Wednesday 28 August 2019

Chew Valley Hoard: Time for Some Trite Narrativisation to Claim "Relevance"

Telling the public stories
Archaeologists are not very good at explaining what they do, why they do it and how they are (they think) 'relevant', so they fall back on platitudes (Orsner) and trite narrativisation. The same goes for coineys. The Guardian report on the Chew Valley Hoard has two silly examples in the same text, and they want you to pay for 'serious journalism' (Mark Brown, 'Huge hoard of Norman coins reveals medieval tax scam' Wed 28 Aug 2019)

The first is this tax evasion trope.  
Gareth Williams, the museum’s curator of early medieval coinage, said the hoard of 2,528 coins was unusually large and “massively important” in shining light on the history of the period.
What he actually means is not actually the hoard and its 'grounded context', for it has none, but the loose coins - this is Dave Welsh/Wayne Sayles heap-of-coins-on-a-table numismatics. No more, no less. Since the coins were not properly recovered, we do not even know if this was one deposit or three. But to return to the loose coins:
Three of the coins have been identified as “mules”, a combination of two types of coin – essentially an early form of tax-dodging by the moneyer, the person who made them.
That's it. Ex cathedra pronouncement, tug yer forelocks plebs. To understand why, you'd have to go back to a British Numismatic journal article of 1929/30 (Brooke, George Cyril 1929/30, 'Quando moneta vertebatur: The Change of Coin Types in the Eleventh Century; Its Bearing on Mules and Overstrikes’, BNJ 20, 1929–30, 105–16 at 105–8). It is not clear what evidential weight can be placed on just three coins in a group of more than 2500 of them, and actually the behaviour of individual minters does not really mean as much in the debate the coiney thinks these little discs of metal with pictures and writing on them will resolve: One of the big debates amongst historians is the extent to which there was continuity or change, both in the years immediately after the conquest and across a longer period” change in what? I think there are a couple of dozen things that were more fundamental to understanding this period than how long John of Northwick (or whoever) carried on using a type VIId die in his workshop, or whether he used them only on Fridays when he knew the King's official would be dining with the Abbot.

The other one bit of narrativisation is related to Boris Johnson and Brexit in the news today as the PM prorogated Parliament
One of the most tantalising questions is why someone would bury so much money. Williams said the south-west of England was a violent place in the aftermath of 1066, with raids by the Welsh and the return of Harold’s sons from Ireland. “Imagine a period of instability with someone in charge of the country that not everybody actively supports and uncertainty in terms of the relationship with the continent,” he said. “It is the sort of circumstances in which anyone might choose to bury their money.”
if anyone sees Mr Williams striding across the BM forecourt with a spade in one hand and a big canvas bag in the other, you'll know what he's doing. Mind the cables. But don't treat us all as idiots. 

Reference:  Charles E. Orser, Jr., 'Negotiating our 'familiar' pasts', pp 273-85 [in:] Sarah Tarlow and Susie West (eds) 1999, The familiar past? : archaeologies of later historical Britain', London ; New York : Routledge.


angelo di ragusa said...

A cursory glance would tell you if this was one deposit as the coins would be in a similar conservation in terms of circulation in such a tight period of 1065-1068 or so. The find spot also will tell us a lot as in was the field ever ploughed, or not.
The discipline of numismatics means that one is able to take a huge amount of information from such a hoard and make concrete conclusions. The denial of science I find somewhat bewildering.

Paul Barford said...

I think, Mr di Ragusa, that it is you that needs to take more than a "cursory glance". You have not really understood what the texts here are saying about this group of artefacts and the manner of their extraction from the archaeological context.

You suggest that the "look" of the loose coins will tell you "if this was one deposit as the coins would be in a similar conservation in terms of circulation in such a tight period of 1065-1068 or so". First of all, you miss my point. It is one thing if the coins were deposited in one go (what you suggest the "look" of the coins will "tell" you - it will not, coins cannot speak) and a totally different thing if they were three separate batches collected and deposited a few years from each other.

Secondly, I do not know where you get that date from. The reports we have so far give no indication that there are coins there of "1065" (the end of the reign of Edward the Confessor) and the photos show very clearly that the bulk of the coins being shown have obverses of Brooke Type VII (right-facing profile) and there are reverses that are a variant of those on Brooke Type I coins. That means (by current chronology) that you have coins there minted in the 1060s, yes, but the bulk of the ones were were shown are from the end of William's reign, the 1080s - and in the video (if you were paying attention) the lady reads out one of the reverses as "pax", but it's not clear if that was a Harold PAX, or the William one minted just before he died. So no, there are coins in that hoard minted at different times over twenty years. So, I ask again, was it one deposit or several deposited in the same place at intervals? This is why accurate recording is crucial, even for numismatics.

>The find spot also will tell us a lot as in was the field ever ploughed<
Really? Really, you read what I wrote and that's all that comes into your head? Again, this comes down to proper documentation of the find, doesn't it? And THAT is what we do not have - which is the whole point of what I am writing, I wonder: why do you have a problem grasping this?

Paul Barford said...

>The discipline of numismatics<
Oh, please... Another one, reference to the textbook please. Its nothing of the kind. There is nothing "disciplined" in "looks like" comparisons like a "spot the difference" competition in a comic. You say the hoard "looks like" we can assume (in other words GUESS) it was deposited as a single act. That's not disciplined reasoning based on grounded fact, its guesswork, nothing less. A true discipline would reject a find like this as any usable source on which to base any reasoning - precisely for want of any kind of grounding information. The fact that numismatic "research" not only does not automatically reject it as evidence, but is to some (a large?) extent based on a load of 'finds' like that, with only hearsay information about the context of deposition and context of discovery, tells me there is noting "disciplined" in the chain of reasoning (and questioning) there. That's not science, because science begins with source-criticism, are the data input fully reliable? Here they are not, it's (been reduced by the finders to) a heap of coins on a table.

>one is able to take a huge amount of information from such a hoard and make concrete conclusions.<
Well, we will see what they make of it when it is fully published. Next year? Ten years' time? Never? How "concrete" can conclusions go further than "we have a coin here, with these pictures [...] and those [...] inscriptions and we know that the records tell us that in 1066 one king was killed in battle and this other bloke too over"? This is not "science", it is text-based scissors and past history. Nothing else. The possibilities of doing anything else, any social interpretation,. have been destroyed forever by the actions of the five finders. That you cannot see that, coming on to an archaeological blog, is what I find bewildering.

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