Thursday, February 5, 2009

Better Late Than Never

Rick Witschonke has written an interesting article for the Winter 2008 edition of the ANS Magazine. It is entitled, "Better Late than Never, Newell Manuscript Finally Published." The article is currently available only in paper format, but should eventually be posted on the ANS website. See:

The article discusses the 75 year delay in publication of coins found in archaeological excavations at Beisan in Israel. The University of Pennsylvania sponsored the dig and in 1931 published an initial group of coins found in the 1921-1923 seasons. From this point on, coins accumulated and between 1931 and 1936, some 261 coins were sent in three distinct groups to Edward T. Newell, the President of the ANS, for attribution and cataloguing. Newell, an amazingly productive researcher, quickly produced typescript catalogues of these coins. These were in the hands of the University of Pennsylvania Museum when Newell passed away in 1941. Copies of the manuscripts were found in the ANS archives in 2007. Their rediscovery prompted the belated publication of Newell's research in cooperation with the University of Pennsylvania as part of the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the ANS.

This story highlights the reality that many coins found at archaeological digs never actually get published. Others only get published after long delays. True, some countries now require publication of archaeological finds within a reasonable time frame, but there is no universal rule and one wonders how strictly such rules that exist are enforced when it comes to artifacts as common as coins. Yet, some members of the archaeological community insist that restrictions on coin collectors are necessary to promote numismatic research.


Ed Snible said...

There was controversy a few months ago when some metal detectorists dug a hole in twilight and pulled out a huge hoard of coins. Although the coins were properly registered with the PAS some pundits were angry that a professional excavation wasn't done first. (Before archaeologists dig they create a grid. Every object's location within the grid is recorded. The detectorists didn't set up the grid and now we'll never know the X,Y,Z coordinates of individual coins.)

The outrage from the archaeological commentators led me to believe that it is now standard practice to leave the X,Y,Z coordinates of individual coins to posterity by publishing them. I asked Nathan Elkins if this truly happenes in practice -- what percent of coin coordinates really get published. I also asked how fine a grid is used.

Not only do coins not always get published when they are published the X,Y,Z coordinates are not there. (They might be in the archaeologist's logbook, but that doesn't get professionally archived.)

I work in computers. When businesses tell me they have lost important data because they didn't back it up I do not feel sorry for them. In 2009 everyone knows that if something is valuable it must be copied to an off-site backup.

No amount of outrage at the loss of X,Y,Z coordinate data from amateur diggers should distract us from the obvious. If there isn't an off-site backup of the X,Y,Z coordinates of every object then that information is not considered valuable by the archaeological community.

We are very lucky that an off-site backup (at the ANS) preserved the record of this important hoard allowing it to finally be published.

Bill Donovan said...

Peter, this blog is great!

Wayne G. Sayles said...


Our friend Rick Witschonke is right, "Better late than never." That view is trumped, however, by "Sooner rather than later." No serious commentator would argue against the well demonstrated fact that collectors are in some ways better stewards of the past than institutions. After all, Rick is himself a collector of ancient coins who (as such) has published history altering information about the Roman Imperatorial age. A well-worn platitude does not excuse academia's shortcomings (even if they are legitimate). Actually, the fact that the specific research in question was "finally" brought to light by a volunteer at a private archive and research institute supports the contention that stewardship is not the purview of academia alone.