Collecting and Archaeology: Is there a common ground?

This page is dedicated to the ethics involved in Ancient coin collecting. It is important that collectors understand where their coins come from and how this might effect our knowledge base of ancient history and the cultural heritage of the originating country or region. The role of the collector can be viewed from many angles. At one extreme is the view of the collector abetting the looting of national treasures. On the other hand there is the view that ancient coins provide the only direct link to ancient cultures that can be viewed in hand - hopefully leading to an enhanced understanding and appreciation of our cultural/historical heritage. I lean toward the latter view, but deeply respect the need for better laws and enforcement procedures to ensure that what is offered for sale to collectors has been mapped, catalogued, and offered to authorities for analysis. Sadly, it is the restrictive laws in some countries that put their citizens in a Catch 22 scenario and actually promote black market activity.

The model of how dectectorists, collectors, and archaeologists can coexist in a symbiotic relationship seems to exist in England. A find is reported to authorities and a team is sent to evaluate the site. If warranted, a controlled dig is authorized. The coins are also evaluated. If of national interest, the coins are kept by the government and the finders are compensated. In this way, Celtic tribes and the settlement patterns of Romans have been plotted like in no other country. This works because the incentive is there for the citizen to report the find. Sadly, in many of the developing countries the incentive is just not there to report finds.

A factor that separates coins from other artifacts is the sheer volume that was produced. We are talking billions - 365 million silver radiates in one year. To put this in perspective, US mintage of dimes did not reach this quantity until 1962. In years when the Romans were waging major military campaigns, this number was greater. Smaller denomination bronzes must have been minted in numbers that boggle the imagination. The Romans buried these coins in the ground, often in leather pouches during times of stress, e.g. before battles, and during evacuations or fast retreats. While the archaeological evidence these coins might provide in terms of military campaigns and migration patterns is important, we can read this information from random samples of finds. Unraveling these stories through coin-find patterns would be enormously complex - maybe impossible. While we await the archaeologist to plot and decypher this information the coins rot in the ground. Buy a few uncleaned Roman coins for $0.45 each and you will see the destiny of coins that are not composed of pure gold or silver. The English model seems even more sensible given these circumstances.

On the other hand, I worry very much about the gold and silver coins coming out of the lands of Alexander's successors. In these areas things seem to be getting out of control - politically as well as in terms of preservation. As collectors/numismatists we should all be concerned and push for reforms that will protect people, their heritage.... I guess this is like wishing for peace on Earth. Until there is a radical change in global politics that eases the discrepancy between rich and poor countries, I am afraid that little will change. At the least we should buy only from reputable and or licensed dealers from these countries. I do believe there is common ground for a symbiotic relationship between archaeologists and collectors. Collectors have contributed much to our historical data base and have certainly helped preserve pieces of history that would have degraded to unrecognizable clumps of metal that would be lost forever. Some archaeologists would prefer this over feeding the community of collectors. I feel this view is tantamount to using dynamite in excavation work.

The rest of this page is devoted to an exchange from a professor of history, who takes the extreme view of collectors, and members of Ancient Coins for Education [ACE]. ACE represents a group of collectors who realized the potential of exposing school students to ancient civilizations first hand. They mobilized dealers and collectors to donate coins to be used in classrooms. These are uncleaned coins that provide the students the thrill of discovery. I would wager that ACE will produce an archaeologist or two through their efforts. Members of the group go into the classrooms to speak to the students and contests are held among the schools concerning attribution skills and cleaning and preservation skills. As a teacher and professor myself, I am proud to support this group. Following the letter exchange is a list of links to sites promoting collecting and preservation of cultural heritage.

Original letter:

Where are your 'uncleaned' coins coming from? Do you know? Do they have proper (Not Forged) export papers and were taken out of their country of origin prior to the 1970 UNESCO convention? If not, you are in violation of U.S. Code, Title 19, Chapter 14, Convention on Cultural Property. Please see: and "I face these problems every year in my research in Turkey. On a ridgetop in Lycia is an ancient town with no known name, too remote for authorities to guard it, which riddled every year by looters with metal detectors looking for coins. We have counted and recorded 129 looting pits so far, each one of them removing information and destroying stratigraphy. This information cannot be 'put back'! And people are looting these sites precisely to sell the objects (illegally obtained, exported, sold and bought, against international conventions and US Federal Statutes) to folks like you.

Reply one:
Professor _____,
My name is Souzana Du Cane Steverding and I received your email this morning. To say that I was saddened to be the target of your anger, does not convey that I do in fact understand some of your feelings, because by one of those quirks of fate, I have particular understanding of them even while not agreeing.
Firstly... let us clarify a couple of things The US State Department in response to a request from the Republic of Italy, determined that ancient coins should not be subject to import restrictions under the 1970 UNESCO Treaty - this I am reliably informed by the ANS and the ANA of which latter I am a member.
The debate as to whether the Elgin Marbles should be returned, whether Schliemann's Trojan treasure will ever be accessible again are worth discussion, but we are talking here about the very commonest 3rd Century AD Roman AEs, tens of thousands of which are bought and sold "legally" every day in North America and Europe. The project with which I am involved makes no gain from this, and our intentions are altruistic. Were you to rail at shadowy dealers trafficking in valuable coins stolen from hoards or those who would turn ancient coins into earrings by drilling holes thru them and selling them - I could understand that, but, brought up in the British Classical tradition, I have been dismayed to see how little attention is paid in the U.S. School system to the history, culture and languages of the Ancient World around the Mediterranean - and we wish to rectify that neglect in a small way by having the Latin and History teachers, to whom these coins are sent, open new windows into the past and stimulate enthusiasm for ancient cultures. If one learns as a young person to value, preserve, acquire knowledge of and be proud of a connection with an ancient heritage, this knowledge stays with one all one's life. Do not underestimate the understanding and intelligence of the young - there is a program at Villanova, where Latin is taught at elementary school age to Saturday students, and Greek too is not only the domain of the doctoral candidate. Having been taught Latin and speaking demotic Greek, I value these heritages deeply having been immersed in them since childhood.
he British law of Treasure Trove deals most equitably and sensibly in connection with the items of antiquity which form the heritage of us all. Such laws are a model, and it would seem to me that for you to use your considerable energies to lobby Turkish lawmakers for the introduction of similar laws would be to the benefit of all. From the Ottoman Empire thru the depredations of Turkish soldiery in Northern Cyprus, sadly the Turkish population has often neglected and misused the magnificent Hellenic civilisation which once flourished on its shores, maybe this was reinforced by the ill advised Greek invasion of 1920-1, but it is to be hoped that at last the touristic value of these ancient Greek sites will lead to a more sensible policy, whereby what is unique and precious is preserved for the Turkish nation and what is commonplace is open to collectors.
I feel for you being plagued by "treasure hunting"around your dig, but this leads me to remark that often insufficient due care and attention is given at archaeological sites to coin finds... in the way of publishing the finds, and the many that are lost when the earth is not finely sieved,etc, because the archaeologist's motivation is often not the same as the numismatist's, and on an archaeological dig the archaeologist has the greater advantage. Archaeology and numismatics are sister studies in reality and both were greatly pioneered by "so called" amateurs. To date, the study of the Ancient Greek Bronze coins of Thessaly has not found a better exponent than the Reverend Rogers. If young amateurs across the ocean, far beyond the Pillars of Hercules, are not introduced to the study and love of the artifacts of the past, who will ever rival Reverend Rogers and update his work.?
I was, so to speak, brought up in the shadow of Hadrian's Wall, since my family hold one of the last privately owned parts of the Wall - namely Brocolitia, locally known as Carrawburgh - so I hope you will believe me when I say that I understand your fears and sympathize with them. Over 50 years ago a Mithraeum was discovered near the fort on our land, its importance was such that it is now part of the "English Heritage"system with the altar stones in the Museum at Newcastle. The finds from the Shrine
at nearby Coventina's Well, excavated by John Clayton, a "gifted amateur"in the 1870s, are in the Chesters Museum, and it therefore pains me that you should think me less than careful with our ancient classical heritage. The accusation you levelled was out of context, the multitudinous coins of Constans and his ilk, tossed aside during many a dig, form a beacon of inspiration to many a teacher and student, and who can say that the next great archaeologists and numismatists will not flower amongst these same students.
Will you deny the sort of pleasure you get on your faraway Lycian ridge, to the younger generation as they contemplate a common bronze of Constantine the First.?

Reply two:
Dear Professor ____;

As the current spokesman for ACE, I have been asked to respond to the email you sent to Mrs. Souzana Steverding expressing concern that our project encourages the destruction of archaeological treasures. The organizers and supporters of ACE collect coins not for their monetary value or as status icons, but for their historical value. In fact, uncleaned Roman coins will seldom yield to the buyer a net gain. In other words, the coins uncovered will generally not be worth the total price paid for the coins. The attraction of uncleaned coins is that it allows the individual to engage in an amateur form of archaeology.
So you see, we are not interested in the coins so much as in the history they represent. We therefore wholeheartedly agree that the destruction of archaeological sites is an inexcusable robbing of our collective cultural history! However, were it not for the love of history to which these coins contribute, perhaps we would not be aware of, and appalled by, such destruction.

As a member of the Biblical Archaeology Society, I am well aware of the faction that believes private ownership of artifacts is unconscionable. In fact, I am aware that some archaeologists continue to destroy artifacts rather than allow them into private collections. The arrogance of an archaeologist who would destroy an artifact "in the name of science" is obvious and sickening. History belongs to everyone and to no one; we numismatists feel that we are not the owners, but the temporary custodians of the historical objects we collect. A numismatic would never intentionally destroy history, either as a coin or as a dig site. I submit that our respect for ancient history surpasses that of many archaeologists! To say that our activities contribute to the destruction of ancient sites is to tell only a small part of the truth. While the evidence makes clear that people have destroyed the historical context of sites in search of booty, it is equally clear that coin collectors have contributed far more to the field than they have taken from it. By promoting the love of archaeology through numismatics, we ensure that the next generation of leaders and taxpayers have a healthy appreciation for the past.

I could go on for hours as to why I am convinced that numismatics and the private ownership of antiquities is not only good, but noble... however, knowing where AIA stands on private ownership of artifacts and assuming you support them in this position, I suspect that it would not change your mind about ACE. If, however, you would be willing, I would like to invite you to write an article for publication on the ACE site discussing the looting and destruction of which you wrote. Obviously, we are committed to continuing the program and would not like to publish an article defaming the collecting and study of ancient coins, but if you were to focus on the importance of buying only properly collected coins and antiquities, and the careful preservation thereof, then we at ACE will give you all of our support. In closing, let me again state that, although I do not expect you to change your position, we are not proceeding recklessly. I can only imagine the feelings of loss and anger you must experience when, returning to your dig, you find that the site has been looted and your work destroyed. If I truly believed that there was a chance that the ACE program would contribute to such destruction, I would end it today. I am a man of principle and have given up things far more important to me than coins for ideals far less noble than preserving history for future generations, so make no mistake, I am not seeking a convenient justification for my actions.
I hope you will consider working with ACE to ensure that we tread lightly as we venture into the fascinating world of the past. I live in Greenfield, Indiana so the distance between us is not unmanageable; if you would like to meet sometime and discuss ways to improve our program, I would very much like to do that. I believe that ACE should represent the pinnacle of integrity and responsible collecting, and I am convinced that a man of your convictions would be a positive influence on ACE and its participants.

Best Regards,
Mike Dalka
ACE founder and spokesman

And finally, a commentary from the teacher's point of view.
Dear Souzana,

I have read with interest (Sunday morning being really the sole time I have in the week for such considerations.) the impassioned and articulate arguments about the ethics of private ownership of antiquities. Being on the outside of the issue - I am neither an archaeologist nor one who owns any antiquities (unless a couple of extremely old volumes of Homer - gifts from my husband - count.) - I am struck not by the differences between the two views, but in the similarities between those who hold them - namely a passion for the past - for the study of civilizations that underlie our own - which help us better understand our own behaviors and institutions. How wonderful that such a passion exists and grips our minds and hearts! Certainly as one who teaches three of the languages spoken in antiquity - Classical Greek, Latin and Biblical Hebrew, it makes me feel less alone, and beset on all sides by those questioning the usefulness - even the right - of these languages to be taught in our modern world. For example, this week, some of my Latin students reported that a teacher asked them why they would ever want to study a dead language! Imagine how much ignorance one has to fight daily - how it feels when languages teeming with richness of thought, breathtaking beauty and expression are considered merely vestigial - like an appendix - to be excised from the canon of worthwhile subjects of study. Thank you for your passion and arguments. As one laboring in the trenches, I hope they will rage for a long time.

Looking at the argument from Professor Foss's point of view, one can understand his anguish at looting of sites and their contents, particularly considering the country where he works. How can we forget the flooding of the glorious mosaics discovered at Zeugma - now flooded over when a dam was constructed? Of course, going back even further -the powder magazine stored by the Turks in the most beautiful building ever constructed - and the subsequent result. I count this as the greatest of all outrages and obliterations. Small wonder he is filled with rage! However, one can ask also - is a small bronze coin - like the one tiny Constans I cleaned - the equivalent of one of Schliemann's finds - like the golden mask? I think the answer cannot be in the affirmative. On the other hand, just because theft of a loaf of bread is not equivalent to the theft of Munch's "The Scream," are either just? These are issues for greater minds than mine to ponder. In fact, prior to reading these arguments, I had been discussing with a biology teacher whether or not the students at our school in PA ought to actually keep their coins, or if the coins should instead be put on display at the school - as something that the entire community could see - to help spark interest in the classical world. She responded that if we were to put them into one of the glass display cases which are placed about the school, that they would not be safe from theft! So there's the rub. Far better that they be owned and appreciated by my students, most - although - not all- of whom will cherish and appreciate them. One day, maybe they will show them to their children, who will want to learn more about ancient civilizations. Does this not coincide with Professor Foss's interests - except on a micro scale? At any rate, I have not answered any questions, and possibly have bored you to death - like Hermes did poor Argos - Guardian for your patron saint - Juno Moneta, so I will close, with profound gratitude for your common passions and enthusiasms for the past - and bringing the past alive in the present in myriad ways.


Further reading and resources:

The looting of Italy
with full text links to the Full text of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act

Professional Numismatists Guild

Euopean Laws on Metal Detecting
This includes summaries on treasure trove laws by country.

Decadrachm Hoard Case Settles
A case of smuggled Greek coins returned to Turkey.

Ancient Coin Collectors' Guild
A series of articles on Collecting and the law.

ArchNet - Cultural Resource Management
International Councils and Treaties

Legal Protection for Cultural Heritage

US State Dept.
The United States Department of State is responsible for implementing the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act

Iraq's past being looted for cash
The US/UN sanctions on Iraq have a devastating effect on historical sites, as well as the people - this is the core of third world problems associated with black market dealings - $ and poverty.
Profile of a collector
Michael Braunlin from the U of Cincinnati.

Culture without context
The newsletter of illicit antiquities research.

Thanks to Gar Travis, American Numismatic Association: Assistant National Coordinator, for contributing some of these links.
Corrections, questions, comments appreciated. E-mail me.

Return to Home Page