Sunday, July 5, 2015

Shepard Fairey and Roman Art

Aside from one upper-level course in Greek or Roman art history per semester, I also teach the Art History survey sequence: Prehistory to Medieval Art in the fall and Renaissance to Contemporary Art in the spring.  Even though my specialty is Antiquity, I find the second half of the survey is somehow more enjoyable to teach.  Maybe it is because I am not as "close" to it and can allow myself to have more fun with the subject when teaching.  One of my favorite artists to teach in the second half of the survey is Shepard Fairey, whose art I have also recently begun to collect.  I find the students also enjoy learning about him as they recognize his work in popular culture and wear Obey shirts (they are often thrilled to learn what Obey on their shirts is about as many don't already know).  As I work in a department driven primarily by a studio art program, a significant number of my survey students are graphic design majors.  One of the many hats that Shepard Fairey wears is that of a graphic designer; that is perhaps another reason the students enjoy seeing Fairey's work as he is an artist who has foot in both fine art and design. 

So what does the Shepard Fairey, of Obey Giant fame, who received worldwide recognition for his iconic "Hope" poster of Senator Obama during the 2008 primary - now one of the most famous and parodied images of the early 21st century, - have to do with Roman art?  Nothing really, except that my own work on Roman imperial art and coinage may explain why this contemporary artist and his artwork resonate with me.  I explain below.

Shepard Fairey, Hope, 2008, preceded by Progress, 2008.
Much of Fairey's work, especially his signed and numbered serigraphs are relatively affordable; they sell from roughly $45-$65 on his website if you can get them immediately as they are released.  The price point is intentional as Fairey wants his fans to be able to afford his work.  Older prints, or ones that you miss during a release, are available for a markup in the secondhand market.  The rarity of and demand for the print in question dictates the degree of that markup.  Over the past year, I have begun collecting Shepard Fairey's serigraphs and have thus far acquired eight prints and many books about his art. I plan to continue to grow the collection.  Two of these prints are quite rare and historical: "Progress" from 2008 (edition of 350), which contained the same iconic image as "Hope" print/poster, of which half a million posters were printed.  The "Progress" preceded that iconic, nearly identical, "Hope" image.  After the release of "Progress", the campaign adopted the image, asking Fairey to use the word "Hope" instead as a campaign poster.  As an art historian and archaeologist, the historic and documentary quality of the "Progress" piece particularly appealed to me.  It is an original print of one of the most recognizable images of the early 21st century, a part of our contemporary popular culture. The other print, "War: Everyone Wants It" from 2003 (edition of 200) is biting critique of the Iraq War, begun in 2003, through both image and text.  Although both are rare and desirable prints among collectors, I think I was able to acquire both of these historical pieces at reasonable prices - an important consideration for an academic.

Shepard Fairey, Pay Up or Shut Up, 2015.
For one recent acquisition, I was lucky to have beaten the notorious "eBay flippers," who purchase Fairey prints and immediately put them on eBay for two or three times the purchase price, and buy directly from Obey: "Pay Up or Shut Up" (2015, signed and numbered edition of 450).  This print depicts Uncle Sam's hand - his identity evident from the patriotic decoration on the sleeve of his suit - covering the mouth of a gentleman in a suit and tie, thereby silencing him.  At the top left, the text reads "All the Free Speech Money Can Buy."  At the lower right of the image is the Obey Giant logo and the title "Pay Up or Shut Up."  The print critiques the Citizens United supreme court decisions regarding Super PACs and donors to them.  The effect of this, as Fairey and others have described it, is the equation of money with speech and influence as politicians benefiting from wealthy PACsand donors will be unduly influenced by corporate and commercial interests.  The combination of text image points out the need for campaign finance reform to maintain legitimate democracy.  The sloganeering and fonts recall American 1950s-era advertisements that seem innocent enough on the surface, but from a 21st-century perspective many of these old advertisements smacked of racism or sexism, or cutely peddled dangerous products, such as cigarettes.


Shepard Fairey, Farewell to Freedom, 2014. 

Beyond mid-20th advertisements, Fairey's work clearly draws influence and inspiration from multiple artists, movements, and popular art media.  Perusing through a gallery of his works, one readily observes the influence of Social Realism, and especially Socialist Realism, in many of his pieces.  As a politically-minded artist, Fairey uses the visual cues of Socialist Realist imagery, accompanied by clearly ironical or satirical slogans, to point out dangerous flaws in contemporary American democracy that potentially corrode our democracy (I think he would say they do corrode that democracy) and put us on a path to autocracy and oligarchy, and/or corporatocracy.  Other works use the same visual style to exalt certain figures, such as freedom fighters and advocates for peace such as Aung San Suu Kyi. One recent piece deploying the style of Socialist Realism is "Farewell to Freedom" (signed and numbered edition of 500), an homage to comedian and political-news satirist Stephen Colbert of the recently-ended Colbert Report.  The slogan was also that of Colbert's last show. Stephen Colbert asked Shepard Fairey, previously a guest on the Report as well as a guest on the last show, to design the image for his final episode; signed and numbered prints were also released on the Obey Giant website.  In this example, the imagery seems to me to provide Colbert-inspired satire while the text may reflect Fairey's sentiment.  Stephen, using the American flag as a cape, stands to the left in a three quarter pose, one leg striding forward with his foot resting upon a globe; he does not engage the viewer but looks up confidently as if a resolute and transcendent figure (not unlike portraits of Alexander the great with the dramatically twisted neck and upturned eyes - a feature curiously enough observable in the "Hope"/"Progress" image).  In his right hand he wields a sword and in his left he holds a round shield - not dissimilar to Captain America's shield - as an eagle soars in the background.  The image of Stephen Colbert as a sort of authoritarian, transcendent, and god-like individual draws upon historical images of monarchs and from Socialist Realism, but parodies them.  On the Colbert Report, Stephen's unbreakable persona of the consummate egoist and fiercely uncompromising politically partisan pundit sharply satirized political news-show hosts on 24-hour cable-news networks.  The image, therefore, was a fitting tribute to the persona Stephen Colbert had adopted.  The text, "Farewell to Freedom," used in jest by the Colbert Report, reinforced the humorous notion that the political pundits on 24-hour cable-news networks actively present themselves as patriotic defenders of democracy who drape their one-sided opinions in the flag; Colbert's departure from the show thus signifies a certain "end" to freedom.  Nonetheless, the "Farewell to Freedom" print perhaps conveys something more sentimental in that Stephen Colbert's biting satire, but strong substance, was perceived by the artist and by many others as more honest and penetrating than that of the news-channel pundits that his show skewered.

Shepard Fairey, These Parties Disgust Me, 2010.
Even though Fairey is generally unpopular among political conservatives, he, like Stephen Colbert, criticizes both Republicans and Democrats, looking beyond partisanship to examine the function and dysfunction of the organs of American democracy itself, and American society more broadly; he has criticized President Obama several times since the election (a recent example here).  While one might disagree with Fairey's position on certain issues, those literate in art ought to to appreciate his work.  I mean "appreciate" in the sense of what "art appreciation" means (i.e., there is a difference between liking it on the one hand and appreciating/understanding it on the other).  Fairey's art and its sharp indictments of the political establishment are not only activist statements themselves, but also are reflective of broader popular disappointment and discontentment with how the contemporary American political system and landscape has (d)evolved over the past couple of decades.  A 2010 print, "These Parties Disgust Me," criticizes the flawed two-party system, frustration with both major political parties, and the artist's sentiment that campaign finance reform may be an antidote.

What appeals to me about Fairey's work is the conscious propagandist quality of his work.  With text and image, and often in the style of an advertisement or Socialist Realist political posters, he directly takes on an issue to make a point, often challenging policies espoused, or even ignored, by the news media.  One might see his work as propaganda to counter propaganda.  Indeed, "Worldwide Propaganda Delivery" is an Obey Giant slogan. The Obey sticker campaign sought to make one aware of his environment and the things he sees (and perhaps hears); the Obey logo, visible on his works, imbues his art with a sense of the looming authoritarian and, in so doing, reminds the viewer to question and critically evaluate everything.

Now for the connection with Roman art, which attracts to me to Fairey's work, as I study the communicative aspects of Roman imperial art and especially the coinage.  Roman imperial art has often been described as "propaganda," although few historians of Roman art would use that description today as carelessly as we have in the past.  Propaganda has strong 20th-century connotations.  Immediately one may recall the imagery and messages disseminated by the authoritarian governments of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany via highly organized and well-structured propaganda ministries.  The goal of propaganda is to persuade the people of the government's position or course of action and to garner their support.  Roman art was not propaganda in this sense.  First of all, the Roman state was nowhere near this organized in the dissemination of messages.  Secondly, the Roman emperor, although a monarch, was not the sort of absolutist dictatorial ruler as that of modern North Korea or of Nazi Germany.  Instead, the head of the Roman state maintained power by negotiating and cultivating positive symbiotic relationships with many important constituencies in the Roman Empire: the Senate, the plebs urbana, the armies and their commanders, and provincial elites.  Finally, state-sanctioned Roman imperial art was not formulated to persuade imperial subjects of the emperor's political agenda with the goal of changing attitudes.

What state-sanctioned imperial art did was to present the emperor in a positive light.  In many cases, official state-sanctioned images, as appeared on the coinage, may not have been formulated by the imperial court at all.  A prominent theory is that mint officials formulated the images and messages on the coins with the emperor foremost in mind as the primary audience.  In this scenario, much of Roman art was akin to contemporary poetry and panegyric which aggrandized and honored the emperor.  Indeed, contemporary imperial coinage and text often reflected the same ideals, indicating that they reflected the political rhetoric of the day.  Even if the goal of much of the official art and coinage was to flatter the emperor, it also was seen, used, and experienced by viewers throughout the Roman world and so the communicative aspects of art and coinage ought not to be dismissed even though it was not "propaganda" in our typical understanding of the world.  One of the best and most recent discussions of the differences between the modern word "propaganda" and the communicative aspects of Roman imperial art that I have read is in Carlos Noreña's, Imperial Ideals in the Roman West (Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 15-21.  On p. 18, Noreña makes reference to another scholar (Ellul) who distinguished between "agitation" and "integration" propaganda.  He summarizes as follows.
"While agitation propaganda seeks to change attitudes, according to Ellul's definition, integration propaganda seeks to bolster them.  The former is more visible and widespread, is often subversive, and bears 'the stamp of opposition,' while the latter aims instead at 'stabilizing the social body,' making it 'the preferred instrument of government.'  This distinction is useful, and helps to explain why the imperial regime ever bothered to communicate a set of ideals and values associated with the reigning emperor.  In general, there was not much in the way of agitation propaganda in the Roman imperial period.  During the high empire in particular, there was little need to change attitudes and - even more important - the actual mechanics of imperial communications would have made it almost impossible to do so.  That the regular, long-term dissemination of imperial ideals was instead intended, at least in part, to reinforce belief in the legitimacy of Roman imperial rule seems more plausible....But the official communication of imperial ideals by the central state necessarily entailed a positive valuation of imperial rule, which in turn entailed a degree of persuasion, even if only implicit.  Moreover, one of the media available to the imperial regime, the coinage, was particularly well suited to the slow, long-term diffusion of ideas upon which such integration propaganda depends.  As a preliminary conclusion, then, we may see the central state in idealizing the figure of the emperor through a set of ideals and values associated with him, was motivated at least in part by the goal of reinforcing the legitimacy of Roman imperial rule." 
Generally speaking, Fairey's prints in the early 2000s and today exhibit the sort of dissent that is hardly observable in Roman art.  Fairey understands his own work as a sort of propaganda, borrowing directly from propagandist media, such as Socialist Realist posters, to make his points.  One might then see his work as "agitation propaganda" as it seeks to make the viewer aware of problems with the official state-sanctioned narrative.  He exhibits what we seldom have record of in the Roman visual arts: resistance and reaction to the contemporary political rhetoric and culture.  Fairey also has a following who hold the same beliefs and values that he does and some of his pieces might also be seen as a sort of "integration propaganda" to which the official Roman imperial art media might have been more related; it would probably be a like-minded individual who would consume something like "Pay Up or Shut Up" or "Farewell to Freedom."  Although the signed and numbered prints are limited, he often makes unsigned and unnumbered pasters, like the "Hope" poster in 2008, that can be used to saturate the public with a message.  Like the imperial coinage, in which certain ideals were reinforced consistently over time, Fairey has also reinforced ideals and concepts through time, such as campaign finance reform; this has been a theme in much of his work for several years now.  What draws me intellectually to the study of Roman art and coinage is the fact that they are historical monuments that tell us about the regime's politics and ideals at a moment in time long ago.  They represent pictorially the way that the regime conceived of itself and projected itself (either in a direct or indirect way).  While having the feel of an official medium, Fairey's art is anti-establishment and criticizes perceived problems in our present democracy through autocratic and commercial imagery and styles.  Fairey makes art for the living, as the Romans did, but he advocates for progressive change and points out issues that potentially could compromise democracy or otherwise degrade our society.  But as the years pass, his work will, like those Roman objects, become the realm of history.  We or our successors will have the opportunity to see if his concerns were valid.  Some of his work has unquestionably already entered that historical realm.

I am well aware that at this stage I have only a perfunctory knowledge of this artist's work, but I plan to continue to learn.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Archaeological and Numismatic Book Seized from Islamic-State Militants Identified

In June it was reported that Kurdish fighters had seized some equipment from Turkish Islamic State Fighters in Syria and that among those items were archaeological and numismatic books.  One book showed images of Phoenician coins.  The photos of that book were blurry and it was difficult to identify the resource.

The mystery is now solved as Ute Wartenberg Kagan, Executive Director of the American Numismatic Society, recognized the open page in the photograph as from an essay in a book she had used before: M. Sartre, "La Syrie sous la domination achéménide," in W. Orthmann and J.-M. Dentzer, Archéologie et Histoire de la Syrie II (Saarbrücken, 1989).  Compare photographs of the book seized from the militants and the same example in the ANS library (see more images here).
'New documents unravel ISIS-Turkish state cooperation’
(c) Mehmet Nuri Ekinci, Ajansa Nûçeyan a Firatê (ANF), 3rd June 2015

The book in the ANS Library.


In discussing the identification of the book, she concludes:
"For people interested in a general overview of coins from Syria, this book is indeed helpful. Articles by Christian Augé on “La monnaie en Syrie à l’époque hellénistique et romaine” (pp. 149–190, with four plates illustrating 71 coins) and by Cécile Morrisson (who won the ANS Huntington Medal in 1995) on “La monnaie en Syrie byzantine” provide excellent and well-illustrated introductions to the coins of this region. Her article gives a considerable amount of detailed scholarly information on site finds of coins in Syria."
"So this is an extremely unlikely find—a scholarly, not exactly inexpensive, and heavy—book on the archaeology of Syria in the hands of ISIS fighters. If anyone doubts the multifaceted connections between looted antiquities and war in Syria, this discovery has to make one wonder." (emphasis added)


Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Tactics of a Dealers' Lobbyist

In the light of some recent posts and activities of IAPN's and PNG's lobbyist, Peter Tompa, who is also a member and representative of the ACCG, I have been considering his tactics again as I have witnessed them multiple times and commented on their apparent purposes in the past.  It is perhaps worthwhile to survey some of those tactics here.

Personal AttacksPersonal attacks are often used as a substitute for engaging with the substance or accuracy of another party's comments.  Users of personal attacks attempt to impugn another party's character, often with misleading or false commentary, so that they do not have to engage with and/or provide evidence to counter an argument or position.  Peter Tompa has often used personal attacks as a tactic and frequently allows his compatriots to post personal attacks in the 'moderated' comments section of his blog.  A recent example on Mr. Tompa's blog may be found here.  He also is proud to count among his comrades the outspoken ACCG leadership; they have consistently made particularly repulsive  attacks against organizations and individuals who advocate preservation, characterizing them as fascists, Nazis, or similar to terrorist organizations.  A summary of some of these repugnant remarks is available in my 2012 article on the North American trade in ancient coins (pp. 100-104).

Dismissal/Denigration.  A common component of personal attacks include the dismissal of one's credentials and/or the denigration of one's credentials by applying inaccurate labels.  Academics who advocate preservation and sensitivity to looting issues are, therefore, often dismissed as "ivory tower" elitists.  A recent example on Mr. Tompa's blog is found here (the post also contains a straw man).  Like the personal attack, such dismissal evidently has as its aim to excuse not engaging with the evidence or argument of a different position (pointed out here). Mr. Tompa almost exclusively refers to preservationists like myself, David Gill, Paul Barford, Rick St. Hilaire, and others as "archaeobloggers," as if blogging is the only way our research and opinions are disseminated, and as if we do not have any other credentials and professions.  Rick St. Hilaire is not even an archaeologist, but a lawyer and specialist in cultural properties!  But Mr. Tompa does not like Rick St. Hilaire's insights and position on cultural property issues and so he gets called an "archaeoblogger," a label that the lobbyist and his friends use as a slur.  In a recent post, Mr. Tompa has again referred to me as an "archaeoblogger and anti-trade advocate," in spite of the fact that I have rarely blogged for several years now. My occupation is that of tenure-track professor at a ranked research university.  I teach and have authored numerous articles on ancient coins and coin iconography in addition to co-edited a book on coin iconography; a single-authored book will be in print by the end of the year.  My research on the relationship between looting and coin trade in its current incarnation has also been published in several peer-reviewed outlets.

Deception.  Deception is frequently another component of personal attacks or dismissal.  After all, the ultimate effect or goal is to avoid formulating effective counter argumentation and presentation of fact-based evidence.  For example, Mr. Tompa recently characterized me as an "anti-trade advocate."  That is an incorrect characterization.  Anyone may read for themselves what I have blogged in the past or what I have published.  What I have consistently critiqued is the problematic relationship that the trade in its current incarnation has with looting and the illicit market in coins and antiquities.  Mr. Tompa seeks to maintain a no-questions-asked status quo, evidently protecting business interests that wish to remain unconcerned when it comes to the sourcing of material!  In fact, in my 2012 article, I suggest that a solution to obstruction posed by trade lobbying groups, which cater primarily to a dealer interest, is to circumnavigate them and engage directly with collectors (pp. 104-107).  An "anti-trade advocate" would hardly suggest engagement with collectors.  For an unvarnished riposte to the notion that preservationists are inherently "anti-trade," or as one unsightly comment on Mr. Tompa's blog that Mr. Tompa allowed (from a dealer known for hyperbole and personal attacks) suggests, "anti-science," see here.

The Straw Man. A common tactic is the straw man.  By falsely attributing a statement or position to an individual and demolishing it, one does not engage with one's real position and makes the opposition appear foolish and absurd.  In so doing, the user of a straw-man argument creates an imagined, inaccurate character.  The straw man is a debate tactic often used in American political discourse.  A popular example is Clint Eastwood's imaginary engagement with President Obama in an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention, whereby he attributed positions to President that he does not hold and potential statements the President wold never make (some comments here and here).

In the comments section of one of his recent personal attacks against me, Mr. Tompa has claimed again that I have stated that Ptolemaic and early Roman period coins did not circulate out of Egypt (this all bears on the "first found in" argument that is part of the ACCG's test case).  I posted a comment to that blog again asking him to substantiate the claim as I have never made it.  Curiously, my comment was never posted. Maybe he never received it.  Nonetheless, what I have said is that such coins tended to circulate primarily within Egypt as Egypt had a well-known closed currency system that promoted the retention of such coins.  I have even published a Ptolemaic coin in the coin finds from Yotvata, Israel, although the site is very near the modern Egyptian border.  So surely I would never state that no single Egyptian coin would never make it out of what is modern Egypt.  Mr. Tompa's straw man claim is demonstrably false.  It also curious that, in his own dealings with CPAC, he never acknowledged the well-known fact that Egypt had a closed currency system and that Ptolemaic and early Roman period Egyptian coins are primarily found in Egypt.  Mr. Tompa attempts to distort my own position, which takes an honest account of the evidence, in order to distract from his own untenable position, which itself purposefully ignores decades of scholarship and common knowledge on coin circulation in Egypt. 

Deflection/Innuendo.  Sometimes one simply changes the subject or makes innuendo to distract from the question or issue at hand.  So rather than presenting evidence to substantiate his straw-man claim that I apparently said Egyptian coins never  traveled outside of Egypt, Mr. Tompa instead began making innuendos about "hidden" comments to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee.  First of all, Mr. Tompa makes assumptions since he could not know if I submitted confidential comments to CPAC for any particular hearing or not.  Secondly, the CPAC makes allowances for confidential comments to be submitted under certain circumstances where they could not be made publicly.  If one submits confidential comments to CPAC, appropriately following the guidelines, the contents of those comments are no business of a trade lobbyist, especially one who chooses to engage in underhanded and slimy tactics.  Finally, we see the purpose of deflection and innuendo: not only does he have me going on about a different subject now, attempting to distract me and his readers from his straw-man claim, he still has not substantiated his straw-man claim!  He cannot, after all, substantiate a straw-man claim. By their very nature, straw-man claims are indefensible when you ask for substantiation and evidence.

Intimidation. Why does the lobbyist want access to comments that are potentially privileged or sensitive?  No doubt he wants to spin and twist them on his blog, using the tactics above, in an attempt to intimidate into silence those with opinions different from his own.  He has already criticized individuals with opinions different from his own for speaking at public hearings or submitting public comments to CPAC in the past.  Mr. Tompa and his cohorts are well-known for using the tactics of intimidation.  In the past they have communicated directly and secretly with colleagues of preservationists in attempt to impugn their reputations in the eyes of their colleagues and, worse, in an attempt to compromise their employment.  I have a file documenting each attempt that is currently known to me.

Why?  Why does Mr. Tompa use such tactics?  One reason may be true ignorance of the issues or a misunderstanding of them.  He is, for example, angry about an article I recently published that critiques the "first found in" argument presented in the ACCG's test case.  Mr. Tompa dismisses the article as "obscure" and suggests the article is somehow "hidden" because it is published in a peer-reviewed print journal.  David Gill points out how ill-informed the statement is that the journal is obscure and that the article is somehow hidden (here and here).  Rather than expecting him to find the article for himself, the lobbyist is upset that I have not shared the article with him, although I shared it with colleagues.  I explained to Mr. Tompa that the article cannot be placed for free, public download on a third-party website at this time owing to copyright issues and that I will not send him nor the lobby's founder an offprint as they are neither colleague nor collegial.  He persists nonetheless.  And this is not the first time that the lobbyist has behaved this way (for a response on the first episode, see David Gill's post).  It is particularly troubling that Mr. Tompa does not seem to understand, at least in what he writes, how publication and research works (or evidently how to access a prominent archaeological journal in a library) since he himself is a legal professional and purports to represent dealers and collectors who claim to be independent scholars, who would necessarily conduct library research and publish in peer-reviewed journals.

But if the lobbyist and the organizations he represents are not truly ignorant of the issues and are not ill-informed about the evidence that is out there, why might he liberally use the tactics summarized here?  Readers of the lobbyist's blog might take Mr. Tompa at his word and not follow up on original sources or explore for themselves the validity of his statements and arguments.  Perhaps this convinces his constituency of the good work he does for them and for the organizations he represents.  Perhaps there are other reasons, one of which may be the awkwardness of engaging with real evidence to advance his position or to counter the evidence-based position of preservationists.  Fortunately, policy makers and researchers use more than blogs and tend to check sources and look for evidence and substance.

Update 5/31/2015.  Mr. Tompa has responded to this post via a comment on his own blog.  Interestingly, he does not link to my post so that readers can easily find it for themselves.  It is more or less what I expected: further demands that I answer questions to satisfy his innuendo of a hidden conspiracy.  There is no acknowledgement of wrongdoing on his part, no apology, and no substantiation of his recent straw-man claim (an impossibility after all).  Interestingly, he seems, however, to acknowledge the deployment of underhanded tactics on his part by implying that whatever he does, it's okay because I have already done what I accuse him of; that, quelle surprise, is not substantiated.  Indeed, I do not recall fabricating statements and attributing them to him (the straw man), nor do I recall me or my colleagues implying he or his compatriots are fascists or Nazis (a form of personal attack commonly used in ACCG quarters), nor do I recall trying to undermine his employment (intimidation) as he and his ACCG-friends have.  We are all very aware of you operate, Mr. Tompa.  It is truly a pity that organizations have spent good money to support such a despicable and painfully transparent modus operandi.  At least its transparency and lack efficacy will only hinder the cause to protect the damaging status quo.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Support Graduate Students at the Huqoq Excavation Project in 2015

If you're looking for an opportunity to support archaeology and directly impact students, here is a chance.  The Huqoq Excavation Project is seeking donations with the target goal of $5,000 to support the travel of three graduate students (object specialists and assistant square supervisors) via experiment.com.  To be successful, the target goal of $5,000 must be met in 35 days.

The excavations are exploring the remains of a Late Roman/Byzantine-era synagogue and an associated village.  In the past several years, Huqoq has received wide coverage in the media for the discovery fine, colored mosaics in the synagogue, including the unprecedented appearance of a Greek king, perhaps Alexander the Great.  For some discussion of the recent discoveries, see coverage in the Times of Israel.

Please consider donating today and directly affect students and archaeological study in a positive way. Click here to donate.

(Photo Credit: (c) Jim Haberman).

Friday, June 13, 2014

International Conference: Currency between Cultures

The international conference Currency between Cultures will be held at the University of Warwick on July 3, 2014. 

Though money is often characterised as an impersonal medium of exchange, it remains intricately connected to cultural value systems, social relationships, and political regimes. These characteristics are linked to the role of currency as a medium of commensuration designed to render equivalent and transitive once incomparable objects, ideas, signs, and meanings. In this way money goes ‘between’ cultures, and as a medium at the point of contact, money can often become ideologically charged. The eurozone, the rise of alternative currencies like Bitcoin, and the symbolic transformation of currencies during events like the Occupy movement ("We need a Revolution"), indicate that the social, ideological, and political aspects of money remain key modern concerns. This interdisciplinary conference aims to explore the differing ways money has connected, subverted, and entangled different cultures throughout history.

Further information and registration is available here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

New Research on Roman Republican Coinage

On June 19-21 in Dresden, Germany, an international colloquium on the topic of New Research on Roma Republican Coinage will be held.  Many experts on Roman Republican coinage will present.  In order of presentation, speakers include Andrew Burnett, Pierluigi Debernardi, Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp, Maria Cristina Molinari, Pierre Assenmaker, Reinhard Wolters, David Biedermann, Bernhard Woytek, Florian Haymann, Wilhelm Hollstein, Clare Rowan, Martin Jehne, François de Callataÿ, Elio Lo Cascio, and Fleur Kemmers.

For the program with details for the venue and the subjects to be presented, click here.

It's a Conspiracy!

The antics of the dealer lobby know no bounds.  It is now being alleged by the group's lobbyist that numismatists in favor of the protection of ancient coins have ghost-written each others comments to CPAC.  As absurd as the notion is, I suppose it is not unexpected from those quarters.  Conspiracy theories are endemic among the dealer lobby's leadership, which is quite indicative of the desperation of their position.

And yes, there is something seemingly duplicitous in one lobby leader's acknowledgment of ancient Egypt's closed currency system before the lobby's founding, and then later pretending it did not exist when commenting on the potential MOU with Egypt.  These intellectual changes of heart also speak to the desperation of their argument that coins do not merit or warrant protection.

Update, 5/27.  Digging the hole deeper, the paid lobbyist, Peter Tompa, assumes I sent comments to CPAC  on the potential MOU with Egypt and now demands that I make these presumed comments public.  I am not sure who he thinks he is to make such demands.  Nonetheless, whether or not I elected to exercise my right to make a comment is my decision alone and the CPAC allows comments to be submitted any number of ways. 

He attempts to qualify his unusual interest in the matter: "CPO [Peter Tompa] does not question Elkins' (or anyone else's) rights to express their views to CPAC, just his unwillingness to let others assess for themselves their accuracy."  I must say past actions do not bear this out. 1. The dealer lobby's leadership and its lobbyist do not rely on logic and facts to construct arguments, as the recent episode regarding circulation patterns in Egypt illustrates.  2. I recall multiple instances in which the dealer lobby (and yes, the lobbyist in question) have attempted to intimidate and perhaps even to undermine the employment of those who have voiced support for MOUs and advocated the protection of coins.  And finally, it is not up to agenda-driven lobbyists to "assess for themselves the accuracy" of comments submitted to CPAC - that is up to the respective members of CPAC, appointed by the President.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The CCPIA and the Circulation of Coins and Other Ancient Objects

The dealer lobby is irritated that people who have expertise on ancient coins  have written in favor of a potential MOU with Egypt.  One commentator and dealer is outright resentful that any specialist should support an MOU and goes so far as pronounce that the protection of coins in the MOUs is "extralegal."

The Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA) mandates that protected objects be "first discovered in" the State Party.  From the point-of-view of the dealer lobby, coins should not be protected since they circulated.  They demand that it be proved beyond a doubt that each individual coin coming into the United States was found in a particular State Party, a task made nearly impossible when a coin is dug up, smuggled, cleaned, and sold by a dealer.   The act of looting and smuggling destroys this information.

The dealer lobby asserts that coins are a special case since they "circulated widely" and are "common."   But are they such an exception?  Some coins circulated very widely and some circulated on a more local or regional level.  Apart from static monuments, many ancient objects, in addition to coins, moved around to greater and lesser degrees.  Ceramics are a prime example; they could circulate widely and they are "common."  Even local wares are sometimes found far afield, although the majority are found locally.  These, like circulating coins, are a testament to trade, economic conditions, and the movement of peoples and populations.  The Etruscans were avid consumers of Greek painted pottery.  The MOU with Italy protects Attic and Corinthian painted ceramics since these are frequently found in Etruscan tombs, even though they were made in Greece and can be found in other countries as well. 

With Egyptian coins, the dealer lobby is reasserting the notion that coins "circulated widely" and should not be protected because they could be found anywhere.  Yes, there are examples of Egyptian coins found outside of Egypt, but Egyptian coins are found primarily in Egypt.  In contesting the potential protection of Egyptian coins, the desperation of their argument is apparent as they refuse to acknowledge long-standing scholarship on ancient Egyptian coins and Egypt's closed currency system, which caused Egypt to retain much of its currency in antiquity.

One commentator points to the Portable Antiquities Scheme database as evidence that Egyptian coins can be found as far away as England.  Interestingly, what he does not acknowledge is that the majority of these are late Roman bronze coins from the mint of Alexandria; late Roman bronze coins have not been included in any MOUs thus far as they circulated widely and certainly they were not the subject of any comments sent to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee by advocates for the protection of coins.  Again, that commentator refuses to acknowledge the closed currency system in Egypt and the fact that the majority of Egyptian coins will have been found in Egypt, just as a great many Attic and Corinthian ceramics will be found in Italy.

Finally, the protection of coins is extralegal only in the dealer lobby's opinion.  Thus far, the lobby has been unsuccessful in undermining import restrictions in the courts.  In fact, import restrictions on coins have been upheld by the courts as legal.  In fact, the federal district court wrote:
“[I]nterpreting the ‘first discovered in’ requirement to preclude the State Department from barring the importation of archaeological objects with unknown find spots would undermine the core purpose of the CPIA, namely to deter looting of cultural property. See 19 U.S.C. § 2602(a)(1)(A)” (p. 35)."
 The court further notes that the “ACCG’s argument, if taken to its logical conclusion, could bring into question the import restrictions on every, or almost every, item on the designated lists" (p. 36).

Indeed, it would.  And business as usual in the antiquities trade seems to be the intent behind the strategy.

Update, 517/2014:  One lobbyist now insists that scholarly evidence cannot be produced that Egyptian coins are found in Egypt.  I do look forward to a book from the lawyer/lobbyist that subverts decades of archaeological and numismatic understanding Egypt's closed currency system.

And apparently lobbyists/lawyers can declare what is legal and what is not - forget the courts.  But I do not remember it working that way in civics class in grade school...

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Import Restrictions and Coins: Lobbying, Duplicity, and Ancient Egypt's Closed Currency System

The inclusion of ancient coins in various Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between the U.S. and other countries is a debated issue.  Many academics, archaeologists, and numismatists are in favor of the inclusion and protection of coins in these agreements.  Many coin dealers and collectors are not.

The ancient coin dealer lobby, primarily the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), consistently makes an effort to dissuade CPAC from the protection of coins each time a request for an MOU is made.  Their arguments have been repeated recently since the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) has asked for public comment on a potential MOU with Egypt that would place limits on imports of cultural and archaeological items into the U.S. that lack documentation prior to the date of enactment of that potential MOU. Namely, the lobby says coins are "common" and therefore do not warrant protection because they are not culturally or archaeologically significant, or they say it is impractical to protect coins since they circulated widely, and so one cannot say where a coin came from since dealers and suppliers do not record or track find spots.  A few commentators have been so bold as to assert that there is no evidence that looted material from Egypt has made its way to American markets.

Those assertions are problematic.

1. The fact that coins were widely produced is precisely what makes them archaeologically and culturally significant.  Coins communicated civic identities and/or political ideologies, whether "high art objects" or not, although the ancient understanding of "art" was very different from our modern understanding.  And in Greek and Roman period excavations, coins are often one of the most common types of small finds, apart from pot sherds.  Coins are vital chronological indicators and also speak to economic conditions at various sites.  When one removes them from a site without record, what can be said about that site and the ancient people who lived or conducted activity there is greatly diminished.  Imagine if there were a lobby attempting to exempt ancient ceramics from protection in MOUs; these are equally significant as coins, even though they are exponentially more "common" than coins.  And their removal from sites is equally destructive to archaeology and the writing of history.  Coins are both archaeologically and culturally significant objects; it is clandestine digging, looting, and smuggling of coins that neutralizes their potential archaeological value and diminishes their cultural value.

2. One of the most recent cases that demonstrated that Egyptian material is being smuggled into the United States is that of U.S. v. Khouli et al.  In addition to Egyptian sarcophagi smuggled into the U.S., two of the involved defendants have also sold ancient coins in North America: Khouli and Alshadaifat.  Alshadaifat operates a wholesale business and has supplied Egyptian and Middle Eastern coins to dealers and collectors in the United States.

3. It is true that a great many coins in Greek and Roman antiquity circulated very widely, such as Athenian tetradrachms or Roman Republican and Imperial denarii.  But the blanket assertion that ancient coins circulated widely and therefore cannot be attributed to a country in which they were found (as mandated by the Cultural Property Implementation Act) is untheorized.  Many classes of ancient coins circulated on local or regional levels, such as the Roman provincial coinage.  A Roman provincial bronze coin from Cyprus, for example, will most probably have been found in Cyprus.  Coin circulation is a much more nuanced subject than the lobby acknowledges in its dealings with CPAC, the U.S. Department of State, and U.S. Customs. 
 
In the public comments on the potential MOU with Egypt, it is remarkable that a number of coin dealers are asserting that coins ought not be protected because they circulated widely.  This is, of course, a strained argument to make in view of the fact that ancient Egypt famously had a closed currency system in both the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.  This does not mean that Egyptian coins are not found outside of Egypt - they are.  But the vast majority of Egyptian coins are found in Egypt.  One reason for Egypt's closed currency system may have been Egypt's need to retain silver since there were no silver resources in ancient Egypt; topography also isolated Egypt.  In fact, Egypt's closed currency system is perhaps the best-known instance of locally or regionally circulating coinage in the ancient world and it is widely discussed in both collector and scholarly literature.  A few examples include:


  • E. Christiansen, Coinage in Roman Egypt: The Hoard Evidence. (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2004, 40-46, 98, 133, 136-137, 140-141. 
  • E. Christiansen, The Roman Coins of Alexandria: Quantitative Studies. (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1988), 11.
  • J.W. Curtis, The Tetradrachms of Roman Egypt. (Chicago: Argonaut, 1969), ix-x. 
  • R.A. Hazzard, Ptolemaic Coins: An Introduction for Collectors. (Toronto: Kirk & Bentley, 1995), 71 et passim.    
  • J.G. Milne, Catalogue of Alexandrian Coins. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), xv-xvi.     
  • S. van Reden, Money in Ptolemaic Egypt. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 33.

One popular book with ancient coin collectors, written in the 1990s , made note of Egypt's closed currency zone (W. Sayles, Ancient Coin Collecting IV: Roman Provincial Coins. (Iola, WI: Krause, 1998), page 87.).  The author of that book is Wayne Sayles, the executive director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), although he made reference to Egypt's closed currency zone before he founded and took on the leadership of the lobby group in 2004.  Interestingly, in his comments to CPAC concerning a potential MOU with Egypt, incongruous with what he wrote 16 years before, he proclaims: "Coins struck in Egypt during antiquity traveled widely then, and since then, as instruments of monetary exchange and of cultural interest."  He refers also to Peter Tompa's letter, which addresses examples of coins of Egyptian type found outside of Egypt and characterizes Egyptian coins as circulating widely (Tompa is the ACCG's attorney and lobbyist).  Both Sayles and Tompa overlook the fact that these foreign finds are exceptions, not the rule, and that the vast majority of Egyptian coins are found in Egypt, which had a closed currency system in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. 

Fortunately, the distinguished members of CPAC take account of the substance of comments and evidence presented to them during the period of public comment.