Friday, March 29, 2013

Archaeological Context: Is it About Preservation or Control?

Archaeo-Blogger Rick St. Hilaire somehow believes that I have discounted the importance of archaeological context, but all I have said is that coin collectors derive their own context from the iconography and fabric of the coins themselves and that the goal of preservation of archaeological context—however worthy-- should not be allowed to control all else.  Perhaps, then, he should not take such statements about context out of context!

St. Hilaire then seems to discount the value of numismatic context, though his fellow archaeo-blogger Nathan Elkins organized an entire conference on the subject.  Perhaps, coins do indeed tell us something without reference to where they are found.

Finally, though suggesting that a good lawyer looks at all the evidence, St. Hilaire somehow apparently missed the ANS article appended to the Chasing Aphrodite interview.  In it I explained that perhaps archaeological practice may be different than archaeological rhetoric when it comes to issues of context.  I state:

Frankly, I might feel a bit better about all this if I had evidence that the archaeological community as a whole makes every effort to not only record the coins they find but to publish them.   Both are critical to the preservation of numismatic knowledge.  Even if a coin is recorded in an excavation notebook, it does little good if it is never published, and, if the notebook or computer data file is not backed up in some way, the information about its provenance could easily be lost.  That, of course, would render the coin for all practical purposes, “an orphan” of the sort members of the archaeological community roundly condemn—at least when held in a collector’s trays.  

This is not a hypothetical concern.    Indeed, a recent study prepared at the behest of the numismatic trade for the use of the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee concluded,
  • The publication record for coins found in Italian excavations is poor.
  • What has been published is thanks to a few dedicated individuals, not to the encouragement of the archaeological community.
  • Without publication it is almost impossible to know what has been found and what has become of the material.
Let me give just one concrete example.  Some 60,000 - 70,000 ancient coins from excavations at the City of Rome, which were recovered by archaeologists during the 19th century, still await publication in Frankfurt.  One would have thought coins excavated in Roman contexts would be of utmost importance, but the fact that they are still awaiting publication after over a century speaks volumes.  

All this raises a larger question.  Is all the talk about protecting archaeological context for real or is it actually about justifying further controls?

1 comment:

Wayne G. Sayles said...


Your final sentence says it all. This constant distortion, vilification and attempted humiliation of an entire class of people is all about control. As it always is. Instead of "Let them eat cake," the modern quip seems to be "Let them collect jelly beans."