Monday, August 19, 2013

Snobbery of the Polish Popgun

Snobbery Behind Anti-Collector Rhetoric?
by Peter Tompa

After reading archaeo-blogger Paul Barford's latest screed against numismatics, CPO has to wonder if the anti-collector bias of some archaeologists is motivated largely by academic snobbery.  But in an era where popular culture cares more about the Kardashians than the classics, we should celebrate pastimes like ancient coin collecting and not dismiss it out of hand.  Coin dealers like Italo Vecchi and collectors like Arthur Houghton have spent years producing magnificent studies of ancient coins that help keep the cultures that produced them alive.  And really, what's wrong with that?


For rabid archaeo-blogger Paul Barford's latest screed against numismatics, see

While Barford's post is merely one more example of the bilious anticollecting bosh he incessantly regurgitates, Peter Tompa's perceptive comments are well worth reading. Note that Barford has repeatedly demanded a reading list on numismatic science, and when I finally became irritated enough to provide one (and Peter Tompa also did so), Barford then, in his usual derogatory and insulting manner, attempted to deflect and trivialize the subject -- rather than doing anything rational or constructive, for example actually reading the scholarly references cited.


Arthur Houghton (a renowned numismatist whose research and publication achievements far eclipse anything Barford and his ilk have ever done) then added two perceptive comments to Tompa's blog post:

"Peter, I can't imaging why you'd even want to mention the Polish Musket at all. As an academic I know has said, "he's really something of a blowhard ignoramus, doesn't know much about archaeology, and shows it all the time. He's never done much in his own field, and I guess he's trying to compensate for failure."

There is something to this. His anti-numismatist screed is an example. He rails and whines against collecting and collections, and the use of unprovenanced, out-of-context material -- and willfully ignores the fact that every professional academic numismatist worth their salt has worked with collectors and collections that include coins and related objects that are often fresh out of the ground. But does the Polish Musket care? Evidently not. But it's a bit sad that respected people in his own field care so little about him and what he says. So, my advice is to ignore him."


"Peter, I have an interesting take on the Polish Popgun, from the same archaeologist I spoke to before I wrote my last note.

'What do you think he's really done?' my friend asked. 'Take a look at Then tell me what it says he's done. Then ask yourself if you can now understand what a sense of failure can do to people.'

Well, Peter, I decided not to look at the scholar's website. It seemed so much like a waste of time. But you and other readers of your blog may want to. It's probably pretty informative."


These remarks by Houghton would likely impress an objective reader as being devastating. And there is this further penetrating comment from Voz Earl, which strikes this observer as (like Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War) being "a possession for all time" :

"Well, I can vouch first hand that snobbery as a character flaw is more common in academia than among the general populace, but in my experience it is the hallmark of poor academics who have nothing of value to contribute. I do not say this in order to take a pot shot at Barford, but simply to make the observation that people with undue trust in the opinions circulating within the echo chamber of their own discipline tend to discount anyone who is not part of their clique, any ideas or sources of information that are not sanctioned or derived in accordance with their approved methodologies. They arbitrarily dismiss entire worlds of data, blind themselves to countless possibilities, stay confined within the same little box in which they have eagerly imprisoned themselves and from whence they are rarely if ever able to contribute any breakthroughs in their field. Recognizing the arbitrary and artificial nature of self-imposed boundaries, the academic worth his salt is willing to question the received wisdom and to take an interdisciplinary approach. Yet with the announcement of any interdisciplinary project you will always hear from the snobs, the purists who can't wait to trash that which doesn't conform, that which is outside the box, that which they usually know nothing about, but are 100% sure is of no value. Mark down the names of these tongue-waggers and you will have a list of useless scholars who will never contribute anything but mediocrity and the utterly forgettable.

All of the above I write in relation to the question of snobbery in academia, but I would now like to respond to Barford's call for the "METHODOLOGY of this discipline." Of what value is the methodology or methodologies employed in archaeology? What results have been obtained by these, what breakthroughs achieved? Having taken classes with numerous archaeologists over the past several years including three who were dig directors at the time, I am now of the opinion that archaeology is not a science at all. Archaeological digs yield certain assemblages of material objects in context. What any of this data means is open to wildly varying interpretation as one can clearly see from reading the publications of the archaeologists themselves. While I have the utmost respect for all of the archaeologists with whom I have studied, and value them both as people and erudite scholars, I find the discipline of archaeology itself to be of very limited value in telling us anything concrete about the past. Archaeological data is a useful tool at the historian's disposal in conjunction with documentary evidence (like coins, papyri, inscriptions) and ancient narrative accounts. By itself, however, a material assemblage in context tells you almost nothing and is open to almost any interpretation one can dream up. When dealing with prehistoric periods where the only evidence is a material assemblage and its context, the "science" of archaeology is less akin to the science of...well, SCIENCE than it is to the "science" employed by L. Ron Hubbard in crafting DIANETICS or Joseph Smith in creating the BOOK OF MORMON. The consensus among my fellow graduate students was that one could make up just about any story one wished and as long as it accounted for the material assemblage it was no more or less likely to be the truth than any other story including all of those published in the flatly contradictory and wildly varying interpretations of nearly every specialist in the field."

In this observer's opinion, Voz Earl has here distilled Barford's derogatory rhetoric (and that of other anticollecting archaeologists) down to its illogical essence, demonstrating once and for all that these  critics of numismatics are not scientists, because archaeology is not a science according to the accepted academic understanding of the characteristics that define a science.

In this post dated June 10, 2007:

 I observed:

"Archaeology, if it can be considered a science in the classical sense, lacking as it does any generally accepted unified theory, actually dates back only some 100 years. That is far less than sciences which archaeology now claims to encompass as subsidiary disciplines - "artifact studies" such as numismatics and sigillography for example. In its primitive beginnings, archaeology was nothing more than an effort to organize and systematize plundering of ancient artifacts."


Kudos to Voz Earl, for one of the most enlightening contributions ever made to the debate on archaeology vs. collecting.


As for Barford, he no doubt will find some inane words that will delude him into believing that he has deflected these unanswerable observations, dismiss these comments and continue his anticollecting sniping.



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