Monday, 24 September 2007

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.

1 comment:

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.

A Sardinian boat-shaped lamp from an "old Austrian collection"

Sardinian boat-shaped lamp.  Left: Bonhams. Right: Becchina archive (courtesy of Christos Tsirogiannis) The sale of antiquities at Bonhams (...