Thursday, November 21, 2013

First Coin, Last Coin

Mark S. Weiner has posted his interview with William E. Metcalf, Ben Lee Damsky Curator of Coins and Medals at the Yale University Art Gallery, about the world's first coins and about new developments in modern currency.  It is worth watching.

(Thanks to Mark S. Weiner for bringing this to my attention).

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Minnesotan Charged with Attempted Smuggling of Ancient Coins out of Macedonia

The Macedonian International News Agency reports today that an American resident of Minnesota who was on a "humanitarian mission" in Macedonia was charged by authorities there with "exporting national and cultural treasures protected by the state" when he was caught trying to cross into Bulgaria (where he had temporary residence) with 48 coins from the 2nd century BCE to the 17th century.

It is reported that authorities searched him as he became visibly agitated and seemed in a hurry to depart from Macedonia.  He told authorities that he purchased the coins from a contact in Shtip.  The photograph of the coins, which are covered in earth, and the chronological breadth of the collection suggest they were found at multiple archaeological sites and from mixed assemblages.  Such groups of coins are the fruits of looting and are regularly exported from Balkan in astonishing quantities to supply European and North American demand.

There have been several instances of Americans and others smuggling coins and antiquities out of Macedonia in the press in recent months (see for example P. Barford, "Two Americans Caught Smuggling Macedonian Antiquities").

A short bibliography provides further references on the issue of mass export of coins and portable antiquities from Balkan countries.

Center for the Study of Democracy. 2007. Organized Crime in Bulgaria: Markets and Trends. Sofia: Center for the Study of Democracy. (

Dietrich, R. 2002. "Cultural Property on the Move - Legally, Illegally," International Journal of Cultural Property 11: 294-303.

Elkins, N.T. 2009. "Treasuring Hunting 101 in America's Classrooms," Journal of Field Archaeology 34.4: 482-489.

id. 2012. "The Trade in Fresh Supplies of Ancient Coins: Scale, Organization, and Politics," in P.K. Lazrus and A.W. Barker (eds.), All the King's Horses: Essays on the Impact of Looting and the Antiquities Trade on Our Knowledge of the Past. Washington, D.C.: Society for American Archaeology Press. 91-107.

Monday, March 25, 2013

ACCG Case Rejected by the Supreme Court

As an update to the previous post concerning ACCG's ongoing litigation against U.S. law enforcement agencies, it is worth noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has, as anticipated, rejected ACCG's case.  Rick St. Hilaire provides a succinct description of the saga ("U.S. Supreme Court Rejects ACCG's Coin Case").  Attorney and lobbyist Peter Tompa hints at further litigious activities in an interview with Chasing Aphrodite

Monday, March 4, 2013

Import Restrictions on Ancient Coins

A lobbyist who works on behalf of trade organizations has suggested that ancient coins currently protected by memoranda between the U.S. and certain foreign governments are not legally placed there since the basis of those restrictions is "place of production" rather than where they are found.  He alleges the CPIA is thus violated.  The exchange is in the comments section of a previous post here and his take is also presented on his website.

As I pointed out in that exchange, coins that are protected are types that are found in that country.  The memorandum with Italy, for example, protects early Roman coinage (aes signatum, aes grave, and the early republican struck coinage, as well as Roman colonial coinage) and the coinage of Greek cities in southern Italy.  Scholarly publications demonstrate that such coins had a primarily Italian circulation.  The memorandum with Italy even cites one of many sources that reference circulation and find patterns.  Widely circulating types where a find spot cannot be attributed (e.g. most Roman republican and imperial coins) are not protected by existing legislation.  As most republican and imperial coins were struck in Italy, a country with which the U.S. has an MOU, one is left to question Mr. Tompa's allegations.

The "scholarly evidence" submitted to CPAC by ACCG that Mr. Tompa refers to as an apparent indication that where such coins are found is not considered by CPAC is a simple list of hoard finds of types outside of the borders of countries that request MOUs.  It suggests a limited number of coins circulated out, but it totally ignores the fact that the vast majority of such types are found in the country of origin.  It is common knowledge among numismatic scholars that many coin types (e.g. some Greek coins and Roman provincial coins) had a very limited circulation and it is curious that the trade lobby does not acknowledge this in communications with CPAC; instead they argue more simply (and too simply) that coins can be found anywhere.  Would one really expect to see aes grave exavated in Israel or Jordan?

In considering whether Mr. Tompa's take on the situation is legitimate, one may recall that ACCG's lawsuit against the government, which has been handled by Mr. Tompa, has been dismissed on multiple occasions.  Legal authorities have not agreed with ACCG that there is any mishandling of import restrictions philosophically or legally. 

Rather than lawsuits and sniping over the interpretation of CPIA, would not a better approach be to recognize that indiscriminate attitudes in the sourcing of ancient coins promotes looting and destroys historical information?  And recognizing that, would it not be a better approach to engage in a productive dialogue about how ethical collecting can exist without maintaining a damaging status quo?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Shekel of Tyre on History Channel Series "Pawn Stars"

The American cable television channel the "History Channel" does not air as much actual documentary and historical content as it once did.  Instead, it has gone the more profitable route with reality TV shows like "Swamp People", "Ax Men", "Big Rig Bounty Hunters," etc.  Even worse when one does flip on the TV to find a documentary program airing it is often that damaging, pseudo-archaeological program "Ancient Aliens". The Learning Channel, the Discovery Channel, and to a somewhat lesser degree National Geographic, have similarly switched to focus on reality programing.

Nonetheless, "Pawn Stars" is one top-rated History Channel program with a strong following.  I too enjoy the program.  The series follows a Las Vegas pawn shop that buys items of historical or collectible interest.  Experts are often brought in to evaluate the authenticity of items and to appraise them.  Many items, but not all, are great rarities.

On Monday night, a new episode aired; one segment featured a gentleman who sold a shekel of Tyre to the owners of the Pawn Shop.  Scholars generally accept that the Tyrian shekel was the mode of currency used in the infamous transaction of the thirty pieces of Judas paid to Judas to betray Christ (Matthew 26:14-16).  The thirty pieces are mentioned again when Judas returned the money to the chief priests after being overcome with remorse (Matthew 27:1-10).

A recent article by Haim Gitler provides a great discussion on the identification of the thirty pieces of silver as the Tyrian shekels (H. Gitler, "The Thirty Pieces of Silver: A Modern Numismatic Perspective," in L. Travaini (ed.), Valori e disvalori simbolici monete. I trenti denari di Giuda (Rome, 2009), pp. 63-78).  Archaeological excavation has helped to confirm that Tyrian shekels are the best candidate for the medium of exchange in the biblical episode as they circulated widely in the area and period in question.

The Pawn Stars paid $1,600 for the coin. Anyone familiar with the market can attest they overpaid, especially in view of the coin's condition.  The Pawn Stars also immediately sent off the coin to be slabbed and graded, a phenomenon which is common in the collecting of modern U.S. and world coins, but which has been resisted in the ancient coin collecting community.  It is curious that an expert was not called in as is typical with most historical items featured in the series.  The overpayment and slabbing would suggest the Pawn Stars do not regularly deal with ancient coins, or at least that they do not cater to serious collectors.

After purchasing the coin, the Pawn Stars were visited by a detective.  The coin was apparently stolen, not by the seller featured in the episode, but by a previous possessor of the coin.  A local interview with the man featured in the episode, who bought it along with some other coins at an estate sale for a few hundred dollars, alludes to this: ""It was 2000 years old. I'm sure it was stolen at some point in time after 2000 years yeah."  Ultimately the pawn shop was able to keep the coin as the owner from whom the coin was stolen had been reimbursed by his insurance policy.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Huqoq 2013

The staff are gearing up for another season at Huqoq and the field school student applications are in.  The 2012 season was most successful.  What will 2013 hold for Huqoq Excavation Project?

The Baby and The Bathwater

Ever the provocateur, paid trade lobbyist Peter Tompa excels at the art of finding subjects to spin and snipe, even the most benign.  The post here from February 17, 2013 summarizes an international conference on ancient coin iconography held last fall.  Tompa muses ("Tail Wags Dog"):

The archaeological establishment has preached at CPAC meetings and elsewhere that coins—like other artifacts--lose all their meaning without context, and that import restrictions are necessary to encourage academic research.  But all the workshop topics about coin iconography (including one Elkins himself chaired) simply belie this claim.  

The study of ancient coin iconography can be worked at multiple angles.  Yes. So?

Anyone who read the summary or announcement of the workshop that was posted here should have understood that exploring the various ways that coin iconography can be approached was the whole point of the workshop.   Tompa, it seems, would have us discard the importance of archaeological context simply because there are other ways that coin iconography can be studied too.  If we are playing with tired idioms, forget about "tail wagging dog," Tompa would have us "throw out the baby with the bathwater"! 

Tompa boldly claims "But all the workshop topics about coin iconography (including one Elkins himself chaired) simply belie this claim." Why the deception? Why ignore the fact that the workshop did include a session on "Coin Iconography in Numismatic and Material Contexts"? In case the session title is not clear, some papers in that session approached the study of coin iconography through the lens of find contexts (i.e. material context).  For further clarification this means through hoards and/or archaeological excavation.

Coin iconography is, of course, not only worked at via find context and cannot be approached through material context alone, but to ignore its place in the workshop to promote one's own agenda is surely dishonest.  And to imply that coin iconography cannot be approached through this route displays an ignorance of recent peer-reviewed research by several specialists on coin iconography that has appeared in-print within the last 5-10 years.  The subject of Roman coin iconography is especially fruitful; our understanding of Roman imperial communication via the coins continues to be enhanced by attention to archaeological context.

It is simply wrong-headed to suggest that just because there are other ways of approaching subjects that other methods are irrelevant.  We can read ancient historical texts that have survived the ages.  Does that mean the study of art and archaeology is irrelevant?  No.  Art and archaeology can answer questions that texts cannot or can be deployed in conjunction with texts and other forms of evidence to reconstruct a more complete picture of the past.

The lobbyist's attempt at deception and sniping are characteristic of a debate that has become overly polarized, entrenched, and lacking of critical thought though rife with emotion.  Would it not be better to acknowledge the importance of archaeological and material context and to seek ways in which both context and ethical collecting can be preserved so that avocational passion and scientific study can continue to coexist?  More moderate and reflective voices must prevail.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

'Art in the Round' a Sucess

The two-day international workshop "Art in the Round: New Approaches to Ancient Coin Iconography was a resounding success that featured sixteen speakers from eight countries across three continents.  The distinguished theoretician and historian of Roman art, Prof. Tonio Hölscher (Heidelberg), kicked-off the conference with his keynote address, "Historienbilder der römischen Republik.Das Repertoire der Münzen im Vergleich zu anderen Bildgattungen."

The first two papers addressed theoretical approaches to coin iconography. Gunnar Dumke (Heidelberg) spoke on "Sekundäre Ikonographien. Prolegomena zu immobilisierten und imitierten griechischen Münztypen" and Dr. Ragnar Hedlund's (Uppsala) talk was entitled "‘Whose image is this’ - again? Exploring new frameworks for the interpretation of ancient coin imagery."  In the afternoon, the lectures shifted focus to the study of coin iconography in both numismatic and material contexts.  Dr. Clare Rowan (Warwick) began the session with her paper "Iconography in colonial contexts: the provincial coinage of the late Republic."  Prof. Frank Daubner (Stuttgart) also spoke on provincial coins with his "Statische Bilder, statische Identitäten? Zu Münzdarstellungen römischer
Kolonien in Makedonien." Marta Barbato (Rome) delivered the fruits of her research on "Flavian typology: the evidence from the "sottosuolo urbano“ of Rome."  Prof. Johannes Nollé's (Munich) talk compared Roman provincial coins in Asia with local inscriptions: "Kleinasiatische Lokalprägungen und Inschriften."  Dr. Ute Wartenberg-Kagan (New York) took us on a stimulating methodological journey in her "The Clazomenae hoard: an archaeological and iconographical puzzle." And Prof. Lutz Ilisch (Tübingen) concluded our session by looking at the transformation of images across the centuries in "Zur Metamorphose der konstantinischen Victoria zum islamischen Schutzengel auf nordmesopotamischen Kupferdirham des 12. Jh."

The second day of the workshop was just as exciting as the first.  In the morning session, papers zeroed in on specific iconographic types.  Dr. Maria Cristina Molinari (Rome) spoke about meaning of early Roman coin iconography in her "The two Roman types with two-faced god on 3rd century BC coinage." Dr. Kyle Erickson (Lampeter) provided our only study on Hellenistic coinage: "Zeus to Apollo and back again: shifts in Seleucid policy and iconography." Mary Jane Cuyler's (Sydney) research "Portus Ostiensis on the Sestertii of Nero" dissected a well-known architectural image. Dr. David Wigg-Wolf (Frankfurt) reevaluated Christian symbolism on Constantinian coinage via his "Constantine’s silver medallion from Ticinum (RIC 36): 'one small step' o'a giant leap?'"  The final session looked at coins through comparisons with texts and with other visual media.  Christopher Simon's (Yale) "Etymology as image type in republican and imperial coinage" raised a great many questions about the meaning of republican coins, how the iconography worked with moneyers' names and how the viewer looked at republican coin iconography.  Prof. Bernd Steinbock (Western Ontario) spoke on "Coin imagery and Latin panegyrics as means of imperial communication." Dr. Patrick Monsieur (Ghent), "The relationship between Greek coins, gems and pottery stamps: an introduction
through the archaeological evidence of Chios," provided an insights into the comparative world of amphora stamps and coin iconography. Prof. Martin Beckmann (McMaster) ended the day with his look at coins and portraiture in his "The relationship between numismatic portraits and marble busts: the problematic example of Faustina the Younger."

The organizers and participants agreed that workshop provided a series of formidable papers that opened the door for many fruitful discussions about how we study and interpret ancient coin iconography, as well as the potential for our various methods.  The papers are currently being prepared for comprehensive publication in an edited volume.

Special thanks to Prof. Thomas Schäfer and the Institut für Klassiche Archäologie for opening their doors for this workshop.