Ancient Coins and Looting

Preserving the context

Ancient coins provide a precise chronology when discovered in context. Unfortunately, they are also some of the most frequently looted artifacts and are often traded without regulation.

Ancient coins provide a precise chronology when discovered in context. Unfortunately, they are also some of the most frequently looted artifacts and are often traded without regulation.

“Let’s think of an ancient coin as a murder weapon. No one would disagree that going into a crime scene before the investigators arrive and absconding with the bloody knife, cleaning it and then putting it in a private collection would seriously compromise the case. But this is what happens when looters descend on an archaeological site and remove coins and other artifacts: They disturb objects, their relationships with one another and remove evidence that may well be the ‘smoking gun’ for an excavation.”

So writes Baylor University professor and Huqoq numismatist Nathan T. Elkins in “Investigating the Crime Scene: Looting and Ancient Coins” in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. In his Archaeological Views column, Elkins describes the importance of ancient coins as primary chronological indicators. When found under sealed floors, foundations or walls, they can provide definitive chronological evidence. Unfortunately, they are also the most widely collected and sought-after artifact type, and millions of coins enter the market each year from unrecorded digs.

In the web-exclusive article “Roman Emperor Nerva’s Reform of the Jewish Tax,” BAR author Nathan T. Elkins explores what imperial coins can tell us about how Jews and Christians became further differentiated under Nerva.

Looted ancient coins do still provide information for numismatists who want to study, say, iconography. But Elkins notes that ancient coins’ iconography, archaeology, text and inscription are all pieces of the same historical puzzle, and we must “endeavor to preserve, and encourage the preservation of, as much information as possible.”

If archaeologists are the detectives of history, then ancient coins are the “smoking guns” of the ancient crime scene, according to Elkins. Detectives reconstruct crimes by looking at the relationships between weapons, footprints, fingerprints, broken glass and other evidence. Archaeologists do the same by analyzing artifacts within their find contexts. Looting not only removes valuable evidence from the equation—such as dates or imperial faces inscribed on ancient coins—but also scatters the primary context of the disturbed area, destroying our ability to recreate the story behind the evidence.

BAS Library Members: Read “Investigating the Crime Scene: Looting and Ancient Coins” by Nathan T. Elkins as it appears in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

From Babylon to Baghdad: Ancient Iraq and the Modern West examines the relationship between ancient Iraq and the origins of modern Western society. This free eBook, a collection of articles written by authoritative scholars, details some of the ways in which ancient Near Eastern civilizations have impressed themselves on Western culture. It examines the evolving relationship that modern scholarship has with this part of the world, and chronicles the present-day fight to preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage.

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  1. Paul says

    @ “Peter” “For Kathy, easier said than done given the number out there. ” is that “Peter” answering, or “John”? (Kathy asked “John” to substantiate his claim, and “Peter” answers for him).

    This is all getting very confusing, one of you says “archaeologists make up provenances”, another says they simply “don’t record them”, neither of which corresponds with my own experience as an archaeologist.

    I suggested not allowing ourselves to be deflected by pointless ‘two wrongs make a right’ arguments to what is the way forward, is it possible that this thread can move on to that? Or are the collectors going to continue to try and prevent it?

    Paul Barford

  2. John says

    Great Britain is in crisis. The non-recording of professionally excavated ‘finds’ is at epidemic proportions and the fault lies firmly with archaeology.The premier authority on the subject, Paul Barford, admits this betrayal of our profession on his excellent blog. He has his finger on the pulse and knows exactly what’s going on so perhaps, Kathy, he is best placed to name and shame. I’m sure he must know the names too.

    From the early days of my apprenticeship as an historian, this kind of corruption was well known and fingers were pointed, admittedly behind the hand, at some prominent historians, archaeologists and museum personalities who were also avid collectors and I am reliably told, some guided metal detecting treasure hunters, amongst others, to lucrative sites across East Anglia where illicit spoils were allegedly shared.

    Exposing this cauldron of corruption will, I feel, cleanse historians of this rotten strata.

  3. Paul says

    I think “John” (or is it now Peter writing as John?) is confusing fantasy with fact. So now I see we are restricting our attention specifically to British archaeologists as the alleged bad guys. In the real world, professional archaeologists contracted to do a piece of work, for example developer funded work, and not doing it will get sued for breach of contract. They will also be up before the disciplinary committee of the IfA. I suggest that instead of referring readers to my “excellent blog” to find what does not exist there, Mr metal-detectorist-with-a-chip-on-his-shoulder might like to do his own backing up of his libellous statements, though I really do not see what this has to do with the matter of Professor Elkins’ essay in a journal about archaeology in “the Biblical lands” .

    As I said, perhaps we could leave all this pointless, disruptive and foundationless mud-sling-trolling by “Peter” and “John” and discuss whether there is a way we can move forward. Or are the collectors still going to continue to try to discourage it by their nasty behaviour?

    In the long term perspective, what about instituting an international voluntary register of the form suggested by William Pearlstein of the Committee for Cultural Property (2013 white paper) with time-stamped entries of so-called ‘orphan’ material currently in private hands and details of what is known of its immediate collecting history legitimising it? David Knell too has an interesting post about this option on his “Ancient Heritage” blog. It is clear that this would fix much of the problem of the possibilities of easy insertion of looted material into the market alongside anonymous licit material. A PAS type approach only covers material coming fresh out of the ground, but something is needed to help collectors account for those millions of items already in their hands. So far though, US coin dealers have blocked such suggestions which would enable the verification of claims that the material they offer with no supporting documentation is “all from old collections” (want to consider why?). Such a register would also mean a leap out of the nineteenth century attitudes to a modern approach allowing buyers in future decades to check how much actually is in those collections today and enhancing the worth of those items registered as licit by such means. What do Biblical Archaeology Society readers think of this?

  4. Peter says

    And who is going to fund this register? And who is going to run it? Is every ancient coin (there must be millions out there as you admit) in private collections going to be placed on it?

    And why not also have a similar register for coins and other artifacts found at archaeological sites? This would be most useful for the study of coins. All too often this material just sits there to deteriorate in poor storage conditions without ever being studied at all. If it was recorded on a database, it may be of equal use to the data we get out of the PAS and Treasure Act as we would also know its find spot.

    For Mr. Paul Barford, I’m a different person than John as you well know.

  5. Paul says

    @ “Peter”: Here we go… Well, before I suggest an answer, let us take a step back. In 1970 an international working group established some principles of legitimate trade (thereby defining what is illicit trade). Like it or like it not, that’s what they did. Since then antiquity dealers and antiquity collectors (in your case coin collectors) have consistently and carelessly ignored that fact, leading to us now having a load of stuff in private hands that cannot now be legitimated by the principles laid down in that Convention. That’s the legacy of antiquity collecting’s past.

    Let’s skip forward, thinking in the longer term. Given the direction in which a lot of research and lobbying is going, it will emerge (be argued) that society cannot much longer continue to ignore the harmful effects of certain ways of trading antiquities. Like it or like it not, that seems to be the way things are going, and the scales are slowly but surely tipping against no-questions-asked collecting. Peter Tompa is one of those who has long and loudly pointed out the discrepancies between the wording of certain US legislation connected with that 1970 Convention and what many feel to be effective protection of the heritage. He in effect says ‘hang the effective preservation, lets stick to the letter of our ineffective law’. The logical outcome of that, taken with the tenor of the information currently being supplied to lawmakers and public opinion by academics, can only be rewriting that legislation, to better implement the 1970 principles. It may happen in the next few years, it may take decades, but it will come. Collectors, through neglecting to consider possible long-term outcomes of their own lobbying, may well then find themselves at a disadvantage, being in possession of non-1970-compliant material which they cannot get rid of (like the ivory in New York).

    As David Knell points out, it is ongoing looting which is of the main concern. Suggesting a register, as several of us are doing, is one way to reach a compromise over these market-created ‘orphans’. William Pearlstein has suggested the same thing. It is in collectors’ interests to adopt a measure like that, and get their coins in the register to ‘legitimise’ them. So maybe “Peter” would like to answer his own question about funding. In whose interests is a register which legitimates material in private hands in 2014 which, despite everything, is non-1970-compliant? Mine? UNESCO’s? The US Department of Homeland Security? Or maybe the coin trade who got collectors into this mess? Or maybe collectors intent on preserving the resale value of their property when the crunch comes?

    As for “Peter”s suggestion of making an even more extensive register for “all finds anywhere and everywhere” he is losing sight of the purpose of the register, it is not to “aid numismatic research”. It is to attempt to mitigate the effects of half a century of careless collection and commerce. What do Biblical Archaeology Society readers think of this?

    Paul Barford

  6. Rasiel says

    That registry already exists. The Tantalus Registry ( was launched ten years ago for precisely this reason and is now at over 100,000 records. In fact, any database that hosts a photo of a coin is in effect recording at least a portion of its provenance and where the records are publicly accessible they have the side benefit of being useful in research.

    Although I can’t speak for everyone, I’d be happy to support a centralized, government-funded database. Even if the addition of a new record came with a small tax to offset the costs of running it all I still think it would be a worthwhile effort. The scheme could encompass all historical artifacts, not just coins.

  7. Peter says

    For Raisel, I’m all for voluntary registries and the like– the problem is that given the number of coins out there (millions and millions, perhaps even billions), mandatory could be quite an undertaking and for what real purpose? Bill Pearlstein and the antiquities dealers proposed this with high value artifacts in mind. It may make some good sense for the $! million dollar vase, but not the $5-$10 coin. Really, can really distinguish one 4th c. Constantinian bronze that easily from another enough to even capture these differences in such a database. There would be a lot of images of virtually identical coins.

    For Mr. Barford, the operative law here in the USA is not UNESCO, its the CPIA. Coins were not restricted under that until recently based on some back room shenanigans involving the archaeological lobby and their cronies at State. At the time the statute was proposed, a high level State Department official represented to Congress that it would be highly unlikely coins would be restricted. Now, the highly unlikely has become standard operating procedure.

    And thank you for confirming that it’s really not about research– as the AIA and Prof. Elkins claims. If it were, the AIA would also be advocating a mandatory registry for archaeologists. Archaeologists are bound by the Treasure Act in the UK, why shouldn’t they be bound by the same rules proposed for everyone else?

  8. David says


    “There would be a lot of images of virtually identical coins.”
    Fair point – but it is precisely the commonest low-value coins that are being mined in huge quatities and pose one of the greatest threats to archaeological sites. What is your alternative solution? Just register expensive stuff and ban collecting common coins altogether?

    Or, as I suspect, you can’t be bothered with a solution at all? Just respond with negativity and whiny protests, then sit back until coin collecting gets such a stigma that it goes the same way as bird’s eggs, ivory and fur?

    Unlike you, I actually care about the future of collecting. And unlike you, I recognise the need to do something about it.

    “Now, the highly unlikely has become standard operating procedure.”
    Rather than some weird conspiracy theory, could it be simply because layman state officials were not aware how important coins are to archaeology until professionals pointed it out?

    “And thank you for confirming that it’s really not about research– as the AIA and Prof. Elkins claims.”
    No one ever claimed it was. As Rasiel pointed out, research is merely a side benefit. As you well know, the purpose of a registry has been explained many times.

    David Knell

  9. Paul says

    @ Rasiel, thank you for the link to your database, that’s the sort of thing that is needed. A database ‘of repose’ as Pearlstein puts it would have to be institutionalised, to enable it to have more permanence than a showcase on a dealer’s website. I think you’d also need to have a way of adding information, for example when a coin goes to another collector, perhaps in another country, or the coin’s appearance alters (if it is further cleaned or repatinated or something, or gets caught up in a house fire/flood etc).

    @Peter, I really do not see where it says in Pearlstein’s White Paper that it refers only to some US dealers’ stock and collectors’ collections. I rather get the impression that he’s talking about all of both. Small value items (shabtis recently) are also ‘repatriated’.

    @Peter, In my previous post I was not referring just to what “the law” says. I was referring to “principles”, and those principles were discussed as far back as 1970 and literate and informed collectors and dealers everywhere should have been aware of them and their possible future implications for them. They ignored them, which is why we are discussing registers.

    @Peter, “distinguish one 4th c. Constantinian bronze that easily from another enough to even capture these differences in such a database
    They will have reference numbers (like the PAS database), and having documented them, one would imagine collectors and dealers would make sure the information was passed on to the next buyer.

    Paul Barford

  10. Peter says

    For David, you say you are a collector, but then you also say you inherited your collection back in 1969 or a year before UNESCO. But how about anyone collecting after that? I’ve already made my suggested solutions known in my ANS article which was posted here some time ago. Unlike Elkins, yourself and Mr. Barford, I actually made suggestions for everyone, not just collectors.

    For Mr. Barford, you’ve complained PAS does not record everything– presumably for the same reason of practicality. As I’ve said, I’m all for a voluntary system, but not another useless burden placed on collectors and dealers.

  11. Paul says

    I think the register is precisely intended to deal with finds currently in private hands including those acquired after 1970 and which lack documented proof of that. Did you not understand that? Interesting that you apparently think attempts to ensure licitness of purchased artefacts is a “useless burden” on dealers. Hmmm.

  12. David says

    Peter, I never said I am a collector. I stopped collecting years ago. What I said was that I care about the future of collecting. I firmly believe that ordinary people should be able to own a few antiquities and I do not want to see that privilege jeopardised by an inability to adapt to changing times.

    If you’ve been following the discussion, you’ll know that coins WITHOUT a provenance are precisely what the rest of us have been chatting about.

    “I actually made suggestions for everyone …”

    EXACTLY, Peter! Of the five points you raised on the CPO page you linked to, only two were aimed at dealers or collectors (rather feeble suggestions at that). All the rest were demands aimed at EVERYONE ELSE – everyone ranging from both US and foreign governments to archaeologists!

    That collecting provides most of the motivation for looting is blatantly obvious to the rest of the world. If you persist in your insane attempt to shift the blame onto everyone else, you will doom collecting to perish in not only contempt but ridicule. I do NOT want that to happen.

    The ONLY way that collecting can survive is for collectors (and their dealers) themselves to take action. And it has to be dramatic action … like … say … a registry.

    David Knell

  13. Wayne says

    @David says “That collecting provides most of the motivation for looting is blatantly obvious to the rest of the world.” I think that is an inaccurate characterization. The amount of looting in Britain is far less than that in Egypt, for example, if one believes the media reports. Does that mean there are many more (or more voracious) collectors of Egyptian artifacts than there are of Romano-British or Celtic objects? If so, the ancient coin market does not reflect that. A rational person might conclude instead that the differing degrees reflect differing cultural property laws and societal concerns over perservation in the two countries. By the way, I thought this thread was supposed to end with Nathan Elkins having the last word (see comment #40). Apparently David was chastizing me prematurely and is now (22 comments later) disregarding his own admonition. Funny how that works.

  14. Nigel says

    “The amount of looting in Britain is far less than that in Egypt”…..

    But that is ONLY because what is called looting elsewhere is called legal in Britain.

    In addition, whatever it’s called, in Britain it is ALL Collection Driven Exploitation.

    “How it works” is not that you assert two pure untruths about the situation in Britain and then claim the thread must end!

  15. Paul says

    I think it is clear that either:
    - the US coin dealer has not the foggiest what it is being discussed here and which was the topic of Professor Elkins;’ article, in which case it’s a bit rich of him complaining (comment #8 on the previous page above) that nobody wants to sit down with him and discuss how to resolve this issue, OR,
    - the US coin dealer is deliberately fogging an issue which he is uncomfortable about others discussing and has has every intention but to sit down and discuss how to resolve the issue and would dearly love for this conversation to end.

    I think if you look through the sixty-odd comments above, one can see clearly who is interested in discussing the issues Elkins points out, and who is putting a lot of effort into deflecting attention away and discouraging further discussion of those issues. What collectors and dealers are doing here is not controlling the debate, but alienating themselves from it.

    Paul Barford

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