Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Dugup "Numismatics is the study of dies...."

Analysing the Frome Hoard (BBC)
In his article 'Preserving Numismatic Context from Destruction by Archaeologists', Ancient Coins Saturday, December 15, 2007 (written in reply to a critical comment by myself) veteran professional numismatist and ACCG director Dave Welsh, who also deals in ancient coins, made a number of points about what he terms "numismatic context" (a concept nowhere else defined in such terms as far as I am aware). Here we find that, in his opinion, die linkage studies play a key role:

Numismatic context [... is] mostly concerned with the systematic study of dies and die-links, and also with the study of coin hoards and their dating. [...] It would really be more precise to say that numismatics is the study of dies, their lives and their families. Every ancient coin was struck from a hand engraved die that was unique and individually identifiable, quite unlike today’s mass produced identical dies. [...] The processes by which dies wear, recutting to extend their lives and also evolution of stylistic trends and engraving "hands," provide insights permitting die aging and succession sequences to be built up in a manner very similar to tree ring sequences compiled by dendrochronologists. These detailed linear die sequences can then be crosslinked to other linear die sequences through analysis of obverse/reverse die pairings, evolution of die preparation technique, etc. to create matrices of die evolution. These die evolution matrices can correspondingly be related back into the historical record [...] 
This postulate about the very essence of the methodology of this sort of numismatic study has fundamental relevance to the ACCG stance on the no-questions-asked trade in dugup ancient coins:
Because the active discovery of new coin types is continually adding to the known numismatic context, increasing the precision of our knowledge of dates and issue sequences [...] numismatics is today – more than ever before – a vital, living science. That is true only because there is a large and steady influx of “new coins” coming into the numismatic trade, where some sharp-eyed dealer or collector will spot anything unusual about a coin type that has not previously been published.[...]   it is clearly essential to assure that the pace of coin discoveries does not decline and that all newly discovered coins are made available to numismatic researchers, so that their contribution to numismatic context can be properly assessed, recorded and published. [...] 
Having established to his own satisfaction the superiority of his notion of "numismatic context" to all other concerns, and preservation of archaeological sites and assemblages in particular and preservation from commercial exploitation as a source of collectables for the international no-questions-asked market, Welsh goes on to blame the black market on conservationists:
Since the obstinate refusal of archaeologists and cultural ministry authorities to cooperate with collecting and the numismatic trade has prevented organizing a sensible, cooperative and regulated approach to disposal of new coin discoveries, these new coins presently flow into the numismatic market through a variety of clandestine channels, [...] Surely that process is a lesser evil than that a coin should be licitly excavated, then cursorily examined without any interest other than its stratigraphic dating potential, and consigned to molder away in unconserved storage where no numismatic scholar will ever learn of its existence.
(Note the Two-wrongs argument.) That, surely means that to fulfil the conditions set out in this article, the publication of coin hoards found and retained in public collections in Britain as a result of the Treasure Act to fulfil the purpose of advancing knowledge as set out by the ACCG officer, must include the information which would allow the comparison with the die(impression)s on other coins. Only the flow of fresh information of this type, he argues, will lead to increase of knowledge. Otherwise the coin collectors of the ACCG would surely accuse the British authorities of allowing these licitly excavated items to be only cursorily examined without any interest in their numismatic context, and "consigned to mo[u]lder away in storage where no numismatic scholar will ever learn of its existence".

Yet another ACCG officer, Peter Tompa, seems to take a totally different attitude to the concept of numismatic context, and apparently sees the analysis of die linkages within discrete associated assemblages often containing multiples of the same issues, as to a large extent unnecessary in using these hoards to extend knowledge. But if that is the case, it removes the above-rehearsed primary (indeed only)  reason advanced for making the basis of the discipline (I use the term loosely) the flow of freshly surfaced ("from underground") into the numismatic market through a variety of clandestine channels. Obviously, then, the whole question of whether die linkage studies of decontextualised coins is indeed as fundamental a basis for modern numismatics as these amateurs make out. If it is being used as a means of justifying collectors patronising black market smugglers and looters of cultural property, then I think it really is high time we had a proper public discussion of this.

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