Monday 31 December 2012

China, Coin Thieves Busted

Xinhua reported on Sunday that in the ancient town of Huoluochaideng (Hanggin Banner Inner Mongolia - map, red square), archaeologists have excavated about 3,500kg of ancient coins and remains of a coin-casting workshop of the Han dynasty (202 BC-220 AD). The caches of coins had been buried in pits on the site of the workshop. Most of the coins recovered were Huo chuan (huoquan) issues of the short-lived Xin Dynasty (45 BC-23 AD) - the reign of emperor Wang Mang who attempted far-reaching reforms of the Han monetary system. About a hundred coin moulds were also found, believed to date to the rule of Emperor Wudi (156 BC-87 BC) of the preceding Western Han Dynasty. The excavation of the workshop is a significant contribution in the study of the ancient monetary system and casting technology. It however very nearly never happened. According to Lian Jilin, a researcher with the regional Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, the coins were found  after police cracked three antiquity theft cases in the region. Fortunately the looters were stopped in time, before they had destroyed the archaeological site in a search for saleable commodities making research impossible. In most cases however the clandestine exploitation of archaeological sites for the collectables that are traded no-questions-asked leads to the destruction of archaeological knowledge.

Now I expect we'll hear the US coineys protesting that they want some of the coins from the excavation archive... 

'Huge quantity of ancient coins found in China',Times of India Dec 30, 2012

Daisey Stodola, '3,500 kg of ancient coins excavated in N China Souce', New Zealand Week, Dec 31 2012

Map: adapted from A Concise History of China


Cultural Property Observer said...

How much do you really think this huge number of coins is going to be researched? And what should be done with the coins once that happens?

Paul Barford said...

Well, first of all you are (I would guess deliberately) missing the POINT, we have several assemblages of coins here with a determined stratigraphic context, and associations. THAT, not the loose coins, is the subject of study.

Now tell me... imagine Spink's buy 3,5kg of Wang Mang Huo Chuan coins, all from "Northern China", but no guarantee where they came from, no guarantee they even came from the same site. They ship them to an ACCG dealer in an unmarked package which ICE does not stop. They get bought by a Wisconsin collector. What kind of "study" is he going to do even if he has 3,5kg of the things? What will it mean? These coins are cast not struck, flat on one side, hole in the middle, two characters on the other. What are you going to "study"? Can you point me to a comparable "study" by a US collector, preferably an ACCG member of this particular type of coin (huo chuan of Wang Mang)? well, can you? Despite them being one of the more popularly collected early cash coin.

If we excavate the workshop, we have a chance to see the details of the production process, maybe a phasing of the different stages of activity, the relationship between the mint of Wang Mang and Wu-Di, and any of the stages in between. These of course can be tied in to the historical evidence (such as it is) of the rule of Wang Mang. If the site is looted to produce buckets and buckets of coins then we have no chance of doing any of that on the basis of the buckets of loose coins.

What RIGHT have you to suggest that the Chinese are any less equipped to curate in the long term and "study" the loose coins than if they were scattered among the Big White Man Collectors in the USA? Are you not guilty here of simple chauvinism, racism and orientalism? If not, what are your grounds for saying this?

Tell me, if the coins were released with full provenance details, ("# 367890; pit 1, level 23, square 56d") how long - given the prevalence of dugup coins on the market which "surface" having each time lost every single reference to its previous histories - do you think we can count on that information being retrievable once they enter the could-not-care-less numismatic market?

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