Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Cloud Cuckoo Land

Archaeoblogger Paul Barford seems not to comprehend the meaning of "living in Cloud Cuckoo Land," probably because he has himself dwelt there for so long. When one deals in unreality as the focus of one's everyday life, such distinctions do inevitably become blurred and the difference between reality and a wished-for idealistic unreality may become difficult or impossible to discern.

Reality for instance might be that one may actually drive a taxicab, or translate documents, for a living. Unreality might conversely be that one nevertheless thinks of oneself as being an archaeologist, despite not been gainfully employed in that field for decades and not having recently been active in it, apart from occasional unpaid volunteer work. Writing and blogging about archaeology (in Cloud Cuckoo Land) does apparently suffice to allow one to consider himself as being an archaeologist. That makes just about as much sense as considering someone who writes or blogs upon military subjects as being a soldier.

It's now quite clear that Mr. Barford simply does not get it on many essential levels. The first, of course, in this particular situation being the level of what is fair and reasonable to demand from collectors of such minor antiquities as ancient coins, and the dealers who supply them. So far as Mr. Barford is concerned, any ancient coin must be viewed as an "archaeological artifact" and no one anywhere in the world, regardless of the laws and customs prevailing in that jurisdiction, also regardless of relevant international agreements, may dare to collect or trade in unprovenanced archaeological artifacts. That is the law prevailing in Cloud Cuckoo Land, and in the cloudy depths of Mr. Barford's blog.

Now I do wonder how that particular ideological prejudgment can explain the reality that an "archaeological artifact" is by definition something that has at some point been buried in the earth, and the countervailing reality that there are provably a great many ancient coins in existing collections, and in the hands of merchants in many lands, which have never at any time been buried.

Coins are, and have always been thought of by rational people (other than presently practising and former archaeologists), as money. Money is by definition a medium of exchange. Since its invention in ancient Mesopotamia long before the development of coinage, money took various forms ranging from its origin as baked clay tokens, which at first were sealed up inside clay envelopes as scribal shorthand signifying deposition of valuable commodities such as grain, in official repositories -- for example temples and royal storehouses. After that sensible practice had gone on for many centuries it was eventually realized that the bulk commodities themselves did not have to be hauled around and laboriously weighed out to be traded, and that these officially created tokens representing them could instead be exchanged. It is much easier to carry around a small token than a large and heavy container of grain.

Before coins were invented, tokens of various sorts, including metal rings, bulk metal in the form of cut-up scraps of jewelry and cast ingots, and many other embodiments of valuation were used in everyday trade. One might perhaps wish to buy a bullock, and before the invention of coinage that bullock had to be be paid for in some recognized medium of exchange. Barter was, long before the dawn of recorded history, found to be an inconvenient and impractical means of exchanging values, because the exchange rate for cattle, swine, poultry, and the like did not divide neatly into units of animals or standard bulk containers of grain, olive oil and other valued commodities. Hauling animals or heavy containers of commodities around for trade was very much more difficult than carrying small tokens.

In Rome, before coinage was adopted in the third century b.c., the medium of exchange was bronze. Originally bronze was weighed out as chunks of bulk metal, today described as aes rude. Bronze ingots weighing one to five Roman pounds, bearing visual devices (the aes signatum) were later traded for a variety of things of value, and ingots bearing the image of a bullock are among the many examples of aes signati that have been discovered. Clearly one such ingot was worth a bullock. Other ingots bearing other devices, such as an image of a cock, have been discovered and it is clear that long before the invention of coinage, mankind had arrived at a practical system of exchanging universally valued things such as food and animals for portable objects that functioned as money.

The world got along very well for a long time using money in its various forms and eventually, extending that use to collecting antique money as something intrinsically worth studying, until the nineteenth century development of archaeology, which today ranks as one of the most recent and least developed disciplines of scholarly study.

Now the very immature discipline of archaeology, in the persons of Mr. Barford and other deluded denizens of Cloud Cuckoo Land, for example the archaeology-oriented bureaucrats who inhabit the US State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, presumes to instruct society as to what may or may not be done with antique money -- upon the indefensible assumption that every specimen of such must be regarded as having at some point been buried in the earth, thereby being transformed by that assumption into an "archaeological artifact."

Those who systematically study the development of society and its institutions find much to instruct them in the bazaars and souks of North Africa, the Middle East and central and southern Asia. Almost anything can be found there, including numerous specimens of antique money, which according to the 1970 UNESCO Convention may be classified as "cultural property." Some antique monetary specimens have doubtless dwelt in treasuries and the trays of money-changers and bazaar-vendors ever since they were created many centuries ago.

Bedouin brides today seek out antique monetary specimens to assemble into dowry-belts, and there is every reason to think of this as one surviving instance of a very ancient practice. There are for example large numbers of British gold sovereigns and silver Maria Theresa thalers displayed in almost any Middle Eastern bazaar. Maria Theresa thalers were first minted in Austria in 1741, however since 1780 the coin has always been dated 1780. According to Krause, there have been an estimated 800 million Maria Theresa thalers restruck since 1780. They trade today as bullion.

One well-known and documented example of such long term above-ground sequestration surfaced after the First World War when the Ottoman Empire was compelled, under the terms of the Treaty of Sevres, to make specie payments to redeem its obligations to the victorious powers. Lacking the time and technical means to strike coinage for that purpose, the vast treasury of the Sultans was brusquely emptied out and exchanged as bulk metal to make these payments. Many millions of Byzantine gold coins, amounting in all to several thousand tons, which had originally been paid into that treasury from the tenth to fourteenth centuries as tribute from the declining Byzantine Empire, were thereby exchanged.

Most of these ancient coins were ultimately melted down during the 1920s, and their metallic remains still reside in the ingots stored in Fort Knox. Enough however survived as numismatic specimens to make Byzantine gold coins by far the most common and reasonably priced series of ancient gold coinage. There is no real justification for arbitrarily assuming that any individual Byzantine gold coin was ever buried, despite the artificial constructions made upon this subject by archaeologists and the bureaucrats who serve their interests.

Moving from that very clear example to silver and electrum coinage, it is also clearly demonstrable from the punch marks made by ancient money-changers that many ancient electrum and silver coins must have resided in the trays of money-changers (who were the bankers of their day) for centuries. In those days coins did not circulate very widely nor were they accepted everywhere. They were recognized as a medium of exchange within the polity which issued them, and beyond that only a few very well known types, such as the "owls" of Athens and the "turtles" of Aegina, were universally accepted. Everything else had to be dealt with by the money-changers who would weigh a coin, test its metallic purity (often by making a chisel cut which would expose examples of falsification) and stamp a symbol on these tested coins recording their validation.

One example of such symbolic validation can be seen here:

This particular electrum trite (one third of a Lydian electrum stater) received no fewer than nine such stamped symbols, which are numismatically described as banker's marks. Such stamped symbols have been noted on many different types of ancient coins, ranging from gold and electrum issues struck prior to the time of the Alexandrine empire, to silver denarii of the Roman Republic. These records of the activities of ancient money-changers make it clear that in those days coins were kept sequestered for very long periods of time in treasuries and other respected repositories such as temple storehouses, or in the trays of money-changers, and that burial in the earth was very far from being the normal approach toward keeping coins not needed for everyday transactions.

Burial of coins instead seems to have been an indication of something extraordinary, an emergency for instance. There seems to have been no shortage of such emergencies in ancient times, judging from the evidence of discovered coin hoards. The fall of the Roman Empire resulted in a great many such hoards. Burial in a pot, wooden box or leather bag became a very widespread practice in situations where one would not wish to carry around a mass of coins which might be an encumbrance, or might be an incentive to robbery.

Roman soldiers very often buried their purses of coins before a battle, with the intention of digging them up afterward in the event that they survived. Many did not, and now their buried purses are sought by metal detectorists who comb ancient battlefields looking for coins, arrowheads and other metal artifacts associated with the soldiers of those days. Whilst numismatists have a clear understanding of this practice and the unusual circumstances under which coin hoards were buried, it seems clear that archaeologists and cultural ministry bureaucrats either ignorantly lack such an understanding, or are not willing (on ideological grounds) to admit to having it.

Thus those who are interested in collecting and studying ancient coins, and those who supply these collectors with coins, find themselves in a seemingly eternal, silly and unresolvable confrontation with the self-deluded denizens of Cloud Cuckoo Land. No one is winning this battle. While it is certainly a great inconvenience and distraction to the collecting community, it does seem to this observer that the real losers in this conflict are archaeologists, who have senselessly alienated collectors to such an extent that they are no longer interested in supporting archaeology or willing to educate their children to become archaeologists.


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