The notion that classical archaeologists do not care about ancient coins, or are ignorant of the utility of their study, is a myth repeatedly perpetuated by vocal members of the coin dealer lobby. One evident example is on the FAQ page of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG):
“Aren’t archaeologists good custodians of ancient coins?
While a few dedicated archaeologist-numismatists do care about coins and have used them to make important contributions to the study of numismatics, many, if not most, archaeologists view coins as just one means to date archaeological sites. Most well preserved specimens that numismatists prize do not even originate from archaeological sites. That is because most large hoards rarely come to light at archaeological sites; the ancients typically sought to hide their savings away from the prying eyes of neighbors. Instead of large hoards of well preserved coins, archaeologists typically find large numbers of ancient “small change” that was lost over time. Such coins are often so corroded by direct exposure to the soil as to be deemed uncollectible. Archaeologists tend not to treat such coins as important historical objects in themselves. Instead, after they serve a limited purpose as but one means to date archaeological sites, coins are all too often dumped into plastic bags and left to deteriorate in storage that usually lacks proper environmental controls.”
While there are some small grains of truth in aspects of this statement (e.g. some archaeologists and numismatists are slow to publish and make finds available for study), the claim that is made (essentially that archaeologists are not competent enough to study coins) is unsubstantiated and false; furthermore, the absolute contrary is demonstrable (see, for example, “Why Coins Matter,” “Misunderstanding the Portable Antiquities Scheme.” The Intellectual Consequences of Collecting Classical Coins,” “It’s All the Same: the Looting of ‘High Art’ vs. the Looting of the Minor Arts,” “Coins, Contexts and Collecting,” and “Can Cultural Property Legislation Kill an Academic Discipline?“).
The falsehood that archaeologists are too incompetent to advocate for the the protection of ancient coins from archaeological sites, even though they are important archaeological objects routinely found at archaeological sites, is evidently perpetuated by vocal members of the dealer lobby in order to present themselves as more appropriate custodians of ancient coins, in an attempt to lend credence to their arguments that ancient coins should be freely traded without a concern for the circumstances concerning their origin and journey to the market and to protect “trade secrets.” The latest unsubstantiated assertion of this idea was posted yesterday by one of the lobby’s top leaders, Wayne Sayles, who is the founder and Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG). In the blog entry “Intrinsic Interests,” he attempts to contextualize the interest of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) in cultural property issues relating to ancient coins as “sudden” and as an assault on private collectors, referencing the AIA’s post on Archaeology Watch about “Coins and Archaeology”. Mr. Sayles has routinely criticized classical archaeology in general terms and the AIA more specifically for its concerns relating to the protection of cultural heritage and archaeological sites (see for example “Hijacked by Zealots” and “Archaeology: a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?“).
In his latest post, Mr. Sayles disparages the AIA and classical archaeologists in general by saying:
“The more that archaeologists learn about coins from antiquity, the more they will realize that the context within which they are found is merely one aspect, and a small one at that, of the tremendous historical resource that coins present.”
“Unfortunately, the AIA’s motives for this blossoming interest are suspect. Having virtually ignored coins for scores of years, why is the AIA disposed now to highlight the value of coins to archaeology? The answer is really quite basic. The numismatic community, comprised primarily of independent scholars, has argued effectively that archaeologists do not have a preeminent claim to the acquisition or study of ancient coins, much less to the dissemination of knowledge about them and about the past from whence they came. If the AIA were to acknowledge this simple fact, it would expose a chink in the armor of their perceived supremacy. So, be prepared to see a lot more ink spilled by the AIA and other archaeological support groups regarding the “importance” of coins. Oddly, collectors have always known that coins are important. This awakening by archaeologists is probably a good thing if they really consider the issues rather than just fill the web and print media with institutional propaganda.”
These comments reflect either a lack of knowledge regarding both classical archaeology and academic contributions to numismatics or a desire to gloss over them. Instead of responding to sweeping generalizations and unsubstantiated assertions with the same, I shall respond with some facts:
Fact 1. Contrary to the assertions, classical archaeologists have always cared about ancient coins and DO study them (the Archaeology Watch webpage in question addressed the value of coins in archaeology); additionally, numismatists regularly participate in AIA activities and are an integral part of that organization. Please do not take my word for it, but take the evidence into account. A keyword search of “coins” from the online abstract archive for the 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 AIA meetings returned 57 papers directly addressing or relating to numismatic topics; I include the full list of results:
Abstracts from the 2007 Meeting
-The Philaïd Coinage of the Thracian Chersonesus, Sarah Bolmarcich, University of Michigan
-Symbolic Rivalry on the Imperial Coinage of the Island of Lesbos, Matthew F. Notarian, University at Buffalo-SUNY
-Icaria: History and Coins, Evangelia Georgiou, University of Ioannina
-Political Ideology and Roman Architectural Coin Types of the Republic and Empire, Nathan T. Elkins, University of Missouri-Columbia
-Roman War and Republican Coin Types, Rosemarie Trentinella, New York University
-Cistophori and Identity in Roman Asia Minor, Marsha B. McCoy, Austin College
-Research at the Castle of Marko in the Republic of Macedonia, Michael Fuller and Neathery Batsell Fuller, St. Louis Community College
-Excavations at Sarhoyok-Dorylaion in Phrygia Epictetos/Turkey, Taciser Tufekci Sivas, Anadolu Universitesi
-Discovery of the Roman Forum of Buthrotum (Butrint): Current Excavations, David R. Hernandez, University of Cincinnati
-Spectator Galleries on Honorary Arches: An Overlooked Function of Roman State Architecture, Martin Beckmann, Wilfrid Laurier University
-Maxentius and the Temple of Roma, Elisha Ann Dumser, Ursuline College
-Hellenistic and Roman Coins from Gordion: A Case for Monetization, Kenneth Harl, Tulane University
-Traces of Hellenistic Petra: Excavations on the Temenos of the Qasr al-Bint, Petra, Jordan, Andreas J.M. Kropp, University of Nottingham
Abstracts from the 2006 Meeting
-Starry Heroes in Late Ancient Rome, Dennis Trout, University of Missouri-Columbia
-Dharma or Diplomacy? A Reassessment of Cultural Policy in the Indo-Greek Kingdom, Jed M. Thorn, University of Cincinnati
-The Heroon at Messene: New Observations on Order, Style, and Date, Pieter B. F. J. Broucke, Middlebury College
-New Glass Finds from Cyprus: Evidence for Ritual, Dating, and Trade, Danielle A. Parks, Brock University
-Images of the Illustrious and the Reconstruction of the Past on Titus’s Restored Coins, Sarah E. Cox, Columbia University
-Monumental Messages: The Meaning of Changes in the Representation of Architecture on Roman Coins in the Early Empire, Martin Beckmann, University of Heidelberg
-Determining the Function of the So-Called Temple of Romulus in Rome, Elisha Dumser, University of Pennsylvania
-The Intensive Urban Survey Project at Kastro Kallithea, Greece: First Results, Margriet J. Haagsma and Sean Gouglas, University of Alberta, Athanasios Tziafalias and Sophia Karapanou, 15th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities
-The Last of the Scythians, Nancy T. de Grummond, Florida State University
-Presenting the King: Herod the Great and Political Self-Presentation, Adam Kolman Marshak, Yale University, and Rebecca Donahue, Boston Society of the AIA
-Italian Bronze Age Pottery and Twenty-First-Century Scholarly Communication, Susan S. Lukesh, Hofstra University, and R. Ross Holloway, Brown University
-Harboring Fantasies in Roman Crete, George W. M. Harrison, AIA Member at Large
-Numismatic Paronomasia and the Case of Caesar’s Elephant, Edward Zarrow, Yale University
-Augustus’s Altar-ed State: The Altars of the Lares Augusti on Augustan Quadrantes, Lea Cline, The University of Texas at Austin
-The Origins of the Commemoration of Women on Roman Coinage, Tracene Harvey, University of Alberta, Edmonton
-The Function and Distribution of the Flavian Colosseum Sestertii: Currency or Largess? (Results of a Die Study), Nathan T. Elkins, University of Missouri-Columbia
Abstracts from the 2005 Meeting
-The “Numismatic Habit”? Roman Coins and Roman Inscriptions from Augustus, Edward Zarrow, Yale University
-Stone Offering Boxes (Thesauroi) in the Ritual and Administration of Greek Sanctuaries, Isabelle Pafford, UC Berkeley
-The Bust-Crown, the Panhellenion, and Eleusis: A New Portrait from the Athenian Agora, Lee Ann Riccardi, The College of New Jersey
-The “Skyphos Sanctuary” on the North Slope of the Acropolis, Kevin T. Glowacki, Indiana University, and Susan I. Rotroff, Washington University in St. Louis
-Imperial Cult in the Colosseum, Nathan T. Elkins, The University of Missouri, Columbia
-The Use of Die Studies as a Corrective to Late Seleucid History, Oliver D. Hoover, The American Numismatic Society
-Royal Women in Nabataea: The Case of Rabbel and Shuqailat, Bjorn Anderson, University of Michigan
-Conceptions of Rome: The Meta Sudans on Roman Imperial and Provincial Coinage, Brenda Longfellow, University of Michigan
-Under the Gaze of the Empress: Succession and Political Participation in Severan Coinage, Julie Langford-Johnson, Indiana University, Bloomington
-Communicating Royal Power in the Bosporan Kingdom, Patric-Alexander Kreuz, Freie Universität Berlin
-Keeping Up with the Seleucids and the Ptolemies, Olga Palagia, University of Athens
-Hellenistic Geronthrai: Archaeological Evidence for the Changing Life of a Perioikic Community at the Foot of the Parnon, Mieke Prent and Joost H. Crouwel, University of Amsterdam, and Elizabeth Langridge-Noti, The American College of Greece
-The Origins of Pompeian Domestic Architecture: New Evidence from the House of the Surgeon, Rick Jones and Damian Robinson, University of Bradford, and Steven J.R. Ellis, The University of Sydney
Abstracts from the 2004 Meeting
-False Fronts: Separating the Imperial Cult from the Aediculated Facade in the Roman Near East, Barbara Burrell, University of Cincinnati
-A Late Roman Settlement “Explosion”? The Continuity and Reuse of Sites in the Eastern Corinthia, David K. Pettegrew, The Ohio State University
-A Sample of Bullae from Zeugma, Sharon Herbert, University of Michigan
-Embellishing the Garden: A Glimpse of Private Life in Julio-Claudian Cosa, Jacquelyn Collins-Clinton, Cornell University
-The Apadana Coin Hoards, Darius I, and the West, Antigoni Zournatzi, The National Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens
-Ponēra Khalkia: Towards the Contextualization of Archaic/Classical Plated Coinage, Peter van Alfen, American Numismatic Society
-Regional Economy and Reconstruction: The Stymphalos Hoard of 1999, Robert G.A. Weir, University of Windsor
-Beyond Payment: Alternate Uses of Coins in the Ancient World, Sebastian Heath, American Numismatic Society
-Excavations in the Athenian Agora, John McK. Camp II, American School of Classical Studies at Athens and Randolph-Macon College
-Preliminary Report on the Hellenistic Material from the Dutch Excavations at Geraki (Geronthrai) in Laconia, Elizabeth Langridge-Noti, American College of Greece, and Mieke Prent, University of Amsterdam
-The Emperor, the Sun, and the Son: The Arch and the Colossus in Constantine’s Rome, Elizabeth Marlowe, Columbia University and American Academy in Rome
The 2008 meeting’s preliminary program is also online and includes several papers and panels directly addressing numismatics.
Fact 2. In addition to scholarly numismatic journals, such as the Numismatic Chronicle or the American Journal of Numismatics, other journals frequently host articles on numismatic topics, especially archaeological journals. Since July 2005, the American Journal of Archaeology(AJA), a publication of the AIA, has hosted at least four articles that address numismatic topics:
The Date of the Sardis Synagogue in Light of the Numismatic Evidence
Author: Jodi Magness
Volume: 109.3, Pages: 443-475
New Archaic Coin Finds at Sardis
Author: Nicholas Cahill and John H. Kroll
Volume: 109.4, Pages: 589-
Archaeology of Empire: Athens and Crete in the Fifth Century B.C.
Author: Brice Erickson
Volume: 109.4, Pages: 619-
Visualizing Ceremony: The Design and Audience of the Ludi Saeculares Coinage of Domitian
Author: Melanie Grunow Sobocinski
Volume: 110.4, Pages: 581-602
The AJA is a quarterly academic journal, which typically hosts between 3 and 5 articles per journal; and thus, numismatic topics can comprise a rather significant part of intrinsically related disciplines represented in the journal (e.g. ceramics, numismatics, topography, etc.), considering the journal addresses classical archaeology as a whole. For our readers that have JSTOR access or live in proximity to a good library, one can see that back issues of the AJA contain a plethora of numismatic articles and that the AJA is an important resource for numismatic research (more specifically see Sebastian Heath’s recent comments, on Sayles’ blog entry, about the history of the AJA and its long association with numismatists and numismatic publication). Other archaeological journals, which may be unfamiliar to many collectors and dealers, such as the Journal of Roman Archaeology, frequently host numismatic topics.
Fact 3. Contrary to what some members of the dealer lobby would have the general public and their constituents believe, the AIA has a strong relationship with numismatists. For example, the current AIA president is an alumnus of the American Numismatic Society graduate seminar on Greek and Roman numismatics, has taught graduate seminars on numismatics, and also has published books and articles that incorporate numismatic evidence. There is also a numismatist currently on the AIA’s Board of Academic Trustees. Additionally, one of the AIA’s largest “interest groups” is the “Friends of Numismatics,” which is comprised of alumni of the American Numismatic Society graduate seminar and other numismatists; the Friends of Numismatics meet annually at the AIA meeting. (Note: the “Friends of Numismatics,” associated with the AIA, should not be confused with the ACCG’s “Friend of Numismatics” award, which the lobby uses to honor individuals who “advance” or “protect” ancient coin collecting).
Fact 4. Unlike the AIA, the ACCG is a new organization, founded within the past few years, which arose in response to cultural property advocacy efforts that conflict with the interests of ancient coin collectors and especially dealers, who comprise most of the organization’s officers, all of its “benefactors,” and the majority of its “patrons.” The ACCG’s goals are highlighted on its “objectives” page. One of the ACCG’s primary aims is “to fight for the continued existence of a free market for all collector coins.”
Mr. Sayles pretends as if archaeologists know nothing about coins, objects which are commonly excavated at classical archaeological sites, and attempts to portray advocacy efforts to protect the contextual study of ancient coins and archaeological sites as misguided, since (in his mind) archaeologists should know nothing about coins. In my view, the AIA’s Archaeology Watch page, which Mr. Sayles rails against, reflects a concern many archaeologists have had for decades about looting and the role of the antiquities trade – which includes the trade in ancient coins – in the destruction of archaeological sites and historical information.
Why was the Archaeology Watch page on “Coins and Archaeology” posted this year? Anyone who has been following the discussions on ancient coins and cultural property (for example, on Looting Matters, SAFECORNER, or elsewhere) knows that Cyprus’ request for import restrictions on ancient coins and the U.S. State Department’s subsequent recognition of that request has caused an outcry from the coin dealer lobby, a lobby that attempts to thwart any legislation or protective measures designed to protect archaeological sites and cultural heritage should that legislation include anything that may hinder a completely unregulated and “free market” in ancient coins. Although I am not privy to the immediate circumstances regarding the AIA’s decision to post the “Coins and Archaeology” page, I suspect the ACCG’s outspoken activities, its unceasing assaults against the AIA and classical archaeology in general, and its gross oversimplification of the issues might have contributed to it.
The unregulated trade in ancient coins is responsible for some systematic looting and is forever destroying an important avenue into critical historical inquiry. These issues have already been examined in “Why Coins Matter” and a more substantial work is in preparation. The dealer lobby consistently downplays the value of context and asserts that collectors and dealers are the only people able to produce “scholarship” on ancient coins (see “Can Cultural Property Legislation Kill an Academic Discipline?”). Indeed, context is not the only aspect of numismatic or scholarly inquiry, but it is an important one and one that is essential to serious economic, circulation, and even iconographic studies. Context is an highly important aspect of any archaeological object or historical document and this aspect of an object should not be destroyed or ignored if at all possible. What if the Reka Devnia hoard had been found by a looter or metal detectorist and sold on the market with no record of its find spot or context? (The Reka Devnia hoard is one of the largest, if not the largest, ancient coin hoards ever discovered and contained c. 350 kg of silver Roman coins; it was excavated at Marcianopolis (see David Gill’s blog entry “Misunderstanding the Portable Antiquities Scheme” and comments there)).
In his newest blog post, Mr. Sayles betrays his misunderstanding of archaeology and has again drawn a distinction between “collectible” coins and “worthless” coins that are on the market. Another numismatist has commented that what Mr. Sayles has egregiously labeled “junk” and “trash” are invaluable historical sources. To an archaeologist and field numismatist, all coins are essential to understanding our history and the conditions under which our ancestors lived.
It is constantly claimed by vocal members of the ancient coin dealer lobby that classical archaeologists and cultural property advocates are driving a wedge between numismatists and the academic community. The facts do not support this spurious claim; as was related above, the AIA, for example, is an organization that embraces numismatists and numismatic research. In fact, it is the ancient coin dealer lobby painting a picture of discord, perhaps to rouse action from collectors and lawmakers in Washington to protect their ability to import and trade in “fresh” material indiscriminately, regardless of that material’s origin or the conditions regarding its acquisition (see again “Why Coins Matter” on the source of much of the new material presently on the market; also cf. Hall, J.L. 2007. “The Fig and the Spade: Countering the Deceptions of Treasure Hunters.” Archaeology Watch. 15 Aug., on how groups with a financial interest in trading in antiquities attempt to win public approval by portraying themselves as practicing serious scientific and scholarly activities). If ACCG leaders seriously want a “constructive dialogue,” let us stick to the facts and avoid the reactionary emotional responses and unsubstantiated generalizations and assertions that lack veracity.
*Since I am responding to criticisms leveled against the AIA specifically, but also classical archaeology as a whole, I should note that although I am a member of the AIA, the views presented here do not necessarily reflect the individual views of the AIA’s leadership, the general membership, or its institutional stances. Instead, I respond here in my capacity as a classical archaeologist and a numismatist sensitive to issues relating to looting and the widespread destruction of archaeological and historical information, and as an individual concerned about the future our ability to critically examine and understand humanity’s past – the forbearers of modern civilization – through disciplines that incorporate the study of material culture via the application of a scientific methodology.