Monday, July 20, 2015

ISIS Stash-- Some Additional Thoughts

Archaeo-blogger Sam Hardy has analyzed  what was found in Abu Sayyaf's stash, but in his rush to promote the group of coins and small antiquities as proof that "highly portable antiquities" are funding ISIS, he misses at least three important points.

First, Hardy makes much of the number of coins (236 by his count) in the group, but is that number really that surprising?  Other than pottery shards, coins are the most common artifacts to come down to us from antiquity.  So, the fact there are more coins than anything else in the group should not be deemed significant.

Second, the items in the hoard may be portable, but that does not necessarily make them valuable.  Indeed, assuming the coins are real-- not fake-- they still would still likely not be worth that much.  A quick Internet search suggests that common Islamic gold coins typically retail here in the US for $300-$600 depending on condition.  Common Islamic silver sells in the $30-$75 range and bronze even less. Of course, wholesale values, particularly in Syria, Turkey or  Lebanon, would likely be far less.   As for the antiquities, even if they are real, they certainly don't appear that valuable either.  So, what is the hoard worth?  CPO would make an educated guess somewhere around $40,000 (retail in the US), but even if it were double or triple that, these numbers still fall far short of what has been speculated and what is needed to fund an insurgency of ISIS' size and scope.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly what may be most interesting about the group is what's missing--there may be Islamic coins with their decorative legends praising Allah, but no Greek, Roman or Byzantine ones with their images of gods, goddesses and rulers.   So, where are they?  Of course this is just speculation, but perhaps ISIS' iconoclasm and the crucible found with the group provide a clue to an unfortunate fate.

Addendum (Tuesday, July 21):  Though little detail is provided, archaeo-blogger Paul Barford notes that the State Department is saying that the group did include some Byzantine and Roman Povincial bronze coins.  For whatever reason, no Greek, Roman or Byzantine precious metal coins appear to be in the group.  While the State Department also suggests that the material was found with metal detectors, it is more likely in CPO's opinion that it came from local collectors or museums.


Paul Barford said...

In the stash it is explicitly noted that there are bronze Roman provincial coins likely minted in Antioch-on-the-Orontes and Byzantine folloi. Several of the other items also clearly have figurative representations on them, like the ivory furniture plaque.

Cultural Property Observer said...

I''ll allow this comment as a correction to my post. Thank you for this clarification based on additional analysis of the photos and information from the State Department. I still think it's a bit odd though no precious metal coins from the Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods appear to be in the group. Their absence combined with the presence of a crucible does raise some interesting questions.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Looking further into the DOS list, the one thing I'm really not sure about is the value of the ivory plaque that was taken from a museum. Of course, the value of items stolen from a museum would be "0" on the legitimate market--I assume the value of a comparable undocumented piece would greatly depend on condition. It's hard to tell from the picture, but this one does not look to be in good condition.

Wayne G. Sayles said...

The last time I visited Antioch on the Orontes it was in Turkey, not Syria. Most coineys know that, but apparently they don't teach geography in Archaeology training. Any coins from Antioch belong to Turkey and according to archaeologists should be repatriated to them immediately. It's the Indiana Jones thing. What is that term they use? "Subject to export control"? How does the State Department know that the Syrian didn't buy some illicit coins from a farmer in Antakya? Does the nonsense ever stop?

Cultural Property Observer said...

Perhaps the confusion is that it was the capital of the Roman province of Syria, but as "coineys" know today it is Turkey, not Syria. Of course, that does not explain why it was "repatriated" to Iraq either.

Cultural Property Observer said...

CPO was asked to post this:

Our colleague Mr Barford has, on 20 July, helpfully posted a link to a gallery of photos of the Abu Sayyaf 'cache/stash' ( In it there is a wonderful coin described as being "a silver coin, possibly from the Parthian period." Possibly? It is, of course, a tetradrachm of Vologases VI, possibly dated to SE 520 = 208/209 (the date is not exactly readable in the photo). It was minted in Seleuceia, the city on the other side of the Tigris from Ctesiphon in modern Iraq. In the relatively awful condition this
coin is in it might sell for between $50 and $75 retail. What it's worth wholesale is whatever you would be foolish enough to pay for it.

Another thing, Mr B has crossly pointed out that Islamic gold coins can, of course, be from rare mints or be of rare dates (etc). Which is why they were carefully kept all in a big bag. Maybe I'm maligning them but I think that these ISIS guys wouldn't know a rare Islamic gold coin from a pork chop, and that the whole lot was there solely as a pile of gold.

Duncan Finch

John H said...

Ah Peter:

Now, in the latest thoughts of Chairman Barford, Abu Sayyaf has morphed into a detectorist! Hahahaha, oh stop, hahahahaha! Clutching at straws is what this undistinguished bloke does best!

Apart from claiming to be an archaeologist, which most people seriously doubt, he has a huge career waiting for him as a comedian. Brilliant stuff Barford, very amusing. Your talents, such as they are, are best suited much lower down the intellectual scale.


John Howland

Paul Barford said...

Responding to Mr Howland's "Chairman Barford" comments, I believe if one were to read the text to which he refers, and not just go by the title, my meaning is clear ( I am calling on "Cultural Property Observer" to explain how he thinks the finds seized by the US snatch team got into Mr Abu Sayyaf's house. The attorney can publish all the dismissively giggling name-calling metal detectorist comments he likes on his lobbyist's blog, but he still has not answered the question or addressed the points raised in response to his own.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Why then have that silly title on your blog post? I won't speculate how the material got into his house. I'll leave that to archaeo-bloggers and the spin meisters at ASOR and the DOS. But one is right to question it all, particularly because the ISIS bogeyman is being used to justify major changes in the law in Germany and the US.