An obsession with context

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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. September 28, 2007

    […] prob­ably from Pompeii. Since we can’t be sure of its ori­ginal con­text, I sup­pose this has little value for his­tor­ical research. But it sure is […]