Thursday, July 30, 2009

Coins in Context I: P. Beliën, "From coins to comprehensive narrative? The coin finds from the Roman army camp on Kops Plateau at Nijmegen..."

The first three essays by von Kaenel, Elkins, and Krmnicek from Coins in Context I: New Perspectives for the Interpretation of Coin Finds composed the first series of articles on "methodological overviews." The next four articles are grouped in a section called "potential at site level." The first of those is Paul Beliën's "From coins to comprehensive narrative? The coin finds from the Roman army camp on Kops Plateau at Nijmegen: problems and opportunities" (pp. 61-80). It should be noted that the military camp on Nijmegen's Kops Plateau should not be confused for the legionary fortress on the Hunerburg whose coin finds have already been systematically studied and analyzed (see F. Kemmers. 2006. Coins for a Legion: An Analysis of the coin finds of the Augustan Legionary Fortress and Flavian canabae legionis at Nijmegen. Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike 21 (Mainz: von Zabern)).

Beliën's contribution lays out his methodology for a study of the coin finds from the fort on the Kops Plateau, founded c. 12 BC and abandoned in AD 69 during the Batavian Revolt, which he is currently undertaking. The first eight pages provide the historical background which need not detain us here. The author then provides a short history of the excavations on the Kops Plateau on page 69. The site has been rather productive. Beliën states "By 1995, 42,000 features, 375,000 sherds, 35,000 fragments of brick and loam, 30,000 metal objects, 3,000 pieces of slag, and 4,668 coins were found. In addition to this, copious amounts of organic material were recovered, such as 62,000 animal and human bone fragments." As he indicates one of the problems in studying material from the Kops Plateau is that little has been published, which he attributes to the fact that much of the site was excavated before the Malta Convention (alt. Valetta Treaty) was enacted in 1992, which has a provision for regular publication and reports. But at least the complete coin lists were published in 2002 in FMRN 3.1.

Beliën begins delving into his methodological discussion on page 70. In studying the coins in context, his primary goals are to understand what processes were in place to supply coins to the Kops Plateau and if there is any significance to deposition patterns of the coin finds. He adds:

"When analysing the coins and their contexts, we must take into account the various factors that governed the deposition and loss of coins and the post-depositional processes that influenced the ways in which the coin complex was formed. The size of coins, the metal they are made of, their value (in the Roman period, as well as in modern times), the number of coins of a certain type or denomination in circulation on a site, the way they were used and the methods used during excavation, must all be considered" (p. 70).
The author also plans on conducting a "numismatic analysis" that at this stage will focus on AVAVCIA coins, countermarked coins, and "barbaric imitations" which he expects will be new sources of information and which perhaps also were produced locally. Beliën also supposes that Celtiberian and Gallic coins may provide information about the origins of the soldiers on the Kops Plateau. All of this taken together should provide insights into how the coin series here came to be and will no doubt open the door to chronological questions and raise further questions on the way coins were used by or supplied to different military units at different periods of time.

Beliën will also examine the coin finds in a regional context in order to determine what relationships between the camp and outlying settlements and sanctuaries may have had through the lens of the coin finds: "By making an inventory of the coin finds from the area and comparing the loss patterns, it should be possible to learn more about the nature of the monetary interaction between the Roman military at Nijmegen and the people living in the Batavian countryside, which could be considered a militarised zone at the time" (pp. 72-73). The author then formally discusses some geographical and chronological limits of his study which need not occupy us here since we are most interested in the broader methodology.

Pages 74-77 address the data set. There are 5,340 coins from the Kops Plateau which are available for study. Most coin finds come from disturbed contexts. So far, approximately 200 coins were recovered from undisturbed features and in sealed contexts associated with other datable objects. Although much of the total corpus is considered "stray finds," they will still be essential components of the broader study. Coins from private collections or in the Museum het Valkhof that were found by metal detectorists, and those from early 20th century excavations, are excluded since it is not known where on the Kops Plateau they were found. This reduces his sample to 4,483 coins and ten coin hoards from the Kops Plateau. Beliën is also cautious against using coins from collections since they have undergone a modern process of selection in order to enter a collection and do not represent the ancient reality of what was lost.

Beliën also notes that while certain parts of the site were thoroughly excavated, and in these a metal detector was used in every trench after every 10-15 cm of excavation to ensure that all coins and metal objects were recovered, other parts were not and so the sample he is using will only reflect what was occurring at certain parts of the site at certain time periods. Large parts of the Kops Plateau remain unexcavated, and other areas of the site have been vandalized by looters and the sample of coin finds further diminished.

The final section of the article is entitled "A research strategy." It begins by telling us how each coin will be photographed and put into a database. Initial research questions will focus on the AVAVCIA coins, countermarked coins, and the "barbaric imitations," as well as the Celtiberian and Gallic coins. After the systematization of the data, Beliën will consider archaeological contexts in conjunction with the numismatic data. A distinction is made between coins with coordinates and coins without coordinates. Those without coordinates are only known to have come from a specific trench, other spatial information regarding their features or layers in which they were embedded is lost. He explains, however, "If we use the coordinates of the centre of the trenches in which these coins were found, we can still use them for the analyses to get at least some idea about the general distribution of these coins on the site."

The coins with an exact find spot are divided into three further categories: 1) not from features, 2) from features, and 3) closed contexts. Those in the first category will be used in spatial distribution maps. He expects this may provide some information on the date and function of various parts of the forts. Those in the second category may provide information on the feature or, alternatively, the feature may provide information on the coins. For the final category, Beliën explains:

"After analysing the coins and the associated data and material from every closed context, it has to be established if patterns can be discerned in the distribution of certain coin types, countermarks, etc., over these archaeological contexts. This might tell us something about the date and function of coins and coin use as well as the contexts in which they were lost. The coins from post holes, for example, may provide us with some interesting information: Harry van Enckevort, one of the excavators, told the author that several denarii were found in post holes of the praetorium and it is quite likely that these were intentionally deposited there" (p.79).
After this work is done and all of the information on the coin finds and various features is collated, the comparative work with outlying and neighboring settlements can be undertaken and preliminary plan is sketched.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Future of the Gold Vessel from Ur (or Troy?) Remains Uncertain

Earlier I discussed the case of a gold vessel from Iraq that was offered for sale by ancient coin auction house Hirsch Nachfolger in 2005 and seized by German officials after it was spotted ("The Curious Case of a Gold Vessel from Ur"). The case has received less press in English speaking media than in Germany, but has been summarized and commented upon by some others in the blogosphere: "Gold Vessel from Ur - or is that Troy?" (Gill); "Mainz and the Gold Vessel" (Gill); "Why do Antiquities from Iraq Continue to Surface on the Market?" (Gill); "What is Münzhandlung Hirsch going to do with the Ur-Troy Goldgefäß?" (Barford).

Michael-Müller Karpe, an authority on ancient metalwork from Mesopotamia, examined the vessel and determined it was likely looted from a royal tomb in or near Ur. Münzhandlung Hirsch Nachfolger claims the vessel is from Troy. Müller-Karpe had been retaining the vessel at the request of the Iraqi embassy in Berlin, but the vessel has now been turned over again to German authorities and its future remains uncertain.

Setback for Iraq as Ancient Gold Vial Seized in Germany

Berlin - In a setback for Iraqi efforts to claim a tiny ancient gold vial, the item has been sent to a valuer in line with a German court order, a lawyer said Tuesday. Both a Munich auctioneer and the Iraqi government claim the dented little container. A German archaeology museum, which has taken Iraq's side, believes the item is 4,500 years old and comes from ancient Mesopotamia.

The attorney representing Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger, the Munich auction company, said the museum had surrendered the item after a stalemate of many weeks.

The auctioneer hopes that a Berlin valuer will decide the mystery item is not Mesopotamian, but Roman, allowing it to go back on sale. It was seized in 2005, halting an earlier auction.

Customs agents appointed by a tax court in Munich picked up the plain vial, which is 35 millimetres high, on Monday from the Roman and Germanic Museum in Mainz.

Iraq's ambassador to Berlin had hoped the museum would safeguard the vial until its provenance and value are clear.

But the museum director decided to surrender the item, 3sat television reported. Archaeologist Michael Mueller-Karpe of the Mainz museum believes the object was looted from a royal grave in Iraq.

(Photo from Deutsche Welle)

Thursday, July 16, 2009 Limits Access and Implements Fee

Coin find inventories and museum collections are increasingly being made freely available through online databases. It is also a growing trend that academic journals are being made available electronically while subscription prices are being lowered for those who opt for online subscription only. Therefore, it is curious these days when a resource suddenly ceases to be free and implements an inordinate access fee.

As I came into the office yesterday, the first thing I heard from a colleague was that had ceased allowing free and complete access to its archived auction sales and had limited full access only to those who pay an annual subscription of $600 or €430. was a convenient reference used by some academics and researchers who wanted to start conducting a die study or who needed to make quick identification. It was also an easy place to go when one needed to see an image when certain reference catalogues were not at immediately at hand. Collectors frequently used the site to conduct their own research or to investigate pricing trends before making an acquisition. The recent and seemingly abrupt decision to limit access has certainly stirred up spirited discussions on collector fora such the Moneta-L list (click the link and see the subsequent discussion threads).

There has been a lot of speculation as to why this decision was made to limit access only to those who can pay such a large fee. But perhaps it is telling that instead of a $20 yearly access fee for which many people would pay, a $600 annual fee was chosen that will exclude most collectors, researchers, and institutions, and will therefore be a resource which only a few large auction houses and profitable dealers can afford. The fee will limit the potential of amateur and academic study alike with this resource and will be an especially serious blow to collectors who like to do a bit market research before bidding or buying.

Perhaps researchers will return to using large photo files like those at the American Numismatic Society or at Frankfurt University, but many photo files have ceased to be updated since the mid- to late 1990s precisely because of sites like that were electronically archiving sales and making those archives free to the public.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Coins in Context I: St. Krmnicek, "Das Konzept der Objektbiographie in der antiken Numismatik"

Here is the third installment in the series of posts about the new book, Coins in Context I: New Perspectives for the Interpretation of Coin Finds. Stefan Krmnicek’s "Das Konzept der Objektbiographie in der antiken Numismatik" (pp. 47-59) discusses theoretical applications in numismatics, namely the concept of "object biography." It is the only contribution in the volume that is not published in English, though it is preceded by a short abstract in English (p. 47).

Coins are economic tools and are frequently studied from this single perspective in modern discourses but, just as today, objects can have multiple varying and simultaneous functions. This contribution examines the contemporary reception of ancient coins by exploring the different potential functions they had. The first section of the article "Die Grundlagen des modernen Fachverständnisses" (pp. 48-52) is a short historiographic discussion on the way that our understanding of ancient coins has been shaped by centuries of study. The end of the section introduces a discussion on how developing theories and perspectives in prehistoric archaeology have influenced Iron Age numismatics, especially in defining a dichotomy between ritual and non-ritual interpretations.

The rest of the relatively short contribution provides an example from Arrian’s Cynegeticus (32, 1-2) where coins take on a completely different function as ritual offerings and posits a hypothetical model illustrating how the meaning of a coin could have changed at different times in its "lifetime." As archaeologists and numismatists, we must be aware that in most cases the only function or meaning of a coin that we can recognize will be that from its final deposition, i.e. from its find context. Any meaning it had before its final deposition will, in most cases, be lost to modern observers.

It is argued that the foundations for a discussion on the value of theory in numismatics have been laid in studies on Iron Age coin finds, but such perspectives could be applied to other areas of ancient numismatics as well.

All current and future posts pertaining to this book can be easily found by the keyword "Coins in Context I."

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Curious Case of a Gold Vessel from Ur

Last Wednesday, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung carried a story entitled "Deutsch-irkaischer Archäologenkrimi / Aus Ur oder aus Troja? Ein Goldgefäß macht derzeit den Behörden Probleme. Es soll von Raubgrabungen aus dem Irak stammen. Bagdad hat Strafanzeige gegen einen deutschen Händler gestellt" (by D. Gerlach, 29.6.2009, pp. 1,3) about a gold vessel looted from Ur that was offered by a German auction house. A slightly more condensed article in English also summarizes the story ("Mesopotamian Vase Sheds Light on Germany's Artefacts Trade," Deutsche Welle, 30.6.2009).

The vase was first spotted for sale in 2005 at the German ancient coin auction house Hirsch Nachfolger, when it was then seized by authorities and handed over to Michael Müller-Karpe at the Römisch-Germanische Zentralmuseum in Mainz for an expert opinion. Müller-Karpe, an archaeologist who works on material from the region and a specialist in metalwork, concluded that it was likely looted from the royal cemetery at Ur where many similar vessels have been found. Looting in Iraq has dramatically increased since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Customs officials have now asked Müller-Karpe to return the vase to them, but has refused stating that the Iraqi Embassy in Berlin has asked him not to return it to customs. Iraqi officials have warned that anyone who helps or participates in the sale would be liable to up to five years imprisonment in Iraq. Münzhandlung Hirsch Nachfolger claims the vessel comes from Troy.

(Photo from Deutsche Welle)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Personal Note: Coming (Back) to America!

Posting on Numismatics & Archaeology will likely be lighter until the end of August since I am in the process of organizing an international move. But it is my hope to continue make at least one post per week on average.

My position at the Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Abt. II at the Goethe Universität in Frankfurt expires on July 31, 2009. In addition to finding a new renter for my apartment and lining up accomodation in the U.S., there is much to do at the University since I need to finish off my essential research with the find corpora for my dissertation. When I get back to the U.S., I must coordinate moving all of my stuff from Missouri to New Haven, Connecticut where I will begin a two-year position in August.

On August 15, 2009, I will take up a two year position as a postgraduate associate in the Department of Coins and Medals at the Yale University Art Gallery. When my dissertation is completed I will be reclassified as a postdoctoral associate. My primary responsibilities will include assisting the curator, William Metcalf, in the management and supervision of digitization of Yale's numismatic collection. I will have the opportunity to teach at the University in the second year and will be able to assist in the organization of an exhibit as the Gallery moves to its new location. I look forward to working at the Yale University Art Gallery and participating in academic life within the Gallery and the University.

I have enjoyed my time in Frankfurt and will surely miss it. I remain particularly grateful to Prof. von Kaenel who, after I studied here on a DAAD grant in 2006/2007, took an active interest in my work and offered me the opportunity to return and conduct more research, first by offering me a short-term position with the Fundmünzen der Antike project and then with a position in the Institute. I will certainly miss all of my colleagues with whom I have established collegial relationships over the past few years, but we shall certainly remain in touch.

(Photo: View of the Frankfurt skyline from my office at the University - a view that will be difficult to rival in any future academic jobs).

Week 9: "Picture Language on Roman Coins: Approaches and Interpretations"

This was our final meeting and the topic under consideration for our course on methods of interpreting and understanding Roman coin images was "The Importance of Archaeological Context: Nuances in the Semantic System and the Audiences for Coin Images" (handout Deutsch - English).

We began by discussing F. Koening's publication of the coin finds from the necropolis at Avenches and his observation that certain reverse types such as Salus, Felicitas, and Roma were preferred for deposition with the dead. This trend would seem to indicate that the viewers were making judgments about the coins most appropriate for deposition and thus responding to or thinking about certain images, something which was only recognized here via the context. One criticism of the study, however, is the relatively small sample size.

Next we discussed Fleur Kemmers' study of the coin finds from the legionary fortress at Nijmegen, which I have mentioned several times before here and elsewhere. Her detailed and comprehensive study of the finds there also indicated a remarkable concentration of militaristically-themed Flavian coins in contrast to neighboring civilian settlements and the finds from Rome. Her study also examined the logistics of coin supply to Nijmegen and it was demonstrated that these coin types were deliberately supplied to the legions stationed at Nijmegen. This realization provides a new perspective on the semantic system on Roman coinage and clearly shows that, at least at certain times and in certain instances, the Roman state directly targeted certain groups with coins based on specific reverse designs. Future studies of excavation coins may well benefit from attending to the distribution of reverse types as compared with other sites.

We moved on to Hekster's article about the targeting of audiences based on different denominations. This article was not "archaeological" per se, but did distinguish visual programs as they appeared on precious metal and bronze coins and certainly has implications for studies of "coins in context" that address iconography.

Finally, we briefly discussed the last four pages of my recent methodological article on Roman coin iconography that address recent insights into the study of Roman coin images provided by archaeological contexts and then lays out a series of methods and steps that could provide a more encompassing view of Roman coin images in future studies. Among other things, it is argued that using find corpora and inventories, we may better understand the semantic system on Roman coinage by studying the regional distribution of bronze coin types.

Researching and writing this article provided the inspiration for this course when Prof. von Kaenel asked me to instruct a course on the interpretation of Roman coin images.