Preservation of the Past
From The Celator, October 2004
Wayne G. Sayles, "Through the Looking Glass" |
October 01, 2004
Throughout the years, I have received numerous queries from collectors who were undecided about cleaning coins that they had purchased. Mostly, the questions were not about "how" to clean coins, but rather "if" coins should be cleaned at all. There seems to be a natural tendency among collectors not to "mess with" coins but to leave them the way they come to us. This is probably good, because many desirable and important coins have been destroyed by overly zealous cleaning.
Aside from the practical issue, there is another—more idealistic—issue that we ought to consider. Objects of antiquity serve to connect us with the past in a very immediate and personal way. Most collectors feel that it is a real shame to lose something that has survived for thousands of years, even if it is something as common as a coin that was produced in the millions, and still survives in the tens of thousands today. A good example is the recent find of some 300,000+ Judaean bronzes on the shores of the Dead Sea. Among these coins, there will certainly be a few new discoveries. Still, the vast majority will be very common and visually uninspiring artifacts. Even so, I would venture to say that any collector holding one of these coins in hand would automatically treat it with great respect and care.
The idea that we can and should preserve the past is common among collectors because we "connect" with objects in ways that not everyone in the world does. That is why many collectors are hesitant to clean coins (even though most ancient coins are cleaned in some fashion before a collector ever sees them). There are those who see preserving the past in a much different light. It is the heartfelt belief of some that a "few" should be entrusted with preservation of the past so that "all" may benefit. That is why we have museums and university departments of classics, history and archaeology. Most young scholars who enter these fields are serious and well intentioned, and often idealistic. They do believe, I think, that their mission is to save the past from the present. But do they?
I remember visiting the Milwaukee Public Museum many years ago to see an exhibit of coins from Roman Egypt that had been donated by my good friend Arthur Frank. Art was a great connoisseur of ancient art and, through the generosity of he and his wife, several museum collections in the State of Wisconsin were enriched. The exhibit left me breathless. Not because of the beauty or historical significance of the coins, but because every coin in the exhibit had been brutally stripped of patina in a harsh acid bath by a "professional" museum conservator.
Another friend, who shall remain nameless here because he still works in academia, relates another horror story. Early in his career, he participated in a massive excavation of the Kerameikos Cemetery located at the Dipylon Gate to ancient Athens. Since 1913, excavation of the site has been entrusted to the German Archaeological Institute. More recently, this spot has been made famous by the very public controversy over construction there of an underground train station. During the 1970s, so much pottery was removed from the site that it literally filled the warehouses built for its storage. Faced with the dilemma of halting exploration of the site, because of this acute storage problem, it was decided that all generic pottery that was already catalogued by the archaeologists would be destroyed. Truckloads of smashed pottery were removed to make way for new finds. How could such a barbaric act be sanctioned? Unfortunately, leaders in the archaeological community felt then, and still feel today, that destruction of artifacts is preferable to private ownership of them.
In the 1960s, when I lived in Turkey, I visited on several occasions the ancient city of Side in Pamphylia. It was a remarkable and pristine site, on the shore of the Mediterranean. A small museum was located on the site and the center of the large and beautiful amphitheater was literally filled with gleaming white blocks of carved marble from statues and architraves. In 1991, I returned to that site as a tourist. The place disgusted me. It was completely commercialized, buried in refuse and covered with modern tin shacks and security fences. The marble was gone and the site was a cultural disaster. I thought at first that the site must have been on private land, but no, it was just "developed" as part of the Turkish government's economic progress. So much for institutional care. During a 1997 visit to my favorite site in Turkey, the ancient city of Anazarbus, the signs of "progress" were equally clear. It is only a matter of time before this lovely place becomes another Side.
Space limitations preclude more examples here, but a book could be written about the destruction of the past under the "watch" of those who claim to protect it for us. Few public servants could ever be as motivated to preserve an artifact of the past as a private collector who purchased it with hard earned cash. To suggest that private collectors are poor custodians of the past is pure hyperbole and to suggest that only a chosen few are capable of interpreting and understanding the past is pure arrogance.
Collectors and professional scholars should naturally be allies in a broad effort to preserve the past. It is just as discomforting for a collector to see the degradation of an archaeological site as it is for an academic. It is no more the collector's fault that such disasters occur than it is the archaeologist's themselves. Preservation is important to all of us, why use it as a wedge to divide us?