Monday 31 December 2012

US Collectors Study These Coins? Where are those ACCG Monographs?

In reply to the post below, a coiney lobboblogger - true to form - suggests that it is not at all important that the stratified coin assemblage from the site of an early 1st century AD coin production centre has been excavated in Northern China instead of the site being looted away to produce saleable collectables for the international no-questions-asked, could-not-care-less market in dugups which he is paid by the dealers involved in it to defend. Peter Tompa is apparently distrustful of all "foreigners" who he apparently considers incapable of anything good:
"How much do you really think this huge number of coins is going to be researched?" 
I am putting my answer up here, because my suspicion is otherwise Tompa will be tempted to avoid developing his thoughts on the matter. Here's what the coin itself looks like:

I replied:
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.

Furthermore, 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 also, 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? 

UPDATE 1st Jan 2013
I suppose I might have known that this was not going to get a proper answer. See Tompa's comments here.

I really said nothing here that "confirms that archaeologists really don't care about the coins themselves". Given a choice between studying a group of artefacts where we know their stratigraphic context and archaeological associations of each item under study, and a heap of them when we do not, it's pretty obvious which any truly historical discipline is going to prefer. The point is that a heap of loose coins is a heap of loose coins. Assemblages of coins from particular specific places in the stratigraphice record of that site are a far better source of a whole range of other (and important) information which is lost the moment the context of deposition is obliterated by the "finder".

I would contest that we know enough about the organization of Wang Mang's economic reforms to be able to predict what kind of additional information would become available from the excavation of a few of the coin production (not to mention distribution) sites. For example some tricky technological issues (the construction of furnaces capable of melting vast quantities of metal and heating such large areas of clay piece-moulds required to issue several massive monetary reforms in a matter of two decades). We would learn from such excavations about matters of workshop organization, in aspects such as fuel and raw material supply - do we know very much about where the metal was coming from, whether it was refined, alloyed and reprocessed elsewhere or at the coin production site? What quantities of coins are involved over what period of time? What was the urban setting of the workshop, in an artisan's area, or elite centre? Was there workers' accomodation on site? What else was associated? What about the metrology of the coins, those caches for example, do they correspond to specific ammounts of coinage prepared for distribution (or received for remelting)? What are these caches of coins buried in pits? Are they finished coins that were stored on site and were not distributed (why?) were they unfinished coins that were not ready for distribution (why were they left?), or were they the gathered raw material stored for remelting into other coins?

I think it's a fallacy for the coiney to suggest that this site can be ignored and destroyed by looters because "Chinese minting technology is well known". I do not think excavating any production site of anything, especially when it contains stratified caches of the products is a "waste of time". He might as well say "we know how Greek statues were made because they are still made like that today" so if we find Phidias' or any other statue-maker's workshop, we can just bulldoze it.

 Mr Tompa suggests "Chinese archaeologists [...] just perform the most basic sort of types". Now is that so? I rather have the impression from reading some of the newer literature on cash coins that a lot more is known about the typology and in particular its chronology of the early coins in particular than it was in Schoth's days (incidentally still used by many a western dealer to describe his wares) from precisely the use of archaeological study of these coins and their stratigraphic associations. Is that not so?

In saying that typological study is "hardly study in my view",  Mr Tompa seems unaware that the coiney study of their little heaps on tables is nothing more or less than pure typology. I have asked these coiney people time and time again, that if they want to claim that what they do with the source material is in any way different from what anyone else does with it, where is their textbook of method and theory of heap-of-coin-on-a-table numismatics? But then, that is one of the five questions I posed in my original text, which Tompa has completely ignored.

I also asked if a coiney got his hands on this assemblage, what would he actually do with it to "study" it which would be any different to what the archaeologist (or specialist working on the archived excavated assemblages in the museum) would do with it? He does not answer, so we are left in the dark...

I also asked what numismatic monographs we have of this, one of the most common coins of Han times in US collections. Again we have no answer. We are glibly told that if we do not stop US collectors getting their hands on illegally excavated and illegally exported coins they'd be busy "studying" them to add to our knowledge of the typology and metrology (though goodness knows what else you can tell from a heap of decontextualised ones - see above). I'd like again to ask, where do we have the results of such amateur US study utilising the vast number of loose coins collected by the numismatic community in the USA since the "days of Petrarch" and the introduction of an MOU restricting imports to coins with documentation of proper export? It seems to me that there is no such amateur-produced work on huo chuan coins. It turns out that this "study" is a figment of Mr Tompa's imagination. If they've not produced such a work as the result of collection maybe of tens of thousands of these dugups over the last eighty years, how is the MOU proving any more of a hindrance to its production than the indolence of the US numismatic community in this regard? 

So, with regard to my original five points:
1) Tompa is still missing the point about the stratified context,
2) Tompa does not explain what a Wisconsin collector would do to "study" a loose pile of these coins which would in any way be more beneficial than their study in stratified assemblages,
3) Tompa does not point to any monograph written by a US collector in over 80 years of the accumulation of this material, specifically on the results of a heap-of-coins-on-a-table "study" of huo chuan coins,
4) Tompa does not expand on the reasons for his obvious hatred and mistrust of Chinese archaeologists,
simply suggests US collectors should exercise some kind of a 'right' to take stuff away from them,
5) Tompa fails to answer that last question about what would happen to the documentation of the context of deposition were this archaeologically-excavated assemblage be released onto the market after study by the excavators. So I will answer it. Within a few years, I suspect from what we've seen time and time again with mass material, all that information will have become separated from the majority of the excavated artefacts in private collections, while those archived in archaeological stores may be reasonably expected to remain with the items until they are deaccessioned.

Tompa sums up his comments:
Restrict Americans from collecting what the Chinese themselves happily let their own people collect, all for no other reason than it might hypothetically stimulate reserach, when the reality is quite something else.
What is wrong with Chinese people collecting Chinese coins in China? Of course I did not say that respecting proper export procedure by US importers - still less that the only reason for it - was to "hypothetically stimulate research". That is not the point I made at all. Quite apart from respecting the laws concerning the material traded being a fundamental element of ethical business practice, I was talking about looters digging up and destroying historically valuable sites to fuel the market with collectables, and why such sites are valuable. Tompa ignores that, replacing what I said apparently by his own chauvinistic prejudices about "archaeologists", "foreign archaeologists" and "foreign Communist, yellow-skinned, slanty-eyed archaeologists" who he apparently considers are his intellectual inferiors who cannot be trusted to do a good job. He therefore approves stealing the archaeological heritage from under their noses so that the Big White Man collectors of his own country can attempt to do what he is 100% sure the "furriners" are unable to do. And of course the dark little Conspiracy Theory slant at the end:  "the reality is quite something else".

Fredrik Schjöth 1929, 'Chinese Currency: The Currency of the Far East, the Schjöth Collection at the Numismatic Cabinet of the University of Oslo, Norway'. Oslo.

1 comment:

Cultural Property Observer said...

You seem to be just confirming that archaeologists really don't care about the coins themselves.

And in fact, Chinese archaeologists apparently if they do anything at all, just perform the most basic sort of types. Hardly study in my view, but quite understandable given the numbers of coins that have been found.

In any event, Chinese minting technology is well known (keep in mind the same processes and coin types were used until 1911) so your imagined course of study for Chinese archaeologists would likely provide little if any useful information whatsoever even if they wanted to waste their time in such an endeavor.

So there we have it. Restrict Americans from collecting what the Chinese themselves happily let their own people collect, all for no other reason than it might hypothetically stimulate reserach, when the reality is quite something else.

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