Skip to main content

The intellectual consequences of collecting classical coins

There has been much discussion of classical coins following the announcement that the US would restrict the import of coins from Cyprus. In the ensuing discussion I have suggested some changes to the code of ethics for the ACCG which has generated some comment.

The focus has been on the "material consequences" of collecting classical coins: loss of contexts; destruction of archaeological stratigraphy.

But what about the "intellectual consequences"? I offer a number of examples (though this list is far from exhaustive).

1. Integrity of a group
Can we trust the composition of a hoard that surfaces on the market? Were all the coins said to be associated with it found at the same time and in the same context? What does this do for die-studies? Do we depend on the "word" of the finder / middle(wo)man / dealer?

2. Find-spot of coins
The finding of Greek coins in Egypt is significant. Does it reflect pay for mercenaries? Trade? But the information is only valuable if the find-spot is secure. "Said to have been found at Asyut" has a very different value to "excavated as part of a coin hoard at Asyut".

Or what about Ptolemaic coins in Hellenistic Corinth? Does it reflect interaction with the Ptolemaic garrison at Arsinoe in the Peloponnese? But what if the coins were only "said to have been found at Corinth"? Can this carry the same weight?

3. Topography and coins
The finding of coins in specific locations has been used since at least the time of Lt.-Col. William Leake for the identification of topographical names. The presence of the Ptolemaic issues on the Methana peninsula in Greece identified the location of the base attested as Arsinoe in the Peloponnese.

4. Distribution of coins
It has been noted by David Welsh that "The recent increase in interest in collecting ancient coins was primarily driven by two developments that began in the 1980s: widespread use of improved metal detectors as a recreational hobby, and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe". If large numbers of Roman coins are coming from Eastern Europe is that significant? Or by "Eastern Europe" is he meaning the Balkans? Are the coins coming from beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire? And if there are no recorded find-spots can we ever know? Has this information been lost for ever?

This debate is about so much more than destroyed archaeological contexts and the legal ownership of cultural property.


David Gill said…
Further to this now see Nathan Elkins' article, "Why coins matter. Trafficking in undocumented and illegally exported ancient coinsin the North American marketplace", on the SAFE website.

Popular posts from this blog

Codename: Ainsbrook

I have been watching (UK) Channel 4's Time Team this evening. The programme looked at an undisclosed field (under a potato crop) where a Viking burial had been found. The location in Yorkshire was so sensitive that it was given a codename: Ainsbrook. Here is the summary:
In late 2003 two metal detectorists were working in a field in Yorkshire. They found 'treasure' buried just beneath the surface – a collection of Viking material next to a body. Although they had been detecting on the site for a number of years, during which time they had made large numbers of finds, nothing they had uncovered previously compared with this. They decided to share their discovery with archaeologists.The programme explored the tension between metal-detectorists and the English Heritage sponsored archaeologists putting six trenches into the field based on a geo-physical survey. Finds made by the metal-detectorists did not easily map onto the archaeological features.

Part of the programme had an …

The scale of the returns to Italy

I have been busy working on an overview, "Returning Archaeological Objects to Italy". The scale of the returns to Italy from North American collections and galleries is staggering: in excess of 350 objects. This is clearly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the material that has surfaced on the market without a history that can be traced back to the period before 1970. 

I will provide more information in due course, but the researcher is a reminder that we need to take due diligence seriously when it comes to making acquisitions.

Stele returns to Greece

The Hellenic Ministry of Culture has announced (Saturday 8 September 2018) that a stele that had been due to be auctioned at Sotheby's in London in June 2017 has been returned to Greece (Friday 7 September 2018). The identification had been made by Cambridge-based forensic archaeologist Dr Christos Tsirogiannis.

It appeared that the stele had been supplied with a falsified history as its presence with Becchina until 1990 contradicted the published sale catalogue entry. It then moved into the hands of George Ortiz.

A year ago it was suggested that Sotheby's should contact the Greek authorities. Those negotiations appear to have concluded successfully.

The 4th century BC stele fragment, with the personal name, Hestiaios, will be displayed in the Epigraphic Museum in Athens. It appears to have come from a cemetery in Attica.