I recently read Nathan Elkins’ paper “Why Coins Matter: Trafficking in Undocumented and Illegally Exported Ancient Coins” and have been following the discussion it evoked on several websites and blogs ever since. As an archaeologist and numismatist, involved in research and teaching at a Dutch university, with no affiliations either to any coin collectors organization nor any lobby group in the USA, I felt the need to contribute to the ongoing discussion in what I hope is a positive way.
Let me first state that while reading Elkins’ paper I was constantly nodding to myself and uttering approval under my breath. I could not agree more with the conclusions of his paper. Given several reactions to his paper, there is no general consensus in this however.
Having been trained as an archaeologist (MA in Roman archaeology), but specializing afterwards in numismatics (PhD in Roman numismatics), I would like to confirm and enhance several of Elkins’ arguments regarding the problem of undocumented coins entering the commercial market, and thereby hopefully clarifying matters for those persons who are not familiar with todays practices in archaeology in Europe.
Elkins emphasizes the importance of contexts for the study of ancient coins (where was a coin found, in which stratigraphical layers, in association with which other artefacts, etc.?), information clearly irrevocably lost when a coin is illegally dug up and then sold on the market. A counterargument by his opponents is that in the past nobody ever bothered about context and still numismatics as a discipline has made great progress. Furthermore, they continue, ancient coins being so numerous and often of low value, what is the added value of contexts for any ancient coin? Yes, it is true that in the past little attention was paid to context of archaeological finds (including coins), and, equally true, very important research on coins has been done without ever knowing the contexts from which they came. However, numismatics and archaeology, like any other scholarly discipline, are a dynamic field of study. Over the last decade or two there has been a growing awareness that coins are an integral part of the archaeological record and should be studied as such. Research questions never thought of before, or thought inanswerable, now prove to be persuable thanks to this approach. And although the majority of ancient coins has not a substantial financial value on the commercial market, each and every coin found in a context and properly recorded has a scientific value.
To give just one example from my own studies: quadrantes are the smallest roman bronze denomination, of small size, plain copper and usually without any exiting iconography. An excavation in a roman legionary fortress in The Netherlands yielded over 300 of those coins (not as a hoard but as single finds), all of exactly the same type. A careful study of the associated finds showed that the quadrantes had arrived at the fortress en block, shortly after their time of minting in Rome. In this way it was possible to reconstruct a special consignments of coins to a legion posted in frontier province, at the same time revealing a need for and use of the smallest denominations possible, a clear indication of a monetized economy (F. Kemmers, 2003: Quadrantes from Nijmegen. Small change in a frontier province. Schweizerische Numismatische Rundschau 82, 17-35). Conclusions and insights that would have never been achieved had the coins been illegally dug up and sold seperately.
It seems to be a blessing in disguise that ancient coins are such popular items and well liked by the larger public. Although this makes it usually rather easy to find a platform for sharing the newest insights, and always provides great pictures for lay-publications, it also causes the large scale looting of sites for exactly these same coins. No one I know is particularly interested in, or has started the collecting (regardless of the source) of bits and pieces of animal bones. An even more common phenomenon on archaeological sites and of undisputed value in archaeological research.
Archaeology and numismatics are not two mutually exclusives disciplines, far from it. In close cooperation the best results are obtained. It can not be denied, unfortunately, that in the past archaeologists have not been very swift in publishing coin finds from their excavations, if at all. This does not apply to coins alone, numerous categories of finds still await further study and publications. In Europe things are changing however. Due to the ratification of the treaty of Valetta, concerning the preservation of cultural heritage, by almost all European Union members, excavators (be it commercial companies, universities or government funded agencies) commit themselves to publish the data of their research within two years after completing the fieldwork. After this date, the objects are available for all to study and are stored in large depots, accessible to the public. In the Netherlands this is indeed enforced, companies can loose their license when not fulfilling the requirements.
In my opinion it is far better for coins to be excavated, analysed, published and then stored, then to disappear, ripped from their context, into private collections of which no records are kept and access is usually very limited if at all.
To conclude: the aim of all archaeologists, numismatists and collectors of ancient coins is to get a better understanding of the past. New techniques and approaches allow us to unveil this past better than ever before. Collectors should be aware that by buying coins of unrecorded provenance, not retrieved in controlled excavations or surveys, they are severely hampering the study of antiquity. Numismatists and archaeologists however, should not neglect their duty to the larger public: to inform – frequently, willingly, and correctly – the public of the breakthroughs, discoveries and exciting new insights gained by studying coins from excavations.