Sunday, May 31, 2009

Paul Barford and the "Rape of History"

Never one for understatement, archaeologist Paul Barford has also blogged about UK coin finds, claiming that their sale constitutes a "rape of history." See:

While I agree that such coins should be properly recorded under the UK's VOLUNTARY PAS, let's be realistic about the worth of these coins for the study of British history.

First, from the descriptions provided all are likely very common coins of the Gallo-Roman Empire or later. The types are well known and thousands and thousands of similar examples already reside in museum collections across the UK and elsewhere (as well as in many private collections).

Second, from the encrusted and corroded look of them, it is likely that these coins are largely, if not mostly, groups of single surface or near-surface finds from disturbed contexts. As such, their value to archaeology is likely minimal, or even non-existent. Indeed, it would surprise me if such coins were recorded in any real detail when found at most archaeological sites.

If anything, such coins are so common that they have been ignored by scholars, who are more interested in "sexier areas" of Greek and Roman numismatics. Indeed, because he thought such coins were under appreciated, a collector friend of mine from the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington, D.C. even penned a book about such coins from the late Roman Empire. See: It seems to me that concrete effort to advance the study of numismatics is much more constructive than anything I have or will ever likely read on Mr. Barford's blog.

Given the number and length of his posts, Mr. Barford apparently has a lot of free time on his hands. Perhaps, if he truly thinks these coins are so significant, he could volunteer some of that time to help record, clean and identify by catalogue reference number some of the thousands upon thousands of similar coins found each year in the UK. Maybe, just maybe, a few weeks of weeding through piles and piles of virtually identical "AE 3's" and "AE 4's" might be just the thing to give Mr. Barford some much needed perspective.

Addendum: I asked Paul Barford to clarify this statement in his latest salvo: "'The study of "Numismatics' by itself is not really important in the broader scope of research on the human past ...." See: In this, Barford is demonstrably wrong. For example, much of our knowledge about Bactria is derived from the work of scholars who put together a chronology of the Kingdom based on the study of well-known coin types.

I also asked Nathan Elkins his thoughts on this point. See:

Their responses speak for themselves. I agree with Elkins that a multidisciplinary approach is useful for studying artifacts, but note his own course suggests that the iconography on coins can provide meaning without any reference to archaeology. See: Despite his stated respect for numismatists, it appears Barford's actual experience with coins is limited and that he indeed only values them as archaeological artifacts. Obviously, I disagree with his disdainful approach to the interest and contributions of anyone other than those with archaeological training.


Cultural Property Observer said...

For a discussion of the importance of numismatic evidence in reconstructing the chronology of the Kingdom of Bactria, see Frank L. Holt, "Thundering Zeus: The Making of Hellenistic Bactria," (University of California Press 1999).

Nathan Elkins said...

Dear Peter,

Regarding your mention of and link to my course, I would point out you are taking it a bit out of context.

Much of the course thus far has been historiographic discussion of the ways that iconography on Roman coinage has been interpreted to date. Our latest session, which you cite, was a discussion on reactions against the limited avenue of inquiry to the iconographic approach to c. the mid-twentieth century. This week we are discussing the contributions of "Art Historical Context", then "Numismatic Context, and three weeks from now "Archaeological Context." Even something as seemingly simple as numismatic iconography benefits from multidisciplinary approaches and all angles will reveal different sorts of information. I suggest waiting for our discussion on "archaeological contexts." There are some amazing contributions to the study of Roman coin iconography that have come to us by people studying coins from archaeological excavations and using find corpora. I've alluded to this before, but you'll see more soon in the discussions of the course as we progress.

Also, my methodological essay "Coins, Contexts, and an Iconographic Approach for the 21st Century" is pubished in H.-M. von Kaenel and F. Kemmers (eds.),Coins in Context I: New Approaches for the Interpretation of Coin Finds. SFMA 23 (Mainz, 2009), which should be available from the publisher any time now. It details the way which the "iconographic approach" has developed since the Renaissance and necessity of studying coin images from all perspectives: namely, numismatic, art historical, and archaeological.

All best,

Cultural Property Observer said...

Nathan- Thanks for your comments. I certainly agree with you numismatics is of importance to archaeology and vice versa. My only point is that coins retain meaning quite apart from the archaeological context in which they were found. Their iconography is certainly provides some of that meaning, and is probably more easily accessible and understandable to students than other aspects of coins like die studies, meterology or where particular coins were found in particular archaeological stratum at particular archaeological sites.

Best regards,

Peter Tompa