Saturday, June 20, 2009

Coins in Context I: H.-M. von Kaenel, "Coins in context – a personal approach"

This is my first discussion of an individual contribution from the new collection of essays in H.-M von Kaenel and F. Kemmers (eds.). 2009. Coins in Context I: New Perspectives for the Interpretation of Coin Finds. Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike 23 (Mainz: von Zabern). It makes sense to proceed through the book in an ordered fashion for this series of posts and so I will begin with the section on "Methodological Overviews" in which the first essay is that by H.-M. von Kaenel, "Coins in context - a personal approach" (pp. 9-24).

H.-M. von Kaenel is an internationally known numismatist who has, for over three decades, actively combined archaeology and numismatics in his research. As the title of his contribution indicates, he reflects on the study "coins in context" through his own experiences offering us a sort of retrospective, but also provides critical discussion regarding the state of method and theory in the study of coins from archaeological contexts. He focuses throughout on the benefits afforded by attention to the study of coins from close contexts at archaeological sites in particular.

Following the introduction is a section comparing and contrasting the study of coins from an entire series (i.e. an entire group from a site) and from feature-related ensembles (from a tighter archaeological context). Here the author references his publication of Roman coin finds from Aventicum, which he carried out when he was a student, and tells us how he educated himself on the study of archaeologically recovered coin finds from the writings of Konrad Kraft. Already at young age, he could distinguish ways in which the study of coins from archaeological contexts could be advanced since Kraft had written at a time when excavation techniques were still at an early stage in their development. He references how archaeological work at Aventicum provided a new chronology for the site and then provides a more recent and lengthy example with regard to the study of the coin finds from Vindnossa.

At Vindonissa, a rather small sample of coins from a tight archaeological context associated with the pre-fortress timber phases 1-4 allowed a new chronology and understanding of the history of Vindonissa to be established. Study of the entire series of finds from the site, which had been gathered for several centuries, provided a much larger sample of coins but could not clearly answer questions about the foundation, caesurae, and end of the settlement as clearly as those from tighter features could. The reason for this is because the larger sample of coins from Vindonissa was simply a mix of coins from multiple features and occupation horizons at the site.

In the next section, "reference series" for the study of coin finds are surveyed and discussed as an important aspect of contextual and comparative research. Our best corpora are from the northwestern provinces, with fewer good corpora existing in the central and urban regions of the Roman Empire (i.e. Rome, Italy, Gaul, North Africa). Nevertheless some important corpora from the center have been published such as those on the Caligulan and Claudian finds from the Tiber River. There is also the corpus of c. 70,000 coins from Rome which await comprehensive publication.

The third section, "From 'numismatics or archaeology' to 'archaeology and numismatics'," is an interesting methodological discourse. He begins with an anecdote about publishing the Celtic coin finds from some Swiss excavations which, through their archaeological context, provided a new chronology on the coins themselves. He speaks about how established French numismatists such as K. Castelin and J.-B. Colbert de Beaulieu reacted against this new chronology. Colbert de Beaulieu was particularly forceful. While Castelin entered into an academic dialogue with the young von Kaenel and his colleagues on the numismatic and archaeological rationales for chronologies in Celtic numismatics, Colbert de Beaulieu used his superior institutional position to protect the traditional chronology although young French archaeologists and numismatists quietly agreed with von Kaenel and his colleagues. In the coming years, archaeologists increasingly accepted the new chronology, rooted in material evidence, and it eventually supplanted the traditional numismatic chronology. Von Kaenel concludes this short section:
"The necessary revisions have long been made, and today no one seriously asks the question 'numismatics or archaeology' – the title of a paper by K. Castelin published in 1976. In fact, in Celtic numismatics today it is a matter of 'archaeology and numismatics'. In no other area of ancient numismatics has the discussion on coins and money been so productively stimulated and advanced by archaeologists as in Celtic numismatics" (p. 18).

Section four deals with "object biographies" and coins from archaeological contexts (S. Krmnicek's article, "Das Konzept der Objektbiographie in der antiken Numismatik," pp. 47-59, deals with this theme in more detail). Here the author references the hoard from Neftenbach that was found through the course of the archaeological excavations at the villa there. It is truly a spectacular hoard, not because of the coins themselves, but because of the detailed way in which it was studied and the information that it yielded (H.-M. von Kaenel, H. Brem, J. Th. Elmer, et al. 1993. Der Münzhort aus dem Gutshof in Neftenbach. Antoniniane und Denare von Septimius Severus bis Postumus. Zürcher Denkmalpflege, Archäologische Monographien 16 (Zürich and Egg). When hoards are found by metal detectorists – and sometimes even inexperienced or student excavators – the vessel containing the coins is dumped out and the potentials for studying the "micro context" are lost. At Neftenbach, however, the bronze vessel containing the hoard was taken to Winterthur where it was to be studied by numismatic specialists. H.-M. von Kaenel, B. Hedinger, and H. Brem decided to conduct a "stratigraphic excavation" of the coins inside the canister with the aid of an endoscope. Through the course of this tedious excavation they documented 20 layers within the vessel itself which composed the hoard. There were eight roll-like groups of coins and six other distinguishable groups. These groups of coins, also differentiated by their dates, indicated it was a savings hoard where coins were put into it at different times and in different manners. Biological remains showed that the vessel was padded with foxtail millet to absorb moisture and that it was sealed with a cloth or leather. The vessel and its contents were placed in a tile enclosure hidden beneath floorboards and covered with hay; some of this additional organic material made its way into the vessel after a fire that occurred later after the hoard was hidden. The biological remains and the vessel itself were also analyzed by specialists and published in the volume cited above. The case from Neftenbach indicates the potential of the close study of coin finds:
"Context was thus in many respects vital for determining the value of the hoard from Neftenbach as a historical source. Initially it was a question of the coins themselves, the composition of the series; then the coin rolls and bags and their deposition in the container as well as the insertion of the foxtail millet; next the fate of the bronze vessel in its hiding place in the context of the history of the gate building; and ultimately this as part of the history of the villa at Neftenbach…. When using the word 'context', we refer to everything in the 'space' in which a coin once 'lived', where it fulfilled its function as a coin. Just as 'life' evolves in a manifold network of relationships of a biological, spiritual, religious, social and material nature, so too the 'life' of a coin occurs in one, several or even in a great number of 'spaces'. But not only this; a precondition for being able to hold an ancient coin in our hand today is its transmission, which again took place in its own, specific 'context'. Coins are thus things, objects and these have their own physical and social 'life', their individual and supra-individual history, their object biography. The goal of the scholarly study of coins in general, and more specifically of coin finds, must be to decode this as far as possible.

Coin finds from context have, as a rule, a fundamentally higher potential as evidence than those without context. They hold the key to the reconstruction of the 'social life' of coins as money, and are a precondition for the potential of coins as a historical source being fully exhausted. Archaeological and numismatic research in this direction is, admittedly, still in an early stage. But much of what has been said in the past has not been paid appropriate attention, and so it is necessary to discuss individual examples of the potential of this type of approach" (pp. 20-21).

Von Kaenel turns to Kalkriese in his section on "source criticism" in which he uses studies on Kalkriese to point out on how we must be vigilant about the nature of our sources and how finds were recovered.

The sixth and final section before his conclusion is entitled "Actuality: the decontextualisation of coin finds on a previously unknown scale." Here he calls attention to the systematic destruction that is taking place in many parts of the world to supply the market in ancient coins and antiquities which is also destroying the potential knowledge that contextual study can yield:
"Never before has so much archaeological material been removed from the earth through illegal looting as it has since the 1990s. We are witness to a 'decontextualisation process' on an enormous scale which affects all archaeological objects. However, as regards sheer numbers, coins take first place."

He goes on briefly to contrast the number of coins recorded in our most important finds inventories with the number of fresh coins which appear on the market each year and continues:
"This is a loss of historical source material that is without comparison, and it canot be replaced. The situation for archaeology is just as disastrous as it is for numismatics. Many colleagues are aware of this, but only a few speak out and the authorities responsible have so far not been prepared to intervene actively and consistently."

In his conclusion, the author returns to Theodor Mommsen and the goal of the historical sciences which, as Mommsen put it in a letter to the Swiss numismatist Fredrich Imhoof-Blumer: "Each collation on a grand scale is to some extent the solution of the historical problem on which we work." Von Kaenel states that to understand the past we, as numismatists and archaeologists, must ask why coins were struck, what functions they had, and what meaning they had to their contemporary users, how they functioned in legal frameworks, various institutions, and how actions of the state affected them – all things which are greatly enhanced and perhaps best worked at through attention to context.

All current and future posts relating to the book and its content can be found by using the keyword "Coins in Context I."