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Subject:

Re: private collecting by archaeologists: was in praise of metal detecting: was (no subject) private collections

From:

John Hooker <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

British archaeology discussion list <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 18 Jul 2003 15:35:59 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Chris Cumberpatch writes:

>I would be interested to know if these collectors also
>collected evidence of production techniology and whether the collections
>also include kiln wasters and manufacturing evidence.

This sort of collecting is becoming increasingly common. Of course, many
cannot afford to visit the sites in China. They still benefit, though, from
those that do. These people often post photographs of such objects and give
details of them on Chinese ceramic collectors discussion lists -- although
the bulk of the discussion these days seems to be informing novice
collectors that they just bought a modern fake on Ebay, and the $50,000 jun
ware pot they thought they got for $20 is really worth $20 - $50 as a
"decorator" item.  I did see some mention of discarded sherds given by R.
L. Hobson in one of his books (ca. 1912) and he, even at that time,
discusses much about the glaze technology, gathering, aging and preparation
of the the clay, drying, firing, post firing finishing etc.

>It sometimes happens that political concerns are allowed to affect the
>reporting of history to such a degree that the resulting product
>is more false than true.
>
>    Since we are citing our own work (something neither John Hooker or
>myself are shy about doing), see:
>Cumberpatch, C.G.  2000  People, things and archaeological knowledge: an
>exploration of the significance of fetishism in archaeology.  Assemblage 5
>http://www.shef.ac.uk/~assem/5/tableofc.html
>
>    Political appropriation of the past is far from the sole preserve of the
>state.

Interesting paper, and I agree that the "fetishism" concept is far
reaching. I am not a great fan of either Freud or Marx, but no one is
either completely wrong or completely right. Personally, I lean more toward
Jung but find some of his ideas somewhat "gloomy". Jung is not very
accessible though, and sometimes there is an oracular nature about what he
says in which we can take our own meanings from what he wrote. He was aware
of this effect he had on his audience and had some of his assistants and
"followers" give their own interpretation of what he meant in "Man and his
Symbols". This is a horrible work and is fixed in the time of its writing
in so many ways, much of it is just a dramatization of popular
"intellectual" ideas of that time -- some of it is just plain wrong.


>> As to the other categories you mention I know of no specialist private
>collections of these things at all so there can be no comparisons made.
>
>    And this reveals another drawback of the private collection - its high
>degree of selectivity in what is collected and curated - which underlies my
>point about needing the full range of material in order to be able to draw
>robust anbd reliable inferences about the past.  Reliance on private
>collections would consigen the bulk of evidence to the dustbin.

The past is too vast a subject to be understood from either a single
archaeological site, or even a number of archaeological sites. For a start,
what is found in any given stratum is only a sample of what was at that
site at the date we assign to that stratum. Even if the site was subject to
a sudden and catastrophic end, such as at Pompeii, some things are not
preserved. If the site was abandoned or modified, then some things were
removed. Someone might look at the remains of a Roman temple and lament
that some of the stones had been removed to build something else at a later
date. I might look at the same temple and lament that the Romans detroyed
the previous Iron Age religious site to replace it with a, then, modern
building. The past can never be static -- its evidence can consist of
destruction over destruction. To preserve a single past is an "unnatural"
act. By preserving a single past we are destroying a potential future.
Sometimes, as you noted, another past is destroyed to get at a past that we
have selected to persist in that space. But none of these things are the
"real" past. Is there a "real" past at all?


The specialized collection uses a set of objects to reconstruct something
of a past. The selection of those objects as a set is subjective, so it can
only define things within its own frame of reference. This is no different,
in essence to what can be learned from an archaeological site. Harlow
Temple, when completely excavated will not be the Harlow Temple that
existed in the first century, it will be what the people of the past and
natural forces have allowed to persist from the times that we have decided
to record. One thing that is completely gone, and can never be
reconstructed is the sensual experiences of individuals at some point of
time in that space.

Let's take an object that has been removed from the space and time of its
abandonment, and while we might have a good idea of its time of
manufacture, the space it occupied at any given time is far less certain.
As an isolated object its only context is itself and our interaction with
it. There is nothing wrong with this unless we label it as missing its
spacial context. If the object was portable, we can imagine that it
occupied many spaces while people were interacting with it, at some point
people ceased to interact with it, and now people are again interacting
with it. The interactions of all times are modified by just who is
interacting with that object. If we excavate that object from the space of
its abandonment, we cannot also excavate the last interactions that it had.
These were subjective to every person that had anythging to do with the
object at that tyime. We might see it as a functional object: say it is a
lamp, we might the say its significance to its owner was to provide light,
but that lamp might have been a gift to the last owner and its real
significance was a cherished reminder of someone special. THAT is the real
past, but it is one we cannot, ordinarily, recreate. In addition to this,
what did that owner think of it in another context? Was it a beautiful lamp
to them, or was it an ugly lamp that was kept only because of its primary
significance? The lamp has a depiction of a panther. Did the owner like
animals? Was he or she a follower of the Dionysian cult? Perhaps the lamp
was made for followers of Dionysos, but bought because the panther was
"cute". The significance, or history, if you will, of that object as a
possession is a closed book to us. Someone might say the house in which
this lamp stood was owned by a follower of Dionysos, and it had a ritual
use in that cult. Someone else might say the lamp was used to illuminate
the room. The person that owned the lamp might have said to her child "I
light this lamp sometimes to remember your late father, he gave it to me
when we first met". What different pasts these all are! Most people are
more interested in the "personal" past. Knowing something of what someone
was thinking at the time connects us human beings. This is the past that I
am most interested in.


How can I reconstruct some part of that past? I can gather together the
products of an individual of the past, analyze those products and attempt
to recreate the thinking processes that took place in the mind of the
individual while they were making these objects, and that were instrumental
in their work. First, though, I have to ensure that I have enough of those
objects to (a) identify individuals and (b) reconstruct the chronology of
the manufacture of those objects. After that, I have to examine how the
objects were made differently, one after the other. This cannot be done if
all the objects are identical, even if some chronology is possible to
construct. There is no variation, so there are no active thoughts that can
be assigned to stages of the process of producing X items. The person might
have been on "automatic pilot" and  thinking of other things.

If these objects were coin dies then we might have none of them at all, but
impressions of them exist on thousands of coins. This is an ideal scenario.
Because so many were made, we might have a good chance of finding
impressions of nearly all the dies that were created. We then have a good
statistical sample. If they showed variation in design we can start to
identify the meanings of these variations. Some might be to signify a time,
some might signify a value, others would be compositional changes for
aesthetic reasons, so we can start to recreate aesthetic considerations
within the framework of certain tenets of that person's art. Other
variations might be iconographic. If we are lucky, we can sometimes draw
religious meanings from common features within these variations. The
creator of the object was trying to say something. He was a bit vague at
first, and this annoyed him, so he put it in another way, this was better,
but it still lacked something so he made more modifications to clarify his
thoughts to his intended audience. This is the daily work of the artist. He
or she might be expressing an aesthetic, or might be telling a religious
concept or a story. Their communication is never perfect, but they work
toward that ideal goal.


Having accomplished this from one set I can then expand what I have learned
of the religious/cultural/artistic tenets experienced by that individual
and compare these to those of their contemporaries. As more is analyzed,
new sets might not need to be as numerous to see what was happening. Then
all of this can be compare with other things we know about the culture and
history, generally, and a greater focus on one past is thus created. We can
also add rather mundane modifications to make the work better: getting just
the right temperature and alloy to make the coin production better, for
example. this can also tell us things because we have already established
an accurate internal chronology.

The main body of evidence, in this sort of study, are the products. What
subseqeuntly happened to these products: where they went, where they were
abandoned, and what was with them whenthey were abandoned is of almost no
concern at all. If the products are scattered among thousands of boxes,
unphotographed and unpublished, then it is very difficult to even start
such a study. If the products have been sold and resold to collectors for a
few hundred years, then there is a greater liklihood of them being properly
recorded. I can look through databases of such catalogues, or the
catalogues themselves. If private collections did not exist, then I would
have to get good photographs of all the coins I needed from public
collections. It would be likely that I could not afford to do this, as the
prices are usually far too high.

Many of the best studies are carried out by dealers who can buy, record,
and then sell the objects. After many years of handling thousands of
examples, much more than is ever handled by any museum employee or
archaeologist, they develop an intimate knowledge of their specialty.
Sometimes such studies are carried out by the wealthiest collectors who
only have to buy, and not sell. I mentioned Sir Percival David for Chinese
porcelain. There was also Arthur S Dewing for Greek coins generally -- he
had more dekadrachms of Syracuse than any institution of his time. There
was Vlasto for Tarentine coins, and so on. Back in the "good old days"
these big collectors had friendly relationhips with certain museums, a
curator might havre eevn started them on their collecting career. It was a
museum employee that got me started on Greek coins. he was a uniformed
attendent at Prittlewell Priory Museum in Essex: Mr. Rolf. He introduced me
to another boy that collected Greek coins and showed us both his own
collection of coins and artifacts. This other boy went on to intriduce me
to Davis Sear, the world's greatest expert on ancient Greek and Roman
coins, and an employee of a the London coin dealer Seaby. Ilearned a lot
from the both. Mr Rolf was a close friend of C.C. Chamberlaine in
Colchester, and they were both friends of H. G. Well's brother, a noted
antiquary of his time. When Wells died his collection was left to them
both. It was Rolfs intention to leave his share to the British Museum when
he died. Most noteworthy in his collection was the only extant coin die of
a Henry II Tealby penny. He also had some of the objects that had been line
illustrated in H.G.Well's History. This is the scenario in which I grew up
and developed my interests. Contemporaries of Rolf who worked at the
British Museum would sometimes give us youngsters museum duplicates for own
collection, or trade some duplicate they had for a rare coin that we had
found in some dealer's junk box. I told that story to Lord Renfrew, he
replied that he was happy to report that didn't do that anymore. He didn't
get it. My boyhood friend who Rolf introduced me to developed an interest
in Classical languages from collecting ancient coins. It was his intention
to one day work at the B.M. in that capacity.

>>
>> You are using the "shiny things" and "fetishism" memes to construct a
>straw man. Really! I wasn't born yesterday.
>
>    The phrase 'shiny things' was intended to draw attention to the fact
>that the contents of the website were complete or largely complete objects,
>valued for themselves rather that for the fact that they constitute one
>piece of evidence forming part of an assemblage or assemblages, linked by
>context.  For fetishism, see the article cited above.  The valuing of
>objects devoid of context can certainly be be interpreted as fetishistic.
>The words were certainly not intended as straw people.

You have to be careful about such word usage. Idiots might hear you and
take it to heart. One such idiot worked at a local museum. She was given
the post of curator of coins because she was the wife of an influential
Classics professor at the university and she held a docorate from
Cambridge. The retiring curator wanted me to take over. He had the habit of
tossing a small coin across his desk to me when I dropped by to visit.
"What's that?" he would say. I would reply "It's an obol of Larissa in
Thessaly", I would reply (or whatever it happened to be). He never caught
me out. But the idiot women got the job because of her qualifications. I
never went back. Later I heard that she had sent all of the Greek coins out
to be polished because she thought the public would like "shiny things".
She was fired, the lab was dismantled and their scanning electron
microscope was appropriated by the geology depatment. What had showed signs
of being the best numismatic laboratory in the world was no more. The old
curator was disgruntled about the university refusing to publish his own
study of a Massillian coin hoard unless he paid for it (while telling him
that as the hoard was university property, and he was doing the study on
their time, they would not allow him to publish it elsewhere) Well he
became rather jaded and snapped, turning to a life of crime before he was
finally caught.
>

>> Yes, but "site" context is but one of the many other possible contexts.

>    Of course, but it is the primary context and the process of study
>should move from this onto others - which does not imply that wider contexts
>are less significant, simply that they should all be studied.  Site conext
>may be unimportant to you as a numismatist, but to the field archaeologists
>studying the site formation processes it is of great imnportnace.  Why
>should the concerns of the numismatist be considered as more significant
>than those of the field archaeologist?  They are simply different concerns
>and both require incorporation ionto the various narratives to be written
>about the site and its constituent parts, amongst which are the various
>classes of artefcats, togeher with the structural evidence, environmental
>evidence and so on and so on
.
 I never said that the concerns of numismatists were more significant than
the concerns of archaeologists. They are different subjects, as such one
cannot be more significant in a global sense. That goes for art history,
iconography, comparitive mythology, any subject that adresses the past is
no more significant than any other subject tha adresses the past. We pick
what we do for subjective reasons, we should learn to appreciate all
disciplines as equal. They are all just grist for our respective
philosophical mills. Like the alchemists, we are in the process of
transmuting ourselves, not the material (now I'm being Jungian!)

>    I do agree that other discplines are also valid - I would be hard put to
>do my job without people working in other disciplines - geology, materials
>science, field archaeology, illustration, photography - all these contribute
>more to what I do than do those who buy and sell stamped samian or

>occasional medieval pots

I would not condemn a profession that had not helped me personally, when
that profession had helped others. That is rather egocentric no?

>> One can always get an appointment to look at a bunch of stuff, but I am
>talking about obtaining visual data that can be used in a published study
>for the benefit of all who read that study.
>
>    I am in the process of doing this for medieval pottery for north
>Derbyshire and South Yorkshire.  Looking at 'bunches of stuff' is what I do
>and I see no reason why that is any less useful than 'obtaining visual data
>to be used in a published study' ... in fact, on reflection, by looking at
>'bunches of stuff' I am 'obtaining visual data that can be used in a
>published study' ... I use a camera and a computer and the services of a
>draughtsperson to do so - (the quality of the photographs may not be great,
>but that's my fault).

Ther's nothing wrong with that if you pay for it yourself. Many museums do
not allow you to take your own photographs. Some do not even allow you to
do a sketch in their museum. Perhaps they feel that the market for
photographs of Medival pottery is not worth bothering about. Do a study of
the paintings of Turner and go to the National Gallery with your camera and
see what happens then!

>     I reiterate - I have received excellent co-operation from the staff of
>the musems concerned and have never been charged for anything.

So the British Museum or the National Gallery charges some people for
photographs and not others? Some museums are better than others. I was
allowed to take photographs at the Natural History Museum in Oxford, but I
couldn't even go in the National Gallery with my Nikon, even with no flash
and a good quality 1000 ASA film. My wife almost got kicked out of the
Chinese Genghis Khan exhibit for sketching a belt hook.

Regards,

John



http://www.writer2001.com/
Hooker & Perron, Total Project Coordination
Database-Web...Graphics...Custom Maps...Colour Suites...Expert Systems
Building the Celtic Coin Index on the Web:
http://www.writer2001.com/cciwriter2001/

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