Thursday, May 28, 2009

Update: Unrecorded and Freshly Dug British Coins Sold in the USA

My previous post, "Having Cake and Eating it too: Unrecorded and Freshly Dug Coins Sold in the USA," prompted further remarks by archaeologist bloggers David Gill and Paul Barford and also caught the attention of Roger Bland, Head of Britain's Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

PAS officials and employees contacted the two sellers named in the previous post to seek details on the unrecorded ancient coins from Britain being sold in the United States. It also contacted the ACCG, the dealer lobby group which consistently points to the PAS as the only reasonable solution to looting.

In response to the inquiry by the PAS, seller Tony Jaworksi of Common Bronze indicated that the British coins he is selling were procured from a large number of detectorists (some actual collectors and some not) and assumes that they were accumulated over a year or more. He does not have any knowledge as to whether the coins were recorded under the PAS or not. He did not obtain an export license and stated he was unaware of the need for one.

Seller Joe Blazick still has not yet responded to the PAS' inquiry.

It appears that the PAS' contact with the ACCG may have been the impetus for Peter Tompa's post on the subject, with links to export requirements in the UK - something which one hopes future sellers will take more note of in the future when selling recent coin finds from Britain. Tompa agrees that information should be preserved, but disagrees with the "tone" of my original post. By "tone" Mr. Tompa must be referring to the questions I posed which the dealer lobby does not wish to answer or engage with:

"However enlightened they may be, schemes like the PAS are not effective deterrents against systematic looting for commercial gain unless collectors and dealers are willing to hold their suppliers legally and ethically accountable. So who are the collectors and dealers buying these coins from British metal detectorists who do not record their finds? If the PAS is to be touted as a way forward in other countries, why are not the antiquities dealers who favor the scheme actively denouncing this behavior within their own ranks? Why are list owners allowing commercial advertisements of material that is not being recorded when there are schemes such as the PAS in place? The indiscriminate market is the driving force behind looting; ethical dealers should conduct greater due diligence and hold suppliers to high standards. Conscientious consumers and collectors are the only real solution to the looting problem."

One of the ACCG's newest active devotees, John Hooker, - collector and author of the recent series of uninformed inculcations appearing on the ACCG website under the somewhat presumptuous title of "The Hooker Papers" (some discussion here) - was more bold, having simply dismissed concern over the British coins as "amusing" while inventing a number of scenarios whereby the coins in question were too insignificant to record. Of course, since the coins were taken out of Britain without any record, it is impossible to know how useful the coins may have been for the historical and archaeological record. Let us hope that Mr. Hooker's resentment for the need to record finds in Britain does not reflect wider views in the ancient coin collecting community in North America. After all, the scheme is meant to preserve information that would otherwise be destroyed by commercial or self-interest. If, as the ACCG has constantly argued, the PAS is the perfect solution to the looting problem, then why make excuses for profiteering that does not take the time to record finds when the PAS is available?

The ancient coin collecting and dealing communities are very small indeed and various classes of dealers and suppliers often have close personal and business relationships. Sellers like those discussed, and their suppliers, will no doubt have conducted business with dealers and/or collectors associated with the ACCG. The advertisements for uncleaned coins and unrecorded British finds were made on lists owned and/or moderated by ACCG members. Should not the ACCG be expending more energy on establishing proactive market guidelines and due diligence practices that address the negative effects of an indiscriminate market than it does on vilifying archaeologists and concocting disinformation to argue to the public that ancient coins are not archaeologically significant objects even when excavated in situ?

While touting the potential of the PAS as a model for other "source countries," the ACCG leadership resists promoting or advocating due diligence by dealers and collectors. Schemes like the PAS could preserve much information that is otherwise lost by casual hobbyists, but information continues to be lost so long as consumers (i.e. dealers and collectors) are not holding their suppliers (especially bulk suppliers) accountable. Indeed, some PAS officials have expressed irritation and dismay at the way the dealer lobby has used the PAS in its agenda.

Is it time to practice what is being preached?




In response to your post, I think my focus on "tone" had more to do with it in general than anything else, particularly given your prior post about civility.

On the PAS, I don't believe that the ACCG is set up to police collectors or dealers for that matter any more than SAFE is set up to police archaeologists as to whether they properly record, preserve and publish artifacts. That would be simply beyond the capability of both small groups and it is in any case better left to the authorities.

I do agree with your general point that particularly when it comes to the UK, which I believe has fair laws, people should try their utmost to comply with them. As to this particular incident, keep in mind the PAS is a VOLUNTARY scheme. And though I agree that it should be honored, at least looking at the types of coins we are talking about, it would not seem that they are not all that significant. (I even wonder whether PAS would bother to record each in any detail individually. Of course, there is also a mandetory scheme (the Treasure Act) which is designed to ensure that more significant groups are recorded).

In any case, I understand that the PAS is working on an on-line system for finders to use to make initial reports. Hopefully, this will help take some of the burden off PAS officers and further encourage full reporting.


Peter Tompa


Dear Peter,

Thank you for your comments.

In regards to my previous post on civility, I was referencing the outlandish intemperate condemnations of archaeologists as Nazis, fascists, socialists, and nationalists, amongst other things, which seem to be coming quite often from a particular group. I don't think, and perhaps many agree, that these "Fox News" type antics do anything useful in the debate except to paint one side as undesirable "others." I do think there is a big difference between forcefully arguing points and evidence on the one hand, and demonizing the opposition to dismiss/alienate them on the other.

I think also that the situation between ACCG and SAFE and their respective responsibilities is a bit different. SAFE is not an archaeological organization and, therefore, could have no role governing things like publication of artifacts. However, you will see multiple instances where SAFE has discussed atrocities where municipal building and the like is damaging/destroying historic sites and has even been at odds with the AIA over certain issues. SAFE was founded by laypeople to promote awareness on looting and heritage issues. The ACCG was founded by dealers and collectors to protect “collectors rights” in the face of what it believes are legislative measures that would damage the right to collect ancient coins. The ACCG has also asserted time and again that it is concerned about looting, does not condone it, and should not encourage it. Since the ACCG has declared a concern for looting, but opposes the legislative measures or advocacy designed to diminish looting or raise awareness about, it would seem the ACCG should offer some proactive alternatives. It has long argued the PAS is a great step forward and so it would make sense that steps should be taken in the trade and collector communities to raise awareness about the program and promote more conscientious behaviors. If legislation is the wrong way to go about addressing the problem of looting, then I think those who are actively fueling the trade should address the issues outright and ask “what can we do?”

Yes, the PAS is a voluntary scheme, but since it is a solution the ACCG has touted time and again, it would be nice to see further encouragement of that program rather than mere lip service paid to it. That encouragement ought to come directly from the people who buy and sell coins, who drive the market and make the buying and selling of antiquities (including the looted ones that work their way into the market) profitable.

Thank you for the note about the online service that is being developed by the PAS. I had not heard of it before. Hopefully this will enhance the program.



I am astounded that anyone saying they advocate the PAS can come out with the sort of statement that Mr Tompa just made about these „dugup coins” from England which found their way unrecorded (and in one case illegally) to the USA …

He says “looking at the types of coins we are talking about, it would not seem that they are not all that significant. […] I even wonder whether PAS would bother (sic) to record each in any detail individually” .

Amazing. Well first of all, he obviously has not read the PAS’ own statement on this: “We would like to know about everything that you have found - not just metal objects. […] It is often best to let the Finds Liaison Officer see all your finds”. All means all.

This lack of knowledge about what the PAS does is bad enough in the former President of an advocacy group that is insisting other nations adopt this same system. One would have really thought that they’d first find out how the system works and what it does. I really do suspect that the frequency of this kind of lapse from the ACCG stable really suggests they are treating the PAS/English system totally instrumentally, solely as a means for prosecuting their own agenda and without any concept of (or real interest in) what the “system” actually involves or achieves.

As for whether the coins are “significant”, I think Mr Tompa – as US collectors generally do all too frequently – are confusing coins as archaeological evidence (which is what this is all about) with coins as marketed commodities (which is all they are really concerned about).

To return to Tompa's comment on "this type" of coin, back in August last year, I gave an example of a case where just one such (“LRB”) coin properly stratified gave a terminus post quem for an entire and important stratigraphic sequence. I presume Mr Tompa has not seen that text, so I’ll give the link

There are of course other examples. Obviously if a key coin (or any other artefact) is removed because detected under the ground by a metal detector and dug out blind, this information is lost. In such a case the removal of a single item – a “Roman grot” as metal detectorists contemptuously refer to them, would trash the site. Just one coin gone and the whole potential for understanding a series of events is lost for ever. For what? So Mr Jaworski or Mr Blazick (or any other coin dealer) over in the US can make a dollar fifty?

Mr Blazick claims he was selling “just 73 coins” so he too says they are “not significant” and anyway I am “not a US citizen” (eh?)…

This is nonsense, in some cases seventy three coins may not be a huge gap in our knowledge, in others they would be. But how is Mr Bazick or anyone else able to say, since they do not know (and do not care) where the coins came from?

Basically data only gain their significance in the context of other data when gathered properly. I’d say the Washington lawyer’s suggestion that just because he’d not want to buy them to add to his collection, they were seemingly “not all that important” really misses the point. We could turn to a legal analogy if it would make it clearer for him and others. If at a murder scene the local police only collect data on the state of the body, pick up the bloodstained knife, but dismiss the other evidence (tyremarks at the scene, blood spatters, cigarette butt and fingerprints) because they are not so spectacular (“seemingly not so important”), then I would not say that all the evidence has been gathered at the scene. Who is able to say what data/evidence is and is not significant until after the data have been gathered, recorded and collated?


May we comment upon three points made by Mr Tompa?

“looking at the types of coins we are talking about, it would not seem that they are not all that significant. (I even wonder whether PAS would bother to record each in any detail individually.”

This represents a misunderstanding of the purpose of PAS, which makes it very clear that it wishes to see every recordable artefact, however common or worn, since those factors are irrelevant to the potential archaeological knowledge which items may reveal about the place where they were found. Mr Tompa’s remark would be applicable to a numismatic database, which PAS isn’t. It is an archaeological one. Of course PAS cannot record much detail about worn and common coins per se but that is less than half the story. It is not unreasonable to assume that some of the Roman coins in question came from Roman sites that are not known about – and now never will be. This makes them not "not all that significant"
but very significant.

“On the PAS, I don't believe that the ACCG is set up to police collectors or dealers”

Nevertheless, it sees itself as competent to require its members to adhere to a Code of Conduct. It is therefore capable of requiring its members to require that purchases from Britain are accompanied by a PAS reference number – something which British suppliers are perfectly able to obtain if their goods are ethical and legal. In this manner, ACCG are actually in a position to police not only collectors and dealers but also suppliers – at the stroke of a pen.

We have made this suggestion previously and have been offered all sorts of reasons why it can’t be done, none of which amount to more than “if we did that the numbers of coins we can buy will be reduced”. No doubt that is true, but since the amount by which the number of coins would be reduced is likely to equate perfectly with the number of unethical coins currently being supplied we see such a refusal as an unwillingness to desist from unethical purchasing. Or have we misunderstood?

Online self-reporting has been piloted for some time. While it may encourage reporting by those willing to report it will have no effect upon most of the unwilling, of whom there are patently many thousands. The only effective encouragement to those (other than “socialist” or “fascist” or “nationalistic” laws to disband PAS and ban the activity!) lies in the hands of purchasers, and in particular the ACCG. Half the problem and the whole of the solution lie not in a far away source country but right there in America. When can the wronged British public expect some action?


It seems to be a symptomatic way of thinking in discussion of these issues that many collectors and dealers assert that the modern commercial value of the coin determines the "significance" of the coin and any potential value in situ. I don't necessarily think it is deliberate, but perhaps an ingrained effect of the way they approach and appreciate ancient coins. But, as a numismatist and archaeologist who engages the study of ancient coins from archaeological contexts as part of my work, I must state that in no way is the significance of the "context" or the "scientific value" of a coin dependent on the commercial value of the coin.

For example, I am processing and publishing the coin finds from the Late Roman fort at Yotvata. Virtually all of the coin finds are of Constantine or his sons, with scattered finds from the third century, and a couple of earlier finds that appear to have circulated as 4th century coins by size and weight. All coin finds are bronze or lightly silvered bronze. If all the coin finds had appeared on the market, they might fetch on average one dollar or two on Ebay. There are about 200-300 finds, so total market value may be between c. $400-$600 for all coin finds. However, these coin finds were found in sealed Roman layers deposits with a local ceramic type in the region that was always dated as Islamic. The coin finds are allowing us to establish a new chronology for this ceramic type and the results of that will, naturally, be the impetus for redoing the chronologies of other sites in the area.

The study of the coin finds themselves, and comparable series of finds from nearby sites, are allowing me to associate certain trends with historical events that affected the habitation of the fort. Comparison with hoards and site finds from other areas may allow some further statements on coin circulation in the area, but I have not delved much into this aspect of the finds as yet.

Here the scientific value of the coins far exceeds the small amount of money they would fetch on an indiscriminate market that does not concern itself about where they may have came from.



Just to add weight to the points made about recording grot, my colleague Sam Moorhead wrote the following:

We are interested in all coins for the information that they provide - numismatic and spatial.

The Scheme might be voluntary, but finder's have to comply with export license requirements. Citing the fact the clauses from MLA's export guidance that the coins are extremely common and published is not good enough. They are archaeological finds and an archaeologist should be given the chance to say yes or no to them leaving the UK.

I am indeed working on elements for people to record objects themselves, but the individuals involved will have to give their identity, decent images and unprovenanced records will be rejected. I, and I hope my colleagues will not record objects that have no provenance.

Our database is changing dramatically, it will just be a while longer whilst I finish all the data cleansing to make the queries run.



I would be interested in your thoughts on this statement from the latest Paul Barford blog: "The study of "Numismatics" by itself is not really important in the broader scope of research on the human past,..."

I have asked for some clarification, but have not received it as yet.

It seems he does value coins in some respect, but only ones from a secure "context."

In any event, would you agree or disagree with the proposition that the study of coins in itself is essentially a worthless pursuit?

I would agree that contextual information can be useful, and is desireable, but that preserving it can't be "legislated," and that to do so risks ending the study and preservation of untold numbers of coins out there.


Peter Tompa


Peter Tompa


Hello Peter,
I see this exchange has already been published on the blog in question, but if you want my two cents I will provide it.

In the context of Mr. Barford’s post, I do not think he was trying to denigrate numismatic study in the quotation you provided. I understand his statement and sentiment and I would argue that the same can be said about any discipline: Archaeology in isolation of other disciplines is limited; the study of texts in isolation of other disciplines is limited; the study of inscriptions in isolation of other evidence is limited; and the same goes with coins.

In the past few decades, historical sciences have come to the realization that interdisciplinary work is fundamental to understanding the past most accurately and most securely. If someone understands Rome simply from its material culture (archaeology) on the one hand and another understands Rome simply from what ancient writers recorded on the other hand, then we have two very different understandings and views of Roman society, neither of which is wholly accurate.

Modern archaeologists, historians, and numismatists must take account of developments and evidence employed in other disciplines. Although I consider myself a numismatist and an archaeologist, I regularly discuss numismatic and archaeological information in conjunction with ancient texts, modern historical discourses, and epigraphic information. Other peer-reviewed works are commonly produced in such a fashion.

In fact an APA Presidential Panel at the AIA/APA meeting in January discussed the convergence of historical sciences and the fundamental need for scholars to be versed in all relevant disciplines and forms of evidence.

Certainly, numismatists of the 19th and 20th centuries who studied ancient coins in isolation of other evidence provided methodologies and insights we value today, such as Imhoof-Blumer who developed the die study. But this is not to say that such innovations of the past should void the contributions or potential contributions of coins in context.

Hundreds of thousands if not millions of ancient coins surface on the market each year. Their material history is lost. 80-90% of these coins are “common” and disposed of en masse in places like eBay. Very few of this are unique in any way. The ACCG Executive Director obviously does not value them having dismissed them before as “trash” and “junk.”They may be the 2,000th example of a type that has long been known. Perhaps the other 10-20% is sold by mid-range dealers and auction houses and are less common, but again are not unique and are previously known types. Maybe 1% or less of all these coins are unique unrecorded types or variations of recorded types.
The accumulation of previously known types itself is not a scholarly act and does not in and of itself contribute to scholarship. What will yet another Judea Capta coin without a context yield?
On the other hand, these “junk” or “trash” coins, or even those with greater “collectability,” can yield valuable insights about the past or about the local history of a site when they are studied in context and in conjunction with other finds (see my comment above about Yotvata).
If all of the fuss is about preserving and furthering numismatic scholarship, we should not be asking how we can protect and indiscriminate and destructive market, but rather how we can insure that as much information as possible about a coin and its find circumstances can be preserved.

All best,


Thank you for your comments. In theory at least, there should be no conflict between recording a coin's context and having a vibrant marketplace-- which after all-- helps ensure the untold masses of coins out there find people willing to preserve them and transmit them to future generations (as well as inspiring interest in the past in the general populace).

The problem is that the market itself does not really put a premium on knowing a coin's context, and government fiat in many countries actually encourages people to hide what they find, lest it be in effect confiscated by the authorities. That is of course why many people think the system in Britain and Wales is preferable, if by no means "perfect."


Hello Peter,

This is my point. If collectors/dealers are concerned about looting and an organized group that claims to be the "voice" of collectors regularly touts the PAS as a solution and model for other schemes, then it makes sense that group ought to promote the scheme in practice within the market rather than using as a mere point of argumentation whenever convenient.

All best,