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Following yesterday’s post on the roots of archaeology, I’ve read an interesting post David Gill’s Looting Matters weblog about an obsession with context. The key quote is so good I can’t help lifting it:

“The archaeological community’s obsession with context puzzles numismatists.”

Lest you think the good professor is writing with his underpants on his head I should make clear it’s a quote from an article he read. It makes more sense if you see numismatics as an heir of antiquarianism and archaeology as a pretender. Archaeologists are more likely study the pasts of peoples who simply don’t appeal to the wannabe-country gent. It would seem a bit odd though as not all numismaticians are parochial in their studies.

Of course if you are a bit of a social dinosaur you may not have noticed changing times. This might explain bizarre claims like:

“Numismatists believe that all coins carry useful information about the political, military and economic situation at the time they were issued. Indeed, numismatists derive their own context from the study of design devices used on coins, the number and chronology of dies used to strike given series, and the metallurgical content of various issues. For that reason, numismatists categorically reject the claim that coins lose value as historical objects if the circumstances of their discovery are not preserved.”

Ok, how wrong is this? For a start a coin can contribute to historical research by examining its art and its context. Lose that context and you lose the data. You cannot tell what artefacts a coin was found with purely from its inscriptions, no matter how intensely you study them.

But that’s only half the problem.

At the weekend in the times there was a comparison between antiquities looting and ivory smuggling in the Times. It is an apt comparison. The death toll in elephants can be disproportionate to the amount of ivory recovered. Similarly an increase in coin supply from Bulgaria, sorry Thrace, ((Exporting coins from Bulgaria, as well as Greece or Turkey, the other two countries which could be described as Thrace, is illegal. Unfortunately if you list the coin as Thracian then it’s extremely difficult to find where the source is and hence cannot launch a prosecution. You’d have to be a pretty shady character to do that though so you wouldn’t expect to find anything if you check Ebay for Thracian coins would you?)) may be connected with the bulldozing of archaeological sites in Thrace Bulgaria. The fact that this sort of thing is illegal has led some people to conclude that criminals might be involved with the antiquities supply.

It’s not a thought that occurs to all dealers, nor it seems all numismatists. The trade relies on dealers and lawyers who don’t think too hard about the context of their finds. Read David Gill’s thoughts on the subject and laugh or cry.