Tuesday 15 July 2014

What is "knowledge" in Coin Collecting? Reply to Robert Kokotailo.

The collectors' cocktail approach (Wikipedia)
Here we go again, the homegrown avocational scholars of North America want to give us all a lecture on the theory of knowledge. Apparently archaeologists have got it all wrong. Canadian coin dealer Robert Kokotailo comments on Moneta-L that:
Knowledge comes from the analysis of data. Incomplete data leads to incomplete knowledge. Barford wants us to believe that the past should only be studied via the data that comes out of archaeological excavations, ignoring all the other data that exists but did not come from those excavations. Considering that probably in excess of 90% of coin types have never been found in an archaeological context, I think "Duh" says it all. If he had is
way, the study of ancient coins would not even exist today.
 Here we see another trait of the superficial collecting mentality, the unwillingness to get to grips with anything. Mr Kokotailo is quite happy to tell his readers his version of "what Barford thinks" without actually using any resources (like this blog for example) to find out what it is I say.  He can hardly complain about a lack of evidence (unlike dealer Bude's self-reputed "vast" knowledge - as a fellow nuimismatist points out, rather short on publications to date). He just cannot be bothered, and quite happy to spout the first thing that comes into his head knowing that no other coiney (all superficial minds the lot of them) will contradict him.

Obviously, we will never have "complete data" about the past, if we had that there's be no need for archaeology. The point is that when one field of activity (commercial coin hoiking) destroys data irreversibly, then surely that is a matter of concern for all who truly 'care about the past' (that's what coin collectors say they do). It should mean getting together and discussing in detail ways of meeting the needs of both commerce and data preservation. What we see however is that coin collectors (and dealers like Mr Kokotailo) persistently question whether there is such a thing as these data (Sayles and now Hooker denying the importance, nay very existence, of archaeological context), attempts to suggest damage is not being done (Sayles and Tompa on the BAA thread) and dismissing notions that the trade could be done any other way, no matter the cost to information preservation. They claim that they are producing information (none of them has yet replied to Yates' demonstration that this argument is a total fallacy). The coin collecting community time after time behaves like flat-earther philistines, in a constant state of denial and display of blinkered thinking.  

For numismatic data to have any meaning, there has to be more present than mere pictures and writing on the loose objects themselves. I recommend Kokotailo read (actually reads)  Philippa Walton's recent work on the coinage of Roman Britain. Funnily enough she did not use one single piece of information deriving from the loose assemblage of items offered by UK sellers on eBay. For her, these are no "data". Funny that. Yet all those homegrown scholars engaged in heap-of-coins-on-a-table "research" are using precisely such material. When asked for a textbook showing the methodology of this, silence descends. There is no such methodology to produce data from non-data, I'll wager. The ACCG said it was going to produce a bibliography of such works done by its members. Ten years on, where is it? 

There exist several disciplines for studying the past. We call the one that uses the material remains "archaeology" and it uses various techniques, ONE of which is numismatics, the source-study of a particular artefact. It cannot do that if oikish could-not-care-less collectors are swiping random bits of the evidence, and doing it in such a way that the basic data needed for a more holistic study are obliterated. Yes, we could work together, with a truly licit and transparent market, but no, we cannot while the dead-end oiks that want to destroy any chance of such collaboration are not pushed out onto the margin of the hobby.

Mr Kokotailo might like to consider (in the light of that) the implications of his statement that due to the manner in which they have arrived on the market,"probably in excess of 90% of coin types have never been found in an archaeological context", indeed without any information whatsoever (or only the very vaguest) of where they came from at all. He seems perfectly happy with such a situation, he imagines that heap-of-coin-on-a-table-numismatics can function perfectly well with coins that might as well have fallen from the sky, or emerged fresh from the vaults of the Bavarian coin elves. The rest of us might look at some of the recent achievemnents of applied numismatics and ask whether it could not have produced much better results if it was based on fuller and firmer evidence, such as 90% of the coins having a proper documented provenance.  Once again, I urge reading Walton's book to see what a difference provenance to a particular findspot makes to the ability to analyse the coinage itself.

Mr Kokotailo is wrong in suggesting that "If [Paul Barford] had is way, the study of ancient coins would not even exist today". If I had my way, the study of ancient coins would be a much stronger discipline with real standards and a firm and reliable database rather than based on a random hodge-podge of stuff floating around from goodness- knows-where and from goodness knows-whose-hands. Now, you work out for yourself whether that would be in the interests of collectors, and then work out for yourself why a group of dealers, like Mr Kokotailo seem dead against any efforts to clean up the market. 

The existence of the ACCG being a case in point. Who runs the ACCG, and for whom (really)?

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