ground by coin (antiquity) fairies. Rather like tooth fairies we believed in as kids. Since the looted artefacts all end up in Coinfairyland, the antiquities market therefore would have to be supplied by magical elves who make all these old things (like Santa's Elves make the presents). Thus it is that the two systems are separate:

Anyone who suggests otherwise, Welsh suggests, "might best be described as charlatans". Personally I would like to see a bit more evidence than the coin dealers have provided so far for the existence of coin fairies and coin elves, or any other actual, factual, evidence that their model of two closed systems has any validity.

And if it does, where do SMUGGLERS come into their picture?

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