Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Controversial "Excavation" of a Coin Hoard

Paul Barford and David Gill have both commented on a news report (L. Hannam, "Treasure hunters set to coin it with Roman haul," MK News) about English metal detectorists who dug out a meter of soil to recover a large Roman coin hoard, which was associated with other ancient remains. To their credit, the detectorists did report the hoard - formally declared a treasure - to the responsible authorities.

Barford and Gill, however, both question whether or not situations like this are what the PAS was designed for. Many think of the PAS as recording primarily surface finds from ploughed fields, which were already "decontextualized" (in addition to the two original posts, see also Barford's "What would the PAS Say?"). The concern in this instance is the amount of earth removed to get to the coins and the fact that the hoard was not an isolated find. Important contextual information, which could provide greater insight into the circumstances surrounding the deposition of this hoard or conversely the associated remains have been destroyed.

Peter Tompa, a former president of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), has responded forcefully to Barford and Gill's respective concerns. While he is correct in that it seems the detectorists did what UK law requires of them, his attempts at assuaging ethical concerns from an archaeological perspective are inadequate.

For example, he stated that since the find was made on ploughed land, the context was already disturbed. This is an argumentative claim since it is impossible to know how far the ploughed topsoil affects the archaeological remains without a proper archaeological investigation. Since one meter of earth had to be removed to get at the coins, it would appear the plough might not have reached this depth as the coins would have been scattered and pulled out to the surface had this been the case (on the depth of ploughing, see also Barford's "The Washington Lawyer and the Metal Detectorists").

Mr. Tompa also claims that the broken vessel which contains the coins is an indication the plough broke the vessel. Again, this is another assumption. It may be a possibility, but it impossible to tell without the context (now lost). Coin hoards are frequently recovered in archaeological contexts in broken or damaged vessels - this can be an effect of the geology or weather or can be a result of other post-depositional processes in which something may have fallen on the container or the container itself fell, etc.

Mr. Tompa cites Roger Bland and the PAS in his response, as so many of the dealers and collectors at the ACCG often do. It appears, however, they frequently take his work and views out of context. In a review of Cuno's recent book, Bland reacted strongly against "US cultural imperialism" of the sort the ACCG subscribes to (see Gill's, "'An Example of US Cultural Imperialism at its Worst'").

The archaeological inaccuracies in Mr. Tompa's reply are perhaps natural since he is not an archaeologist but rather a collector and attorney. I am sure if I were to attempt to discuss legal issues in some detail I would make some errors as well.

The concern of archaeologists and many numismatists is that information and history is destroyed in the search for curios and/or profit. The value of context and the threat of the indiscriminate trade has been highlighted in my article "A Survey of the Material and Intellectual Consequences of Trading in Undocumented Ancient Coins..." Frankfurter elektronische Rundschau zur Altertumskunde 7, 2008, 1-13. A collection of 11 essays - 10 of them in English -discussing the value of archaeological and contextual methods in relation to coin finds from excavations, hoards, etc., is about to be made available: H.-M von Kaenel and F. Kemmers (eds.). 2008-forthcoming. Coins in Context I: New Approaches in Interpreting Coin Finds (provisional title). Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike 23 (Mainz: von Zabern). It is the goal of these essays to make developing contextual methods, which are already at the fore of research on numismatics and archaeology, more widely known and they build upon methods and theories that have been forming over the past few decades.

As Barford and Gill point out it is a false assertion made by some ancient coin dealers (which does not qualify them as being archaeologists) that most hoards are "isolated," i.e. found in the middle of nowhere with no associated remains and thus archaeologically "insignificant." In the above-mentioned article, I examined this assumption and pointed out that hoards can compose substantial percentages of all the coin finds recovered at archaeological sites. One of the largest hoards ever recovered (perhaps the largest), the Reka-Devnia Hoard, contained 350 kg of Roman silver coins and was found within a structure in the ancient city of Marcianopolis - not in an empty field devoid of associated remains.

While the finders of the controversial treasure acted legally and are to be commended for reporting the find as mandated by the law, we ought to consider the ethics of disturbing archaeologically significant sites in such a way as removing large amounts of earth and disassociating objects with their broader contexts (associated remains) and stratigraphy: these are the building blocks for writing histories for which we can only use material evidence (cf. Barford's forceful, but on point, "Give and Take of Obeying the Law"). Indeed, in most source countries this type of destruction is illegal, much to the chagrin of ancient coin and antiquities dealers who often trade in such material despite laws in source countries. There is a difference between picking up decontextualized surface finds and disturbing contexts deep in the earth.

(Image: A selection of coins from the hoard in question from L. Hannam, "Treasure hunters set to coin it with Roman haul," MK News)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Context Matters: AIA Classroom Excavations Video and Resources for Primary and Secondary Educators

One of the great things about being an archaeologist is sharing your passion with others. There are a multitude of ethical and creative ways to expose primary and secondary education students to archaeology. Archaeological professional organizations have made educational resource available to school teachers and had various cooperative partnerships with them for a very long time.

For some educational resources, see:

AIA Education and Outreach

ASOR Outreach Education

SAA's Education Page

SAA's Archaeology for the Public

The AIA has just released a video on its website detailing an exciting and creative excavation simulation for students. The video is shown below. Visit the pertinent page on the AIA website for more educational videos, links, and discussion.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Exhibition: Bunte Götter. Die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur. (Liebieghaus Skulptur Sammlung - Frankfurt)

Last night I attended the opening night reception for a new exhibition at the Liebieghaus Skulptur Museum in Frankfurt on "Bunte Götter. Die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur" (Gods in Color: Painted Sculpure of Classical Antiquity). I am fortunate to have a colleague who works with the museum and who was able to get invitations to the reception for some of us at the university; as a part-time guide for the museum, she was also kind enough to explain some of exhibits to us in detail.

The exhibition (from 8 October 2008 to 15 February 2009) highlights recent research on the painting and coloring of ancient sculptures, particularly marbles and terracottas. For the past few decades it has been widely understood in academic circles that temples, statues, and architectural terracottas were brightly painted, often using just a few bold and contrasting primary colors such as red, blue, and yellow. In recent years, various chemical and light tests have allowed researchers to reconstruct painted models of specific examples in great detail. The exhibition in Frankfurt contains both some of these reconstructed models and original pieces where traces of coloring remain. One of the most famous pieces in this exhibition in Frankfurt is the bust of Caligula from the NY Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. The bust itself has some faint remnants of paint on it, especially around the left eye where one can see remains of eyelashes that were painted onto in antiquity. The bust is accompanied by two painted models in the present exhibit .

This exhibition first opened in Munich in 2003 and then traveled later to Hamburg, the Sackler Museum at Harvard, and is now presently in Frankfurt. Each exhibit and model has not been moved to every location and so, for example, there are some things that were shown in Munich and Hamburg that are not being shown in Frankfurt. On the other hand, there has been some further research conducted since 2003 and some new models are on display.

I was tempted to purchase the lavishly illustrated exhibition catalogue for Frankfurt (€35,60), but decided against it after I realized the content of the catalogue varied from the one I have seen for the exhibition in Munich, which I remember had a good article on both the reconstruction of the Augustus of Prima Porta (not on exhibition in Frankfurt) and the Caligula bust. It appears each exhibition catalogue is tailored to each individual exhibition, though the Harvard catalogue and the Frankfurt catalogue seem rather similar. A catalogue was also produced for the exhibition in Hamburg; the Harvard exhibition catalogue is the only one to have been written in English, under the title Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture in Classical Antiquity. The Harvard exhibition catalogue is being sold by Liebieghaus Museum for the same price as the Frankfurt catalogue. It looks like anyone interested in obtaining the exhibition catalogues from either Munich or Hamburg will have to do some searching on the Internet.
If you come through Frankfurt before February 15, 2009, I highly recommend a visit to this stunning exhibition. It really jars that almost innate Victorian perception we have of ancient Greek and Roman cities wrought of pure gleaming white marble! If you cannot make it to the exhibition, the exhibition catalogues are great and I recommend picking one up. I have used the Munich catalogue from the University of Missouri library before as a teaching aid for my art history survey students, but I think I will begin searching for one of the Munich catalogues to purchase myself (simply because of the longer discussion of the Augustus of Prima Porta). Nevertheless, any of the catalogues would provide a great overview of research methods and detailed photographs of the reconstructions and originals.
(Photo: A painted reconstruction of the Caligula bust from NY Carlsberg Glyptotek on display at the Liebieghaus Skulptur Sammlung in Frankfurt. Image from

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

28,000 Coins from the Fitzwilliam Museum Now Online

Last week I received a notice via the American Numismatic Society Alumni/Friends of Numismatics email list that 28,000 more coins have been made available online from the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. To access the images, go to the Fitzwilliam's Coins and Medals page and then click on "Search for a Coin." This brings up a list of time periods and one can then click "view" to get a list of all coins that are available online from a certain period. However, someone wishing to do a more specific search can scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the "OPAC Coins & Medals collection search form."