Friday 29 August 2014

Focus on Artefact Hunting: Coin "Rescued" from What?

"Well saved!" goes the tekkie sign of approval: "well saved M8". This refers to the myth that being in the topsoil somehow is sudden death for any artefact. The story goes that by hoiking finds like this out of the archaeological record and into their pockets, artefact hunters engaged in collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record (called looters in other countries) are "saving history". No, what they are doing is taking artefacts from the archaeological record, that is not the same thing at all. It's like "saving ivory" by shooting the elephant.

A few days ago we had some tekkie sock puppet (K.P. Volkswagen)  trying to tell us that nitrates and plough damage were destroying the archaeological evidence contained in the topsoil, so we should be happy that artefact hunters are putting some of them in their pockets. I answered that here.

Now the PAS is jubilating that one of their "partners" has found a gold coin of Magnentius ("one of only eight found - hooray!"). Disregarding the sheer dumbdown of such artefact (and gold) centred heritage hoorayism, let's have a look at that coin: IOW-923F8F

Well first of all Philippa Walton has already pointed out that there is a lot of strange stuff (Roman-coin-wise) coming out of the Isle of Wight. She thinks that's fantastic, I reckon it's suspicious. The findspot of this one is "to be known as: Isle of Wight" (an island the size of a large cricket pitch, isn't it, so it does not matter that the findspot is so vague, does it Bloomsbury?). Searching the database brings us no nearer to working out what other finds were recorded by Mr Basford which had been found in "Isle of Wight" on the same Sunday 3rd August, so zero information what else might have been found on that site, just a loose gold coin from "somewhere on the IOW". Whoopee. 

But look at the state of it! Battered and chipped, scraped and eroded, nicked and nibbled, bent and twisted. Late Roman gold is pretty pure (96-97% at this period if my memory serves me right), so its really, really soft. So its no wonder that this coin which has been in the IOW topsoil perhaps since it was dropped in the 350s looks so completely knackered. Another winter's ploughing and the whole thing would no doubt (NO doubt, eh, Mr Volkswagen?) have disappeared....

Well, actually not quite. This coin could well have been rolling around in the ploughsoil for centuries with nothing more than the scratch under the nose. Or it might have been dug up by yon (unnamed) artefact hunter from below plough level, straight out of undisturbed archaeological layers below plough level. In neither case has it been "saved". Who is to say which of these alternatives is applicable? Certainly the FLO does not record anything like that. Indeed, the FLO does not seem all that interested in the artefact and what it tells us, though he notes it is "one of eight" and "RIC VIII, p. 155, cf. 247". But that is just typology, its what makes it the same as all the rest. So what's the flat edge about? That's not plough damage. The coin has been deliberately modified. Look aroung the flat edge, you can see it has been hammered. Does the FLO mention that? Nope. He weighs it, finds what RIC number it is, did not bother to mention that damage.

Then there's something odd about the edge of the obverse, behind the head. The PAS record here mitigates the loss of information from artefact hunting (because the hoiker has hoiked and taken it away and now has it in his pocketses, if not put onto eBay or passed it on to that nice coin man who advertises in "The Searcher"). That is why the PAS record is full of details about the odd relief seen in the photo. The description is a model of clarity and best practice in archaeological recording [ironic text OFF]. 

Actually the "description" (I use the term loosely) as it stands has not a word on what the photo shows - or rather does not show very well. Is that gold solder on the surface? is it some kind of corrosion product which has come out gold colour in Mr Basford's photos?  What lighting was used here? Or is this a case of damaged dies being used, with a later 'nick' on top? It is difficult to say, and it is precisely because it is difficult to say that the FLO should have put something in his description. 

Now this is Mr Basford, one of the PAS's greatest assets, been at it a long time, has a superb relationship with his "partners", is often the FLO that journalists are directed to by the BM press office. This is not one of the 500 mysterious volunteer karaoke recorders, this is an old hand who has a lot of experience in looking at coins.  

I am sure the reason for the omission to give an exhaustive description of the find which has already vanished from view into some ephemeral personal collection is that the FLO is very busy. They all are. They want to get that millionth object recorded and FLOs are working flat out to boost the database statistics. But what point is half a record? What is the point of 'preservation by record' if the records don't give important pieces of information in those records? On looking at the fuzzy photos I am led to suspect that we have here some kind of traces of metalworking activity, somebody has bashed that coin with a hammer and it is possible to suggest that those cruddy traces are the result of failed soldering or maybe even melting. Were any other metalworking traces found on this site? Is the site Late Roman, or is this a case of a gold coin being reused for sixth or seventh century jewellery? In the latter case, this would not be a dot on the "Roman Isle of Wight" dot distribution map, but the Early Medieval one. But basically, the FLO's record of this find reduces all of that to pure speculation for lack of any useful information. All the public knows is that a tekkie hoiked and kept one of eight coins of Magnentius from a site somewhere on the Isle of Wight which we are not being told about.

What does that photo show?

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