Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ancient Coins and the Corruption of Youth?

Archaeo-blogger Paul Barford reports that fellow blogger Nathan Elkins has written a "peer reviewed" article entitled, "Treasure hunting 101 in America's classrooms" (2009, Journal of Field Archaeology 34 (4):482-9). That article is apparently an "expose" about the Ancient Coins for Education ("ACE") program to teach children about ancient Greece and Rome through the use of historical coins. See http://paul-barford.blogspot.com/2010/02/treasure-hunting-101-in-americas.html

For more about ACE, see http://ancientcoinsforeducation.org/

Elkins' article is not readily available to those not associated with the university culture for free and I don't want to spend any money to get it so I must confess I have not read his work.

Nevertheless, Mr. Barford evidently captures the spirit of Elkins' writing when he says,

The idea that one can be "educated" by collecting decontextualised artefacts potentially stolen from the archaeological record of another region really is a totally false argument.

There is thus some irony then in the fact that Mr. Elkins is currently studying such "decontextualized" coins himself as an employee of Yale University. See http://artgallery.yale.edu/pages/collection/permanent/pc_coins_over.html Indeed, Yale's collection contains a large number of unprovenanced coins of the sort normally available on the market, including those from a recent purchase. See http://www.yale.edu/opa/arc-ybc/v33.n2/story19.html ("The Yale University Art Gallery has acquired a collection of 4,100 coins from one of Europe's most renowned numismatic scholars, Peter R. Franke.
The collection, amassed by Franke over the course of a lifetime, includes coins from throughout the Mediterranean basin, with a principal focus on Greek coins of the Roman period."). Presumably, both Yale and Elkins believe these coins have some value outside of any "lost archaeological context."

In any event, I'm all for using ancient coins ("decontextualized" or not) to help teach our children about ancient history. In that regard, ACE is only doing in the classroom what museums themselves have started to do-- give the public and particularly children-- the opportunity for some "hands on" experience with common ancient artifacts, like ancient coins.

A few years back, I visited the British Museum "coin room" where a young museum employee was cruising the gallery with a cart containing ancient coins for the public to touch.

Perhaps Yale and even some less collector friendly institutions like the University of Pennsylvania can set up similar programs to give the public some direct contact with artifacts from the past. Understanding of ancient cultures needs to be encouraged in our society. Most ancient coins in University collections gather little but dust. Perhaps, now is the time to put at least some of the lesser specimens to work to engage our youth just as the volunteers at ACE have been doing for some six years-- and all without government handouts or large institutional grants.

13 comments:

Voz Earl said...

Barford's comment is, of course, absolute rubbish. You can learn quite alot from "a pile of decontextualized coins heaped up on a table" as he is so fond of calling them.

Cranky ex-pats aside, I think that ACE would do well to reconsider using unprovenanced uncleaned coins as their educational tool of choice. It inevitably opens the door for critics to question their motivatation and ethics and detracts from their purpose. They are performing a wonderful service, opening up the world of the past to kids and inspiring future historians and, yes, archaeologists. Perhaps a collection of provenanced coins for the kids to handle and inspect closely (but not to keep) would be the best way to accomplish their goal without supplying detractors reasonable grounds for objection.

Voz Earl

Cultural Property Observer said...

Voz- Thank you. ACE depends entirely on donations. If provenanced coins were donated, I'm sure they would use them, but of course, the vast majority of coins on the market are unprovenanced so they need to work with what they have.

Of course, to the extent source countries adopt laws like the UK Treasure Act, there should be more provenanced coins available.

I also see no reason why kids should not be allowed to keep coins, particularly if that will inspire them.

Best,

Peter Tompa

Nathan T. Elkins said...

Peter,

I'm sorry that you decided to launch a personal attack, especially since you have not even read the article in question. The "irony" you point to is a figment, especially since I neither stated nor implied in the text that decontextualized objects have "no educational value." Instead the thrust of article is, as Voz points out, the problematic way in which ACE sources material and the role it plays in the broader context of certain lobbying initiatives. Regarding your response to Voz, I would add that ACE makes purchases of bulk lots of coins in addition to soliciting donations (also discussed in the text).

As for the presumption that publication in academic journal makes it inaccessible, I would simply ask do not affiliated and independent scholars alike conduct research in libraries? Even if one wants to consult peer-reviewed numismatic journals, one usually has to go to research library unless you subscribe individually and have collected a long run of the periodical. This article is no less accessible than any other peer-reviewed work. In any case, I understand that if you did read the article you may not like its contents. But you have attacked me in an inappropriate way without having read it and properly assessed its contents.

All best,
Nathan

Cultural Property Observer said...

Nathan- I distinctly recall that your blog has suggested in the past that "decontextualized" coins are of limited value for study, but as I relied on Barford's take on your article for my statement, I am glad you now seem to disagree with him on that point.

I remain a bit unclear how the coins ACE uses are really all that different than at least some of the coins in Prof. Franke's collection other than the fact that that they are likely in overall lesser condition.

Speaking about lobbying, doesn't the AIA, SAFE etc. lobby? As far as I know, the extent of ACE's "lobbying" has been largely limited to oral and written statements at CPAC hearings. I'm also not sure what is wrong with that, particularly given your own efforts in that regard.

Finally, I did not say your work was inaccessible, but was merely not easily accessible and I did not care to pay for it.

The bottom line though is that I remain distrubed that you would attack an organization that uses ancient coins to teach children about history. Even if you do not like the sourcing of their ancient coins, is that really appropriate for what purports to be a serious academic journal? Ovrall, if you don't want negative comments about what you write, perhaps you should stick to less provocative topics.

Best,

Peter Tompa

Nathan T. Elkins said...

Peter,

I only take issue with negative comments about my writing when the critic has not even informed himself about what I actually wrote.

All best,
Nathan

Paul Barford said...

If provenanced coins were donated, I'm sure they would use them, but of course, the vast majority of coins on the market are unprovenanced so they need to work with what they have. Of course, to the extent source countries adopt laws like the UK Treasure Act, there should be more provenanced coins available. Voz is right. Has the ACE approached UK metal detectorists asking for help puutting together a suitable handling collection? I am confident that were they to do this, they would receive a positive reaction, try the UKDFD and UKDN for starters. Students could then be encouraged to look up the sites the coins come from in the Internet, and that would provide an added value to the experience.

>I relied on Barford's take on your article for my statement,<
How can you possibly polemise with something you have not read? My text was a commentary, not a summary. I hope you do not do the same with literature in your own legal field !

Cultural Property Observer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cultural Property Observer said...

Nathan and Mr. Barford- Come now. I did not read Nathan's article, but I did read Mr. Barford's commentary. I'm not sure what is wrong with commenting on that basis, when I was clear about that.

Nonetheless, I am glad Nathan has cleared up that Mr. Barford's purported take on his article is wrong- "decontextualized coins" do indeed have meaning. Perhaps, I may not have read Nathan's article, but evidently Mr. Barford has evidently misread and one aspect of it. Not the first time, either!

Paul Barford said...

Nowhere does my text contain the word "summary". My blog is where I comment on things I come across in exploring the murky world of portable antiquities. I would think if anyone wants to know what the article contained, they'd also get hold of a copy and read the thing.

To put the record straight, what I ACTUALLY wrote was not the statement you falsely attribute to me that decontextualised coins have no meaning, but "The idea that one can be "educated" by collecting decontextualised artefacts potentially stolen from the archaeological record of another region really is a totally false argument". So not only are you guilty of discussing Nathan's article without reading it, but my text too. If you are going to quote me, and then attempt to dismiss my arguments, at least get it right.

I explain why I am of the opinion that ancient coins are not suitable for education on their own in a post made this morning.

Since you are such a believer in ACE, have you taken your own coin collection along to show the kiddies in your local school and to let them put their sticky hands all over your silver ones? If so, I am sure readers of your blog would be pleased to read an account of your experiences, and also see some of the work the kids produced as a result.

Cultural Property Observer said...

You certainly implied in your commentary that the views in the Elkins article mirrored your own thoughts, so you are just playing word games. Are you now finally suggesting you did not read his article either before blogging about it? If so, that would be par for the course. At least I admitted I was relying on your take of it up front.

But this is a mere diversion. I think ACE is a good idea. I have not had the opportunity as yet to give a talk to school kids in that program, but have had kids attend lectures of our local ancient coin club at my own home where they have indeed been able to touch ancient coins.

As I mentioned previously, the bottom line is that I think it is inappropriate to attack a group such as ACE that tries to bring some interest of the ancient world to kids. Even if one doesn't like the sourcing of ACE's coins, in my opinion this is hardly the stuff suitable for what purports to be a serious academic journal. Obviously, put what you want in your own blog, but it does you no credit either.

Cultural Property Observer said...

PS After all I have read on your blog, are you now also admitting that "decontextualized coins" still carry useful information to be studied by scholars and others? If so, this is a minor breakthrough.

Paul Barford said...

Are you now finally suggesting you did not read his article either before blogging about it? I do not see how you arrived at that conclusion. Unless it is "not only are you guilty of discussing Nathan's article without reading it, but my text too". I suggest you read what I wrote again with understanding.

I read Nathan's text even before publication and got an offprint. Maybe if you ask him nicely (NICELY), you can get one too (free !!).

As you will be aware my thoughts about the ACE and other aspects of the coin trade run more or less along the same lines as Nathan's but my blog post was of course a reaction to his JFA text and not a summary of it.

You really are trying to make a meal of this - totally unneccessarily. Read Nathan's text Mr Tompa and THEN we can discuss its contents sensibly.

Cultural Property Observer said...

So we go around in circles yet again....

Barford writes a blog on Elkins' article, suggesting the two are in accord on ACE.

I write a blog critical of Elkins and Barford for attacking a non-profit that uses coins to teach kids.

I get attacked for not reading the article, but no one suggests that the article says anything other than what Barford intimated.

When in response I wonder if Barford actually read Elkins' article, he angrily states he did and that they are indeed in accord on ACE....

As I said, all of this is a mere diversion from the main point. Is such an attack on a non-profit that uses coins to teach kids appropriate for what purports to be a scholarly journal-- I didn't think so when I wrote this blog initially and I don't think so now.