Ancient Coins and Looting

Preserving the context

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2014.—Ed.


 
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.
 


 
Do museums and educational organizations have the right to sell antiquities from their collections? This was the question the AIA-St. Louis Society faced when artifacts from its Egyptian collection were put up for auction. Learn more >>
 

 
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.

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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 details some of the ways in which ancient Near Eastern civilizations have impressed themselves on Western culture and chronicles the present-day fight to preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage.

Learn more about ancient coins in Bible History Daily:

Roman Emperor Nerva’s Reform of the Jewish Tax by Nathan T. Elkins

Gold Nero Coin Comes to Light in Jerusalem

Rare Roman Gold Coin Minted by Trajan Found

Judaea Capta Coin Uncovered in Bethsaida Excavations

Coins Celebrating the Great Revolt Against the Romans Unearthed near Jerusalem

How Ancient Jews Dated Years
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on June 18, 2014.
 

 

Posted in Cultural Heritage.

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  • 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

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

    http://ancient-heritage.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/a-way-forward.html

    David Knell

  • 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.

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