Friday, 29 May 2015

"The End of Ancient Coin Collecting as a Scientific Pursuit".

To continue the butterfly brain theme, instead of going through the weighty issues raised by the recent UN Resolution, the coineys seem this week to be distracting their readers having a go at both myself and Professor Nathan Elkins. Mr Welsh oddly and groundlessly implied yesterday my ignorance of UNESCO procedure, and Professor Nathan Elkins "must have something to hide" according to Peter "undisclosed Hungarian coin collection" Tompa.[*]

These ridiculous antics contrast with the efforts from within their own milieu to present US dug-up artefact collectors' coin fondling as some kind of "scientific pursuit". The argument goes that responsible (ethical) collecting will somehow bring an end to this kind of "science" and therefore to avoid this, coin fondlers and the dealers they buy from should be exempt from such concerns. Like they were in the Middle Ages. That is an idiotic argument. We are not in the Middle Ages, the rest of the world has moved on from there.

I have asked time and time again for some kind of a textbook defining the methodology of this heap-of-loose-coins-on-my-kitchen-table "science" in its 21st century form and nobody has come up with anything that does it. I cannot see how heaping decontextualised material, even if it has pictures and writing on it, and ordering it typologically and/or according to the pictures and tables in some pre-existing catalogue is any kind of "science". I also cannot see how the coiney spot-the-difference games with these things would in any way be compromised by them having to obtain the material they use as evidence in accordance with some kind of ethical or methodological standards as most other disciplines apply. Let us see the modern textbook which explains this in terms of today's market and how it affects our ability to study the past properly.

Dealer Dave however has a different view of what "science" is, and - nota bene - has published it on the Washington blog used for International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN) lobbying.  Let us examine what he wrote there.

First of all let us dismiss the moronic slur that anyone who calls for higher standards in, for example, medicine (plastic surgery for example) is de facto against medicine ("anti-plastic surgery") itself. Calling for higher standards to avoid undesirable consequences is only opposition to bad practice in something, not against the activity as a whole.  So we can dismiss as cheap and meaningless rhetoric Welsh's dismissal of advocating best practice as the work of "anticollecting archaeologists" and labelling those who call for responsible collecting of artefacts as a "claque" (a claque by the way which would have to contain the entire British Portable Antiquities Scheme and all the archaeologists that support it).

Since "provenance is not required by law", Dealer Dave Welsh does not see it as any kind of best practice to pay any attention to it or document it. Again this is disregarding what the pro-collecting archaeologists of the PAS and its supporters are saying, in the UK it is not required of artefact collectors by law either. Mr Welsh should take the issue up with them. Dealer Dave Welsh says it is a "very salient fact" that since the introduction of the 1970 UNESCO Convention defining illicit exports in accordance with the measures it postulates, the countries "bordering the Mediterranean Sea, and Middle Eastern nations such as Iran and Iraq, never (or almost never) issue export certificates for antiquities".  Yes, I would say that is a very salient fact in this discussion. We all know that the US does not fully implement the Convention, but still, in what way would freshly-surfaced coins be reaching the US licitly if the source countries are refusing to let such cultural property (which is their right) be legally exported since they instituted their antiquities/cultural property protection laws? Surely for freshly-surfaced coins to be shown to be licit, there would have to be documentation that they were exported and in a collection before a certain date.

Is buying smuggled coins best practice? Is buying 99.9% of the coins entering the market (see here) blindly, with no ability to check their collecting history best practice? Would it be considered even acceptable practice in any other "profession"? 

What is notable is the coin dealer's definition of what would be rendered "impossible" were coin collectors and dealers to be held henceforth (or henceforth hold themselves to) to the same measures of responsibility as US, UK and other museums apply to their acquisitions voluntarily. He says this would render "impractical": 
forming a comprehensive typological collection in any significant area of ancient coinage 
Further down he gives a somewhat different definition of the aim of the kind of collector he has in mind:
It would be virtually impossible to form a comprehensive thematic collection that would be important as a reference and study resource.
and this, he says, would "almost certainly mean the end of ancient coin collecting as a scientific pursuit".

But this brings us back again to what we (or self-interested coineys) think of as a scientific pursuit. His two statements above restrict numismatics to "typological ordering" and "thematic ordering" ("Camp Gate type B1 var" and "Roman coins showing deities").

I have worked closely with real professional numismatists here in Poland over the years and am aware that real professional numismatics studies a whole lot of other things, including making considerable use of context data. I do not think any real professional numismatist here in the University, Archaeological Museum or Academy of Sciences would recognize mere spot-the-difference typology or any kind of topic-related thematic collection with their show-and-tell associations as  a "scientific pursuit" or even a minor part of a more holistically conceived numismatics. Like much antiquity collecting it is just a variant form of stamp collecting. Still more those real professional numismatists for whom context data and spatial data are an important part of their research with numismatic material would not only not recognize the blind heritage-grabbing activities of these amateurs and shopkeepers as any kind of science, but they too see the knowledge theft implied in the constant decontextualisation of the resource needed for their own research as destructive. This is why many real professional numismatists support the Portable Antiquities Scheme and findspot-recording databases (both institutional and private) like it and understand their underlying purpose. That is why many real professional numismatists (like Professor Elkins) believe in upholding, enforcing and improving (as opposed to the amateurs' disregarding or trashing) the laws which are designed to protect the archaeological record from destruction by commercial exploitation, clandestine commercial deals and stipulate a duty to declare fresh discoveries so they can be properly studied.  

Anyway, despite complaining about the "tenor" of other comments to the blog,* the IAPN lobbyist has approved Mr Welsh's comment advocating continuance of documentation disregard and documentation discard justified by the need to preserve an imaginary "science". I think the IAPN need to take a good look at these underlying elements of the discussion. It is their attitudes to the amateurish arguments of the opponents of best practice that will define how "professional" IAPN "Professional numismatists" may considered to be. It is that which will differentiate them from could-not-care-less heritage-grabbing shopkeepers. Let us see if the IAPN can join the discussion of what "responsible collecting" really means or whether they are content to set their lobbyist snapping at the heels of those that raise an issue their members apparently shy away from discussing properly.   

[*] by the way it is a matter of record and easily checked what was the "tenor" of the comments I sent to his blog before he banned me. They were consistently polite and to the point - which is more than one can say about the comments by metal detectorists Howland, Stout, Dealer Dave  and the "Arthur Houghton III" sock-puppet which is mostly what the IAPN lobbyist's blog carries these days. 

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