Friday, August 16, 2013

Snobbery Behind Anti-Collector Rhetoric?

After reading archaeo-blogger Paul Barford's latest screed against numismatics, CPO has to wonder if the anti-collector bias of some archaeologists is motivated largely by academic snobbery.  But in an era where popular culture cares more about the Kardashians than the classics, we should celebrate pastimes like ancient coin collecting and not dismiss it out of hand.  Coin dealers like Italo Vecchi and collectors like Arthur Houghton have spent years producing magnificent studies of ancient coins that help keep the cultures that produced them alive.  And really, what's wrong with that?


Cultural Property Observer said...

Arthur Houghton suggested I post this comment:

"Peter, I can't imaging why you'd even want to mention the Polish Musket at all. As an academic I know has said, "he's really something of a blowhard ignoramus, doesn't know much about archaeology, and shows it all the time. He's never done much in his own field, and I guess he's trying to compensate for failure."

There is something to this. His anti-numismatist screed is an example. He rails and whines against collecting and collections, and the use of unprovenanced, out-of-context material -- and willfully ignores the fact that every professional academic numismatist worth their salt has worked with collectors and collections that include coins and related objects that are often fresh out of the ground. But does the Polish Musket care? Evidently not. But it's a bit sad that respected people in his own field care so little about him and what he says. So, my advice is to ignore him.

Warm good wishes,


Cultural Property Observer said...

Arthur Houghton asked me to post this too:

"Peter, I have an interesting take on the Polish Popgun, from the same archaeologist I spoke to before I wrote my last note.

'What do you think he's really done?' my friend asked. 'Take a look at Then tell me what it says he's done. Then ask yourself if you can now understand what a sense of failure can do to people.'

Well, Peter, I decided not to look at the scholar's website. It seemed so much like a waste of time. But you and other readers of your blog may want to. It's probably pretty informative.

Warm regards,


Voz Earl said...

Well I can vouch first hand that snobbery as a character flaw is more common in academia than among the general populace, but in my experience it is the hallmark of poor academics who have nothing of value to contribute. I do not say this in order to take a pot shot at Barford, but simply to make the observation that people with undue trust in the opinions circulating within the echo chamber of their own discipline tend to discount anyone who is not part of their clique, any ideas or sources of information that are not sanctioned or derived in accordance with their approved methodologies. They arbitrarily dismiss entire worlds of data, blind themselves to countless possibilities, stay confined within the same little box in which they have eagerly imprisoned themselves and from whence they are rarely if ever able to contribute any breakthroughs in their field. Recognizing the arbitrary and artificial nature of self-imposed boundaries, the academic worth his salt is willing to question the received wisdom and to take an interdisciplinary approach. Yet with the announcement of any interdisciplinary project you will always hear from the snobs, the purists who can't wait to trash that which doesn't conform, that which is outside the box, that which they usually know nothing about, but are 100% sure is of no value. Mark down the names of these tongue-waggers and you will have a list of useless scholars who will never contribute anything but mediocrity and the utterly forgettable.

All of the above I write in relation to the question of snobbery in academia, but I would now like to respond to Barford's call for the "METHODOLOGY of this discipline." Of what value is the methodology or methodologies employed in archaeology? What results have been obtained by these, what breakthroughs achieved? Having taken classes with numerous archaeologists over the past several years including three who were dig directors at the time, I am now of the opinion that archaeology is not a science at all. Archaeological digs yield certain assemblages of material objects in context. What any of this data means is open to wildly varying interpretation as one can clearly see from reading the publications of the archaeologists themselves. While I have the utmost respect for all of the archaeologists with whom I have studied, and value them both as people and erudite scholars, I find the discipline of archaeology itself to be of very limited value in telling us anything concrete about the past. Archaeological data is a useful tool at the historian's disposal in conjunction with documentary evidence (like coins, papyri, inscriptions) and ancient narrative accounts. By itself, however, a material assemblage in context tells you almost nothing and is open to almost any interpretation one can dream up. When dealing with prehistoric periods where the only evidence is a material assemblage and its context, the "science" of archaeology is less akin to the science of...well, SCIENCE than it is to the "science" employed by L. Ron Hubbard in crafting DIANETICS or Joseph Smith in creating the BOOK OF MORMON. The consensus among my fellow graduate students was that one could make up just about any story one wished and as long as it accounted for the material assemblage it was no more or less likely to be the truth than any other story including all of those published in the flatly contradictory and wildly varying interpretations of nearly every specialist in the field.

Paul Barford said...

So, Voz with those attitudes, what future do you see for an interdisciplinary project between numismatics and archaeology? Is it a real proposition? What about historiography? All three have methodologies, is it just the archaeological one that is, according to what you learnt from those unnamed professors, crap?

On what basis could you have interdisciplinary collaboration without a clearly-defined methodological basis within and on which all participants function comfortably?

So if an archaeologist comes to somebody with a cabinet full of hundreds of unprovenanced Etruscan coins and his mountain of books on coin typology, what kind of interdisciplinary project could they do together and on what basis? And what would be the nature of this INTERdisciplinarity?

Voz Earl said...

Okay, Paul, first of all I would not call the methodology of archaeology "crap", I am making a point about the value of the data it provides. Not to say that it is unimportant, only that it is not nearly as important as many seem to believe. As I alluded to previously, we have reams of this data and where does it get us in the absence of contemporary documents or ancient narrative? Pretty much nowhere, as a review of the literature would suggest to me.

I'm glad you asked about the other disciplines, because it leads straight into one of my broken-record rants. As an undergrad, I used to say that 50% of secondary scholarship in Classical Studies was not worth the paper it was printed on. As a grad student, the longer I have been exposed to modern scholarship, the higher that percentage has climbed. Frankly, I consider 90% of modern scholarship to be nothing but useless resume fodder. It tells us nothing about the ancient world or ancient thought and everything about how clever the author thinks he or she is. Hence, most of the same criticisms I have of archaeology as a discipline are equally applicable to all the related disciplines, including numismatics. Numismatics is not a science, nor is historiography, nor any of the rest of it. These are all firmly within the realm of the humanities.

My point about interdisciplinary projects was in response to the question of academic snobbery--the original topic of this blog discussion. I had a specific case in mind. One such project was recently slammed in the comments section of an online article about the project. The scholar's attitude was so unabashedly dismissive and snobbish that I actually thought he was joking at first. The funny thing is that the research tools which the project has already produced are extremely valuable to people working in a particular subfield, almost indispensable in fact. In my opinion it is one of the few projects related to Classical Studies that is actually worth the time and money invested in it--every last penny and then some.

To answer your final question, one of the archaeologists with whom I have studied has a colleague working the same site who has offered some ideas (in publication I believe) on the interpretation of the iconography of some of the local coinage. My recollection is that the response to his suggestions has been less than enthusiastic. Now, having lurked in forums like Moneta-L for over a decade, I am quite sure that there are private collectors who specialize in that area who could probably offer some additional insight to support or nix his theories. There must be countless instances in which serious private collectors have gleaned some knowledge that has either escaped professional academics or has never been published in a form readily available to a scholar who is unfamiliar with coinage. I am not a numismatist, never have claimed to be. Yet even the casual familiarity I've acquired through collecting is more than most of my professors have, as they will readily admit. So if they are researching a particular topic in which it would be helpful to know as much about the coinage as possible, why would they not benefit from consulting an especially knowledgeable private collector, in addition to whatever other resources they may have at their disposal? I had opportunity during the past year to peruse several articles and books authored by Kevin Butcher, an excellent scholar in my opinion, and I seem to recall in one of his books on Syria a discussion of his visit to see some coins of interest in a private collection. Hence, I suspect such collaboration is in fact happening and has been all along, whether publicized or not