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Expanding the Context

The following was posted by John Hooker on the Moneta-L discussion list. Since it has direct relevance to the views of ACCG, we present it here with the kind permission of Mr. Hooker.

By John Hooker |
May 10, 2010

Ages ago, I read Colin Haselgrove's _Iron Age Coinage in S.E. England --
the Archaeological Context_, Oxford, 1987. In fact, I read it cover to
cover, three times in a row. I know of no work even remotely similar. It
paints a very different picture from the "loss of context" mantra's of
those who cannot even bother to read what this important archaeologist
has to say.

I was hoping to get some clues about the chronology of British Celtic
issues from the large number of archaeological sites discussed through
its 500+ pages. Of course, Haselgrove does not equate every coin find
with "context". There is a lot of space devoted to archaeological sites
in S.E. England (every site in the study region that contained even a
single Celtic coin is discussed), but there are also other divisions --
hoards, multiple finds, and stray finds. These can be further broken
down with details of stratified/unstratified; primary or secondary
context (an example of a secondary context being a coin found in the
foundation fill for a temple -- the coin came with the surrounding
material from another place).

Unfortunately, I was unable to find out anything new about Celtic coin
chronology from any of the archaeological sites. One could imagine
circumstances where by we might learn something new, but the data, so
far, had not presented such. This is especially significant because
Haselgrove also presented an entirely new taxonomy for British Celtic
issues. When you do that sort of thing, then new conclusions often
emerge. Haselgrove proposed a system consisting of region/phase/issues.
This was good mostly because tribal attributions are often "iffy".
Celtic coin issues are the not the same as an imagined "official tribal"
issue. At any given time, any tribe would have had a number of kings --
all of whom could issue coins if they wanted to. A higher status king
would have a number of lower status kings in his retinue, and each of
those kings would also have lower status kings in their retinues. Caesar
mentions a meeting with three kings of the Cantii when he was in Britain.

What Haselgrove noticed did not help with any new chronologies, but it
did show just where most Celtic coins came from. Some might be surprised
that most Celtic coins are recovered because of some sort of
development, or through various natural erosion (coastal, river etc.).
He included archaeological prospection and metal-detector use in one
category, and this represented 10% of coin finds. It is important to
understand, that the largest British hoard of Celtic coins was included
in this study (the infamous Wanborough find), and metal detecting had
been going on in England for about ten years prior to the study.

Later, Haselgrove wrote that a single archaeological site could tell us
only so much, and that this should be compared to other finds to see how
each differs. There are some curious and little understood patterns at
some sites -- one Celtic farm, in particular, had an unusually high
number of Celtic coins of varying types and regions -- something more
than farming was going on there --but we are still not clear on what it
was. This brings us to what is called "the archaeological record". To
read what some archaeologists claim (although not truthfully) -- an
archaeological site has a "record" that has an independent existence.
This is pure bunk. The archaeological record exists only in the mind of
an archaeologist. The archaeologist uses what he or she finds in
excavation to actually construct an archaeological record. How close
this record is to reality really depends on the sorts of questions that
is asked of the evidence, and these questions are all subjective. Not
only that, but testing procedures can deliver results which will affect
the record -- depending on which of the methods are used and the
importances placed on their results to the general picture of the site.

Let's take the Ferrybridge chariot burial -- the animal bones yielded
dates that were used to construct a picture of the site. As the bones
came from different periods, it was decided that some of the bones must
have been "archived" -- in other words, old bones taken from one place
were moved to another and used again for a different purpose. As the
archaeologists relied more on the "scientific" C14 dates, they ended up
in taking one range as being contemporary with the burial and released a
date of the 5th cent B.C. for the burial. In recent years, "artifact
studies" have been deemphasized in constructing these archaeological
records, so it was not a great surprise to discover that one of the
grave objects was an involute brooch made more than 200 years after the
date given by "the archaeological record". This was no "intruder" it was
worn by the body in the grave. The date of the brooch is certain to
within a few decades from other sites in Britain that contained these
brooches, and the type was a variety of the La Tene 2 type attested from
continental and British sites. In other words, all of the bones had been
archived save for those in the outer ditch which had a date in the Roman
Imperial period.

The first archaeological record of the site claimed that a very famous
person had been buried in the grave in the 5th century B.C. and he was
later commemorated in the Imperial period by a huge feast (providing the
bones in the outer ditch). An interesting piece of fiction -- but the
archaeological record had nothing to do with past realities at all. If
just one of those archaeologists knew anything about brooch types, there
would have been a very different archaeological record indeed!

Less obvious than the involute brooch, the chariot itself, presented a
problem of interpretation -- it was noted that some of the chariot parts
were missing and had been replaced with foil covered clay facsimiles.
None of the archaeologists found this very odd -- if this "warrior" had
been buried in the 5th cent. B.C. and was that important, then an entire
chariot could have easily been provided -- it was, after all, a "chariot
burying culture". Chariots (as war equipment) had been banned by the
Romans, so in the early Imperial period, if you needed a chariot then
you might find a few recycled parts you could use in the back of a barn
and then you could make facsimiles of what was missing.

Another scientific discovery about the site was that the occupant
originally hailed from Scotland. No one made the connection that in the
early Imperial period, the Romans were experiencing some problems around
Scotland -- enough to build a couple of walls to keep them away! I would
say that this Scotsman was a high-status captive or hostage and that his
sacrifice was in response to Roman expansion (other such sacrifices have
been discovered). It seems most likely to me that this event was an
archaizing ritual that emphasized the local "lifestyle" values. Its
organizer would have been a clan leader hoping to gain more support by
staging this anti-Roman event. Such clan meetings are always
characterized by conspicuous waste of resources -- especially livestock
slaughter. The clan leader had to show that he had so much -- he could
waste it.

Similar sites, such as the yet to be excavated Dobunni site in South
Worcestershire where coins were strewn all over the ground surface in
full view, and never to be touched were Druidic council meeting sites
where legal cases were heard, where the tribe made its plans in times of
conflict, and clan leaders could vie for power and support. This
continued, in Scotland, right down to the 18th century. One clan leader
expressed a desire to be more frugal with his resources -- they killed
him and appointed another.

Another common archaeological interpretation (thus another
"archaeological record") is that some of these coin deposits were
"offerings to the gods". Which gods would those be? In the pre-Roman
Iron Age, there is very little evidence for "Celtic Gods". They do
appear, in profusion, during the Roman period where they gain Roman
names along with their Celtic names. Archaeologists often refer to this
Romanizing as "interpretatio romana", see:

http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2007/2007-06-49.html

In Roman Gaul, however, the association of a local deity with a Roman
one was of great benefit to the priests who could claim lands not only
for the temple itself, but also to use to lease to farmers to create
income for the cult. The change thus, was opportunistic and launched by
Gaulish priests not as any sort of "official" Romanization. If you
doubt that such self-serving plans were hatched in Gaul then read about
Augustus' difficulties in Gaul with its procurator Licinius (who was a
Gaulish ex-slave of Caesar's). He robbed his fellow countrymen blind
forcing a delegation to actually go and see Augustus to complain about
it. Augustus knew the guy was a crook, but Licinius knew how to handle
the situation and he got away with it by saying that his treasure stores
were "for the Roman people" -- Augustus could not fight that!

The local gods, although given Celtic names, were not "La Tene Celtic
deities", but were indigenous gods that had existed at least since the
Neolithic. These were the gods of the masses, not of the Druids -- the
druids merely officiated at religious ceremonies held by the masses. The
druids had very different beliefs and one Celtic invader laughed at the
Greeks for having anthropomorphic gods. While offerings to gods took
place in Celtic times in Celtic places -- they did not happen at Druidic
council meetings. The Druids tolerated belief in gods, but did not share
it. The Druids were finally destroyed by the Romans. Springs and groves
were held by the Druids to be sacred, and these meetings took place at
or near such sites and offerings were made -- often in "watery" contexts
like springs or rivers -- but these were more offerings to the
"otherworld" than to any specific deity -- such offerings to the gods
were made by the indigenous people who were not of the druid class.
Often, these offerings were intrinsic rather than symbolic. A local
farmer might offer an entire cow to appease his god if he was ill, but
the folks at the hill-fort might offer only the hooves and horns as a
symbolic offering to more general forces - here was no need for
conspicuous consumption as there would be at a clan meeting.

Of course, the main problem with the "archaeological record" in these
cases is that most archaeologists avoid any mention of the Druids at all
-- so not only do they miss out on one of the most important social
structures of the time, but many of them have the dimmest understanding
of the Celts in general. As they also avoid iconography, they fail to
see the shared Celtic culture which stretched from Hungary to Ireland at
one point. Whenever you see the word Celtic placed in scare quotes by an
archaeologist ("Celtic"), you can say for certain that the
archaeologist either knows nothing of Celtic culture or has been
intimidated by someone who thinks they do!

As numismatists, we often encounter interesting data that is ignored by
many archaeologists because it is not contained in their current popular
methods -- this is a feature of archaeologist followers, not of
archaeological innovators. The latter few talk with us all the time and
we all benefit from sharing our knowledge -- all the vocal
anti-collecting crew can do is to disparage what we find important and
they never say anything new, nor do they try for workable solutions to
site looting problems. Fortunately, their rhetoric is often so far
"over the top" that no serious and informed critic is going to pay them
much heed. We are in the frustrating position of protecting the minds of
those who know nothing from those who know only a little!

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john hooker

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