Thursday, August 15, 2013

Numismatics Is A  Science
by Paul Barford

"Coin collectors like to dignify their acquisitive habits by calling it numismatics and suggesting it is a discipline (though apparently one without a formalised methodology of its own). They claim that we have to allow them to buy smuggled coins no-questions-asked, because the other approach (getting them to acquire these study material responsibly like in other disciplines) would in some way hold up the science."



The remainder of Mr. Barford's remarks in this post reiterate his well-known insistence that "the archaeological record" is "irreparably damaged" whenever ancient coins find their way into the hands of collectors without a documented record of their provenance being preserved.

Numismatic experts have observed that creating and maintaining such provenance records for objects of small value (nearly all ancient coins, for example) isn't economically feasible. Neither Mr. Barford, nor any other advocate of the thesis that provenance records must be created and maintained for all ancient artifacts, has ever attempted to address the economic issues of documenting provenance.

Practical realities evidently count for little or nothing in the perspective of such fanatics, who never mention in their incessant ant tiresome moralizing that there is no legal requirement mandating such provenance records. The term "illicit," which in plain English means "illegal," is falsely and unjustifiably being used to describe coins and other ancient artifacts that are lawfully traded and collected without provenance.

That necessary observation is all that will be said upon that subject. The real reason for this post is the provocative, disparaging and extremely misleading terminology of  Barford's first two sentences.

Let's consider this statement:

"Coin collectors like to dignify their acquisitive habits by calling it numismatics and suggesting it is a discipline (though apparently one without a formalised methodology of its own)."

Apparent to whom? 

Mr. Barford actually knows very little about the subject he ignorantly disparages in these ill-chosen words. Numismatics is in reality a recognized science dating back to the 14th century, with a long-established formal methodology for classification and analysis cf coin types, and of the dies used to strike coins. The first numismatic book, Budé’s De Asse (an erudite treatise on the cast bronze coinage of the Roman Republic) was published in 1515. Fulvio’s Illustrium Imagines, published in 1524 with many fine engravings, was the first illustrated numismatic book,

Archaeology on the other hand has a fieldwork methodology and publication  format that traces back only so far as the excavations of Knossos, by Arthur Evans (1900-1905),  and of Tutankamen's tomb by Howard Carter (November 1922). Previous field work by Schliemann and at Pompeii/Herculaneum is today regarded as only the first tentative steps beyond organized tomb robbing. The seminal publications of Evans and Carter came four centuries after these first printed numismatic books, and since De Asse was published only seventy years after the Gutenberg Bible, they are among the first printed scientific works.

As an organized science, numismatics is four centuries senior to archaeology. It has a vast printed literature. This was preceded by two centuries of handwritten letters and illustrated manuscripts which circulated between leading numismatists. For examples of lithographic reproductions of modern illustrated manuscripts that remain  essential references today, see Ivan Tolstoi's "Monnaies Byzantines" (1912-14, with Russian manuscript text), W.H. Valentine's finely handwritten "Copper Coins of India (1914)" and David Sellwood's calligraphed "Introduction to the Coinage of Parthia (1980)."

Mr. Barford undoubtedly knows his own subject, having published a significant work on early Slavic cultures, however he is disagreeably inclined to caustically disparage the views and work of those who do not agree with his extreme personal bias against licit collecting of unprovenanced antiquities, the antiquities trade, and metal detectorists who lawfully discover and excavate antiquities on private land.

This observer believes that Mr. Barford would do well to learn more about numismatics, and metal detecting (which has transformed British archaeology), before venting disparaging, ill-founded criticism based upon nothing better than his own prejudice against collecting.



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