Monday 16 June 2014

Elkins on Ancient Sites as Crime Scenes

“Coins are the ‘smoking guns,’
the definitive evidence — and it’s
important to preserve as much evidence as possible.” 

Baylor University as a follow-up article on the text published by Nathan Elkins (assistant art professor in Baylor’s College of Arts  and Sciences), “Investigating the Crime Scene: Looting and Ancient Coins” that appears in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. The press department's text is called "‘Smoking Gun’ Ancient Coins Are Being Looted from Excavations — and Too Few Coin Scholars Are Firing Back, Baylor Expert Says" (16 th June 2014) and although it contains a bit of journalistic hyperbole makes some important points:
Millions of ancient looted coins from archaeological [site]s enter the black market yearly, and a Baylor University researcher who has seen plundered sites likens the thefts to stealing “smoking guns” from crime scenes. But those who collect and study coins have been far too reluctant to condemn the unregulated trade, he says. “Archaeologists are detectives. When something has been taken away from a historical site, the object is divorced from its relationship with other objects, and its utility for the writing of history — much like solving a criminal case — is diminished,”
Elkins argues that numismatists must not condone or, worse, encourage that destructive behavior.  The black market in dugup antiquities is worth millions to the culture criminals, and coins are a commonly-collected type of such objects. Often looters have taken advantage of political upheaval to steal thousands of objects from unprotected sites, archaeological storerooms and museums.
The U.S. market alone imports “hundreds of thousands of earth-encrusted coins annually that are smuggled from Balkan nations such as Bulgaria,” Elkins says. He saw up close and personal the results of thefts at a site he previously worked — a Roman Empire-era fort in Israel. “One season we arrived and found one area that had been looted by someone with a metal director. Pits were dug into the floors and walls, and the soil dug out was greenish, indicating they had removed copper coins and perhaps other metal objects,” he said. “It caused a lot of damage to the site and destroyed information.” Coins taken in such illegal and secretive excavations and touted with fake histories are easy to find in auction catalogs and online storefronts — and inexpensive to boot, he said. “‘Common’ coins such as these may sell for the price of a fast-food lunch, but they’re invaluable sources to archaeologists and historians,” he said. When discovered beneath floors, foundations or wells, they provide information about how people lived and behaved in the past and can date occupation levels and monuments. 
 Elkins notes the blinkered viewpoint of collectors, single-mindedly intent on acquisition and possession, and while it is true that most collectors have “a genuine passion” for ancient history:
For some coin collectors, obtaining coins of questionable origin is a matter of short-sightedness, he said. The origin and history of a coin may be irrelevant to them if their interest is merely in its image, rarity and method of production. Some scholars and collectors may be hesitant to question a coin’s background for fear of alienating dealers or other collectors, Elkins said. And, to be fair, some coins are in public or private collections with no recorded history rather than having been illegally obtained and passed off with a fake history, he said.
Elkins said collectors must be more assertive and conscientious in reporting suspected illegal activity, insisting on knowing the provenance of coins and taking steps to avoid potentially giving money to those who buy from looters and smugglers. 

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