Hijacked by Zealots
From The Celator, August 2004.
Wayne G. Sayles, "Through the Looking Glass" |
August 01, 2004
"Man's need to understand the past is a basic characteristic of the human psyche. With the exception of documents related to commerce, the earliest written records of man are almost exclusively historical in nature. Even pre-classical poetry and narrative art tend to be historical in perspective and most of the Great Books of the past are basically histories of the human experience. Collecting artifacts from a previous age is also a timeless human activity. For countless centuries, enquiring minds have gathered objects that represent a bygone era.
In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, those who collected historical artifacts were generally the wealthy-not because artifacts of the past were expensive, but because the wealthy and the educated were one and the same. History and its residue had little place in the life of the poor and illiterate.
As the glory of the Roman Empire faded, education became a carefully guarded commodity that survived mainly in the secretive cloisters of remote monasteries. Even the revival of classical interest in the 12th century was pretty much limited to the nobility and to religious centers of learning. It was not until the blossoming of the Italian Renaissance that the study of the past and the collecting of its artifacts became a pursuit of the more general public. This was partly due to the fact that higher levels of education became available at that time to the professional and merchant classes that were empowered by their newly found wealth. The collecting of artifacts, and ancient coins in particular, developed as a private pursuit in the sixteenth century. From that time on, private collectors fueled not only a stable and established market for coins, but also for information about them.
Archaeologists and numismatists, who previously had relied on the generosity of wealthy patrons for their support, found an eager market for the fruits of their effort. What once had been a small fraternity of antiquarians in the courts of nobility or the monasteries of the church grew into a broadly respected cadre of professional numismatists. Many of these early numismatists, who created our earliest catalogues and treatises on the discipline, became the guardians of the first public collections of ancient coins in places like Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Rome and London. For the past two centuries, the rapid growth of ancient coin collecting as a private pursuit has funded many public collections and the salaries of many numismatists dedicated to expanding our knowledge of the past. Some of these professional numismatists have worked in academic institutions, some in private and public museums, some have worked in the trade and some have been archaeologists.
Historically, these professionals have worked in concert with a great number of knowledgeable private collectors. Information has been freely shared and many projects have been undertaken jointly. There has truly been a symbiosis of private and professional interests and efforts.
In the past few decades, the Archaeological community led by elements of the Archaeological Institute of America-a large and powerful organization with a long reach-has become increasingly aggressive in calling for and working toward the prohibition of private collecting of antiquities. Nevermind that this would undue several centuries of progress and mutual cooperation, or that it would dramatically impact the funding of public numismatic collections. Nevermind that it would stifle the most productive source of numismatic research that the world has ever seen. Nevermind that it would trod on the individual rights and freedoms of tens of thousands of private citizens in a supposedly free country. Nevermind that it would have a severe economic impact on hundreds of legitimately organized and operating businesses.
The espoused view of the AIA is that private collecting fosters the pilfering and potential destruction of archaeological sites and of the historical record. Therefore, private collecting is anathema-regardless of its record of achievement or its value to society. This parochial view essentially "throws the baby out with the bath water". In fact, the argument is so lacking in merit that one has to wonder if it is not actually a screen for some less altruistic motivation
The notion that only trained archaeologists are capable of interpreting the past or preserving its heritage is utter nonsense. Since the days of Franz Boas and his "Historical Particularists" the discipline of archaeology has concentrated on the meticulous collection and cataloguing of minute details that seldom find their way into accessible reports, much less into some form of dialogue that improves our understanding of the past. Meanwhile, private collectors and professional numismatists have added volumes to the library of man's heritage.
If the archaeological community were truly concerned with preserving cultural heritage for all of society, we would see a proliferation of data being made available for private research. Instead, we see the AIA forbidding its members to speak at meetings of private collectors and prohibiting them from writing for the pages of independent journals like The Celator.
The AIA is trying hard to polarize the entire academic community against private collecting, and even castigates public museums that do not accept its inflexible ideology. The organization that once was a friend to numismatists is being hijacked by a group of zealots that have turned it into a medieval-like cloister where only a chosen few will hold the keys to knowledge.
Elsewhere in this issue you will find a press release announcing the establishment of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild. One of the first and highest priorities of this new Guild will be to meet the AIA challenge head on with all of the resources that the collector community can muster."