Tuesday, 25 September 2007

"The archaeological community's obsession with context"

I do not comprehend how somebody can write this statement:
"The archaeological community's obsession with context puzzles numismatists"

Who are the authors?

The statement is written by two lawyers:

a. Peter K. Tompa
Tompa "is a partner in Dillingham & Murphy LLP in Washington, D.C., focusing on cultural property as well as environmental insurance matters. ... He is a fellow and trustee of the American Numismatic Society, a board member [now president] of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, a life member of the American Numismatic Association, and a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washnigton, D.C."
Tompa's legal website describes among his activities:
"Cultural Property Lobbying and Advice - conducts lobbying activities before U.S. Congress and Executive Branch Agencies regarding issues related to import restrictions on cultural artifacts, and advises clients on legal issues related to the trade in such items."

b. Ann M. Brose

Brose "is an associate in the Intellectual Property Department at McDermott, Will, and Emery, Washington, D.C. Ms. Brose worked in the Rights and Reproductions departments for both the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum."

What are the assertions?

Tompa and Brose assert that "the archaeological establishment" - not defined - "is not sympathetic" to collecting and "advocates restrictions on the collection of all ancient artifacts, including items as common as coins".

There are no supporting references for this sweeping and generalised statement.

The Tompa and Brose fallacy

Tompa and Brose comment:
"Numismatists believe that all coins carry useful information about the political, military and economic situation at the time they were issued. Indeed, numismatists derive their own context from the study of design devices used on coins, the number and chronology of dies used to strike given series, and the metallurgical content of various issues. For that reason, numismatists categorically reject the claim that coins lose value as historical objects if the circumstances of their discovery are not preserved."
The issue of defining a "numismatist" has been discussed elsewhere.

Tompa and Brose use the same language as George Ortiz in defence of his private collection of antiquities displayed at the Royal Academy in London. (The collection is discussed in detail in the American Journal of Archaeology). Ortiz also suggested that careful scholarship can restore the context to objects.

Such views are misleading and wrong-headed. They ignore the intellectual consequences of looting. Tompa and Brose fail to address this issue for classical coins.

The aims of Tompa and Brose

There was a sub-text to their research. In the conclusion to their paper they state:
"Coins are different from many other ancient artifacts. To date, such differences have helped convince the US government to decline to impose import restrictions on ancient coins based on separate requests from the Republic of Cyprus and from Italy."
Their tactics failed to convince the US government. Restrictions on coins from Cyprus have been imposed.

Tompa, P. K., and A. M. Brose. 2005. "A modern challenge to an age-old pursuit. Can cultural patrimony claims and coin collecting coexist?" In Who owns the past? Cultural policy, cultural property, and the law, edited by K. Fitz Gibbon, pp. 205-16. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press / American Council for Cultural Policy.


Nathan Elkins said...

"The archaeological community's obsession with context puzzles numismatists".

This is, indeed, a curious statement. Context is paramount to the archaeologists and the study of material culture. Such a statement would, in my view, be equal to stating "an astronomer's obsession with the stars is puzzling."

The purpose of this article was to differentiate coins from other ancient objects and advocate little need for legal measures to protect ancient coins. This, however, relies on making the dubious claim that ancient coins are not 'archaeological objects,' when it is clear that they are very informative about ancient society in many ways when they come from excavated contexts and also that, perhaps just behind pot sherds, they are some of the most abundant finds from a typical classical archaeological site.

Peter Tompa said...

David- I am a bit mystified by your apparent "shock" about one sentence in an eleven page article. Surely, you have read the rest of the article and my much more recent posts on the SAFE web site and the MSN list serve in response to Nathan Elkins' many posts. There, I have made clear that preserving context is desireable, but that is different than being "obsessive" about it.

Certainly your own blog exemplifies such an unhealthy obsession. The problem with this view is that you and a number of members of the archaeological community don't seem to realize or much care that there are other legitimate interests out there beyond "preservation of context." I for one strongly believe that these include basic fairness to the small businesses of the numismatic trade and coin collectors who are facing efforts to impose upon them an unfair and unworkable burden of proof with respect to the coins they hold--all in the name of "preserving context."

I am also puzzled why you apparently disagree with my assesement that the "archaeological establishment is not sympathetic to such pursuits" [as ancient coin collecting] and that it "advocates restrictions on the collection of all ancient artifacts, including items as common as coins."

The fact is that the AIA and its "sister organization" SAFE have time and again advocated such restrictions on coins and other artifacts.

Apparently, you also discount the work of numismatists (both of the academic and avocational sort)-- this though the vast majority of what is written about coins relates to the "political, military and economic situation at the time they were issued" through the study of "design devices used on coins, the number and chronology of dies used to strike given series, and the metallurgical content of various issues." In contrast, the number of works focusing on archaeology and coins appears to be relatively small. For example, if memory serves, the number of titles touching on archaeology and coins of Cyprus represents less than 10% of the total number of titles related to Cyprus in the library of the American Numismatic Society-- one of the most comprehensive in the world.

What is needed are workable solutions that seek to preserve context where possible, but also take into account the interests of museums, collectors, small businesses that sell coins and numismatic scholars. Blogging may help elucidate one's views on such issues, but nothing is better thana actually talking. As I mentioned in a post on the SAFE site, perhaps SAFE, ACCG, AIA and ANS can organize a discussion of such issues.

Finally, before you tout the US Government's decision to reverse course and impose import restrictions on coins at the behest of Cyprus, we really need to find out how that decision was made. Speaking as a participant in the process, I fear political pressure from the Nationalistic Greek Cypriot Government (perhaps stoked in part in house at the State Department) may have both trumped CPAC's recommendations and common sense. After all, why would CPAC change its prior recommendation when there has been NO change in the underlying facts.

As an academic, I'm sure you would agree that an assessment of the facts by a body of experts should normally control over diplomatic expediency.


Peter Tompa

David Gill said...


You claim that I have "an unhealthy obsession" with context - I disagree with you. It is stressed on my blog because archaeological context matters.

You also say that I "discount the work of numismatists". This is untrue. I have conducted collaborative research with numismatists - an indication that I value their work.

For now see "An obsession with context".

With best wishes


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