Monday, March 23, 2009

Course: "Picture Language on Roman Coins: Approaches and Interpretations"

Next month I will begin leading an upper-level course entitled "Die Bildsprache auf römischen Münzen. Methoden und Deutungen" (Picture Language on Roman Coins: Approaches and Interpretations) at the Goethe Universität Frankfurt.

This course grows out of my own research where I have been developing methodologies for understanding Roman coin images, but the course is designed to give a broad overview of the historiography of the study of coin reverses in addition to introducing students to the potential of developing methodologies in numismatics, Roman art historical theory, and archaeology.

I understand I am fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct a course on a specialized topic relating to coins since it is rare for even general numismatic courses to be offered at North American universities. Naturally, I realize there may be a broader interest in this subject and, taking advantage of the Internet Age, I invite any interested readers to follow along as we progress.

I have started a blog for the course: "Die Bildsprache auf römischen Münzen." When the course begins on April 14, I will begin updating the blog weekly with new themes and readings for each meeting. All of the downloadable course materials on the blog will be in German. However, I understand that some interested parties may not read German and so I will try to post handouts in English here, on this website, as we go through the course.

Although this course is upper-level and thus I would normally plan a more intensive list of readings for a seminar-style course such at this, I have consciously scaled back. I am told by my colleagues it will be of a more "elective" nature, according to the course requirements and system here, and so too many readings would scare off otherwise interested students. Therefore, for certain themes I will also be listing "further readings" for those who wish to be more thorough.

The documents I have posted on the course blog so far, which I provide in English here, are:

-Syllabus with course overiew (pdf)
-Week 1 (pdf)
-Week 2 (pdf)
(Foto: Sesterz von Vespasian, 71 n. Chr. Münzkabinett der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Objektnummer 18200606.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Commodification of Antiquities as a Means of Protection?

An argument frequently banded about in the "antiquities debate" is that state-employed archaeologists and governments ought to facilitate the commodification of antiquities. It is asserted that this would 1) bring about an end to looting and 2) insure the preservation of antiquities. Perhaps it is worth revisiting these claims since they have been repeated with renewed fervor in the past couple of weeks.

Regarding the first point, some dealers and collectors allege that if archaeological warehouses and museum stores were opened up and sold off to the market then a legitimate market could be established, supplied only in this manner, while other antiquities trading could be made illegal. This contention is not well thought out. And let us be clear, the market in antiquities as it currently operates is already illegal and yet it flourishes; the great masses of Balkan antiquities presently in the North American market were not licitly excavated or exported.

Some collectors make a comparison to drug trafficking and America’s rather unsuccessful “War on Drugs.” They argue the point that government regulation may work better than a flat out ban. Fair enough, but the comparison is flawed in several ways since the supply mechanisms for the two markets are very different. Drugs are presently manufactured or grown illegally in the United States by people of varying criminal character, ranging from college students with a few plants to organized criminal gangs who run larger enterprises. Often times, harder drugs are imported from South American countries, where they are produced by organized criminal groups. Hypothetically speaking, if the United States government decided to legalize and regulate drugs, the government could license certain companies to produce substances and provide oversight to make them “safer” for the consumer. At the same time the illicit trade would be made much less profitable and the government could tax and control the regulated trade.

If we think about it though, this model is impossible to apply to the trade in antiquities. In many ways drugs are “renewable resources” in the sense that they are simply grown and harvested, like any crop, or can be manufactured. Antiquities, on the other hand, are a finite resource and only fakes and reproductions can be (and are) manufactured. For the sake of argument, however, let us suppose that governments around the world decided that they should commodify antiquities by opening museum stores and archaeological warehouses to sell “excess” antiquities. How long would it be until it was all consumed? Many American collectors and dealers seem to have a complete misunderstanding of archaeology as if its only goal is to go out and find “cool stuff” to put in museums (e.g. see the necesient editorial of one dealer in Coin World magazine, June 2007). On the contrary, modern field archaeology moves rather slowly in order to preserve and properly record contexts and the relationships between objects and assemblages. Once an object is pulled from the ground its context is irrecoverably destroyed and so it is essential to be methodical, scientific, and observant when excavating. The tools of archaeological science are trowels, brushes, and dental instruments. Compare these with the tools of those who supply the indiscriminate market in antiquities: bulldozers, backhoes, metal detectors, shovels, chainsaws (for hacking up relief, statues, and decorated sarcophagi), etc. In short, those who loot to supply Western dealers and collectors move a lot faster than archaeologists can and their methods are anything but scientific. Although some collectors and dealers like to say that archaeologists “hoard” antiquities for themselves and for study in their own little “club,” they fail to realize (or admit) that the vast majority of ancient objects do not reside in museums or archaeological stores but rather are already in dealer inventories and private collections. For example, the literal ton of ancient coins that one single "wholesaler" and supplier smuggled and sold to American dealers in 1999 roughly equates the same number of coins that German archaeology has recovered in two centuries and which have been systematically catalogued in finds inventories printed since 1960 (see discussion here with further references). Assuming all of these excavated coins are in still in archaeological warehouses throughout Germany, they would probably supply the American market in ancient coins for no more than a couple of months given the current rate of demand (for the scale of the American trade in ancient coins, see Elkins 2008 and the 2009 lecture posted at the Hellenic Society for Law and Archaeology website). Since the founding of the state of Israel, coins from excavations have been deposited with the Israel Antiquities Authority and their current archive holds approximately 110,000 coins in total. Compare this with the tens of thousands of coins sold each month by "wholesalers" who advertise their stock as coming from the "Holy Land." In light of the scale of the antiquities market for tourists in Israel (not accounting for the overseas market), Orly Blum notes:

"A counter proposal made by the pro-trade lobby is that the IAA should sell
artefacts that have already been studied and documented and which at present are
not exhibited to the public but are kept in storage. There is, however, a strong
objection to this suggestion. According to the IAA over 100,000 artefacts are
sold yearly. The Department of Antiquities has approximately 120,000 registered
items, other than coins (Ilan et al. 1989). If the present volume of sales were
maintained, the Department of Antiquities’ storerooms would be emptied within a

Asking archaeologists and governments to commodify antiquities and empty archaeological warehouses and museum stores to establish a licit market is not a practicable suggestion. Such repositories could be emptied, but an illicit underground market would continue to thrive as long as dealers and collectors did not concern themselves with the recent history of the objects they wish to acquire.

The second argument made in favor of government-sanctioned commodification of antiquities is that museum stores and archaeological warehouses sometimes do not have enough money to preserve antiquities they have and so they should be sold to collectors who can "care" for them. Recently on the Unidroit-L list some collectors have called attention to some 7,000 year old boats that have deteriorated in storage due to a lack of adequate funding to conserve them. One collector states that this is evidence that such things should be sold to collectors who can better care for them. Again, is this not rather simplistic? Consisting of very old organic materials, the remnants of a 7,000 year old boat are very difficult and expensive to conserve. Firstly, a collector would probably have little interest in things that are this large and not very aesthetically pleasing. Secondly, it assumes that a collector who bought such a thing would conserve it, but there would be no oversight to insure this. Who is to say that whoever might buy it would have the financial resources or the expertise to preserve it? Such an object certainly requires a specialist facility and constant maintenance. It is not the type of thing that could be put in the living room and expected not to rot. Archaeological conservators have advanced training in chemistry and professional conservation is not the type of thing that just anyone can properly undertake. Although your average archaeologist may have some basic knowledge of conservation, even they are not specialized conservators. This is precisely why museums and archaeological excavations employ trained conservators and why excavated objects are then moved to archaeological warehouses that also employ conservators to care for finds. If collectors are concerned about the deterioration of these important things and if the government is not supplying adequate funding, why not contact the custodians and donate some money? I do not recall demanding a tiger cub or getting a snow owl in return for my last donation to the WWF.

Collectors on the Unidroit-L list have also latched onto the news of the collapse of the archive building in Cologne, Germany, stating that had everything not been stored in this building the loss might not have been so great. One compared this to the burning of the Library of Alexandria and said that had it been divided up the loss would not have been so substantial. But is this not spinning the issue? The function of an archive or library is to be a repository of information. If, as dealer Dave Welsh and a hanger-on suggested, such great archives, libraries, and collections were intentionally dispersed, then any researcher would have to travel to multiple disparate locations to conduct research, defeating the very purpose of such repositories. This also increases the statistical possibility of disaster striking at any particularl location.

And if things were sold to collectors to "care for," then how can their future study be insured? X collector sells to Y dealer who then sells it Z collector. How will one know where it is to study it further? Who is to say that the collector in question, as a private citizen, would allow anyone to see it or study it or not demand some extraordinary conditions even to allow it to be examined (e.g. the researcher must promote some ideological agenda or require pecuniary compensation)? For example, there is an eccentric collector of fossils I am familiar with in West Texas who runs a private fossil museum and is a staunch creationist. He possesses some very rare and significant fossils, and for the sake of argument, let us say he would not let paleontologists who do not believe man walked side-by-side with dinosaurs consult them, what if only staunch creationists believing in the literal word of the Bible could “scientifically” study these?

These arguments about the need for the commodification of antiquities are flawed on multiple levels and are directed at trying to shame archaeologists and governments for improper care of items. Where this is warranted, I will agree. All excavated finds merit thorough study and proper conservation, but let us recognize the agenda of those collectors maintaining those arguments and the dealers who formulated them. Certainly the conclusion that archaeologists and governments ought to endorse the commodification of antiquities based on such criticisms is agenda-driven and without merit. The conclusion itself is a non-sequitor. I would also like to point out that while improvements can be made in some circumstances in government and archaeological custodianship, there is no oversight governing the custodianship of collectors and dealers and that one can just as easily point to cases where objects owned by collectors and dealers are being destroyed, mutilated, or allowed to decay (e.g. Elkins 2008, pp. 5-6). And let us not forget that looters regularly smash pots because sherds can be smuggled easier than whole vases and that decorated relief panels and statue pieces are cut down or off of other monuments to make them transportable and more displayable.

We ought to ecognize these arguments for what they are: red herrings. They distract from the central issue which is one that concerns the material and intellectual consequences of looting and its relationship to an indiscriminate market and the responsibility of individual stakeholders (archaeologists, dealers, and collectors).

Note: At least one responsible collector seems to understand the fallacy of these often repeated deceptions. Privately, a colleague also pointed out the irony in the fact that some commentators simultaneously lament announcements to disperse of large study collections, but then maintain that large collections should be slimmed down to appease the commercial interest. At the same time, such commentators also laud Cuno's arguments, even though he is a strong supporter of the same "encyclopedic museum" which they would prefer to have divided among American curio cabinets in private homes and appartments throughout the country.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

WildWinds Hacked

A couple of weeks ago it was announced that Dave Surber, creator of the WildWinds coin database, passed away. WildWinds is one of the best-known websites among both ancient coin collectors and numismatic scholars. In addition to being a reference for attribution and price research for collectors, it is widely used by scholars as well since it records so many unique and variant types.

In the wake of the tragic news of Mr. Surber's untimely death, several numismatic discussion lists have now reported that WildWinds has been maliciously hacked. It is terrible that someone would deliberately destroy another's hard and significant work - a deed made all the more terrible on account of its timing. It seems that the section on Greek coins suffered the most while some pages on Roman imperial and provincial coins also were deleted. One individual estimated that about 30% of the WildWinds database had been damaged.

Shortly after Surber's death, there were vague indications that an effort was underway to maintain the WildWinds database and I hope that those who take on this task will be able to restore the lost information. It seems that some of the lost pages are still present in the Google cache and so, hopefully, these will be saved and reintegrated into the website before they are purged from the Google cache (things do not stay in Google cache forever).

It is hard to imagine why anyone would attack a site like this. There is abundant speculation in the online discussion groups, but many seem to think it may have been an attack carried out by a forger or by someone who was resentful of the fact that the site is used for price research. But again, no facts appear to be known yet as to the identity or motivation of the hacker. I would hope that the situation has been referred to law enforcement authorities who perhaps can track them down and hold them accountable.

Anyone with any specific information on efforts to restore the WildWinds database or with any information as to any action being taken against the hacker are welcome to post comments.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Geldmuseum of the Deutsche Bundesbank and Chocolate Euro Notes

Yesterday I had a final bit of dental work done following the removal of the wisdom teeth - loving the easy access to health care in Europe, but not so much the dental work per se. Anyway, after seeing the dentist, my head was too full of anesthetic to get any work accomplished. Since Wednesday afternoons officially fall outside of my contractual Dienstzeit at the university, I decided to visit the Geldmuseum (Money Museum) of the Deutsche Bundesbank here in Frankfurt.

Even though I have been in Frankfurt for the better part of the past three years, this was the first time I had visited the museum, which is about a 25-minute walk from the university campus at which I work. I always seemed to forget to go and I never did go on weekends because it is a bit out of the way from where I live and from the city center.

While most people may not have any interest in this little-known museum, numismatists or ancient coin enthusiasts might find the detour off the beaten path worth it. In many ways, it is your typical money museum. Several cases show you how money developed from the electrum coinages in western Turkey up through the modern day. There is a particularly excellent display that demonstrates how modern Euro notes are printed, with examples of the notes, printing plates, papers, holograms, and inks used. There is also a rather interesting medieval coin hoard on exhibit, with the vessel in which it was found, and includes a description of its find context and the information learned from it. (By the way, most all of the signs and descriptions were provided in both German and English). One room in the museum contains glass cases with ancient through modern coins, and this will be the room of greatest interest to anyone interested in ancient coins. They do not have a particularly large collection of ancient coins on display, but there are some rather uncommon and well-preserved specimens. Two EID MAR coins of Brutus were on display (an aureus and a denarius) as was an Athenian dekadrachm. These displays did not relate the previous history of any of these objects. There were also a number of interactive computer displays and learning centers.

It did not appear that photography was permitted in the museum and so I refrained (its is always difficult to photograph coins in cases anyway). The gift shop was also typical of a money museum. One could purchase a large brick of shredded Euro notes, a million Euro worth, for €13,95. There were also some Euro coin proof sets on sale as well as some other coin-related things. The gift shop of the European Central Bank, located in Frankfurt's city center, also sells things like this. I picked up a couple of postcards of coins that are in the collection, but unfortunately there was not a very diverse selection. I also bought some small chocolate Euro notes. Since I did not get to take any photos in the museum itself, I illustrate this post with the chocolates and postcards. A series of scholarly lectures at the museum will be hosted through the summer and begins in April.