Sunday, March 16, 2008

Contextual Numismatics!

Wayne Sayles' recently blogged criticism of Nathan Elkins 2009 AIA panel on Contextual Numismatics in response to Elkin's call for papers on Contextual Numismatics.

Wayne has never heard of 'Contextual Numismatics', and neither has Google (regular or Book Search).

I also couldn't find anything on 'contextual numismatics' but given that this is an AIA conference I assume the phrase means applying the principals of contextual archaeology to numismatics. 'Contextual Archaeology' gets 2700 Google web hits and more importantly 306 hits on Google Book Search.

A History of Archaeological Thought by Bruce G. Trigger explains (p. 348) that Ian Hodder's contextual archaeology is a challenge to processual archaeology. “Basic to contextualism is Hodder's enthographically well-documented claim that material culture is not merely a reflection of ecological adaption or sociopolitical organization but also an active element in group relations that can be used to disguise as well as reflect social relations.”

Ian Hodder himself says (Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology, p. 156) “New developments in Marxist-influenced archaeology and social theory have lead to a more complete discussion of the role of agency in society, and a consideration of embodiment helps us understand how agents experience the world and hose they are formed as subjects in the world.”

As an outsider I can't make much of that!

Elkins seems to be bringing a message to archaeologists that coins should be studied as more than art objects or datable material objects. He wants to discuss what the ancients were consciously and unconsciously thinking about coins, using the genre techniques of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and maybe literary criticism.

Some numismatists study coins this way. For example, I've been thinking a lot lately about why many Greek cities used Medusa, a hideous monster, on their coinage. A search for 'propaganda' in the ANS library catalog gives 321 hits, mostly papers speculating on the meanings of images on ancient coinage. It is reasonable to want to gather cultural speculations on coins under an academic umbrella and encourage students to make it their field.

I think it would be great if anthropologists and psychologists started writing books on numismatic iconography (both ancient and modern.)

Elkin's use of the phrase 'critical study', and the highly academic vocabulary of the Call For Papers suggest he wants to encourage authors from the humanities. I wish Contextual Numismatics success as a sub-field but hope that its adherents encourage a style of writing accessible to numismatists and undergraduates. I find the language used by literary folks hard to understand. The stuff I read on Contextual Archaeology this morning called to mind a famous somewhat-satirical essay How to Deconstruct Almost Anything by Chip Morningstar. Morningstar makes the point that academics in the humanities write for each other, not for general audiences.


Wayne G. Sayles said...

I'm pleased and somewhat relieved that I'm not the only one who was left wanting for a translation or interpretation of the premise in Mr. Elkins' call for papers. Academic brilliance is not measured by the number of syllables in a paragraph. Medusa, according to some variations of mythology, was a beautiful woman gone bad. Maybe there is a parallel here with archaeology.

Nathan T. Elkins said...

Dear Ed,

Thank you for thinking more about the actual substance and purpose of this proposed panel that my colleague and I are organizing. Unfortunately, Wayne likes to condemn, in the most vociferous manner, that which he does not understand or perceives as some threat.

I appreciate your criticism that the CFP is a tad verbose, but I do not think unnecessarily so given its context (no pun intended). First of all, the nature of the proposed panel deals with method and theory and such things are often difficult concepts to express in "lay speak." When writing our proposal, my colleague and I spent a great deal of time trying to express to our target audience the concepts we wanted to explore. Such is the nature of method and theory. Secondly, as a proposed panel for the AIA, the target audience is established scholars in the fields of numismatics and archaeology, recent Ph.D.s, and graduate students. I'm happy to report we've already had a great deal of positive feedback and interest in the panel shown already. Provided it makes it through the peer review process, I'm sure we'll have an excellent and stimulating session.

All the best,

Ed Snible said...

Thanks Nathan. I hope the contextual approach yields new insights into ancient coins and economics. Good luck with your panel.

I had difficulty finding a succinct definition of contextual archaeology. Is there a definition you'd point an outsider to, that stands on its own without reference to other movements in archaeological scholarship? I see you name check Tonio Hölscher and Peter Stewart... would you recommend something by either to the lay person? Perhaps The Social History of Art?

Wayne's field is art history but he writes for a numismatic audience. He discusses coins, especially Islamic figural bronzes, from a numismatic and art history perspective. Do you consider what he does interdisciplinary? Contextual?

Nathan T. Elkins said...

Dear Ed,

Thanks for your comments on the panel. While it is true the purpose of the panel is to highlight the myriad things one can can do with a detailed study of coins from archaeological sites and the application of interdisciplinary perspectives, "contextual numismatics," whether or not it has explicitly been called that, has been attended to be a small number of numismatists/archaeologists in Britain and a number of Germanic scholars. Although very important, these methodologies are not widely employed by American numismatists/archaeologists and so that is why my colleague and I thought the AIA would be a good venue for such a panel. I only clarify because I think that although you are correct with assessment of the intent, you may be giving us too far too much credit with the statement: "Elkins seems to be bringing a message to archaeologists that coins should be studied as more than art objects or datable material objects." Detailed and comparable studies of finds from individual sites or regions can yield great insights into economy, coin supply, expansion/contraction of settlements, and as we are quickly learning, even imperial communication. We think it is important to highlight these approaches and methodologies to a wider archaeological audience in hopes that scholars will more frequently study coin finds in greater detail and to their full potential.

For example, one comprehensive treatment I would recommend is F. Kemmer's comprehensive study of the coin finds from Nijmegen, "Coins for a Legion," available and von Zabern Verlag. She studies coin supply, economy, etc., but towards the end of the book she recognizes that the Flavian legions were being supplied, intentionally, with coin types relevant to soldiers! This essentially confirms what Tonio Hölscher had been writing for years contextualizing coins in a semantic system! This realization can revolutionize the way we approach archaeologically recovered coin finds, provided there is a large enough sample, and provided there is the will/awareness to do so.

I'm not sure if there is a a "succinct definition of contextual archaeology" or not. Again, method and theory can be difficult things to work through and even after 10 years of formal training, I often have to read and reread such things to understand them.

For Archaeology, Bruce Trigger's book, which you cited, is a good reference. Some other references on methodology and historiography which might be a little more accessible are:

Bahn, P.G. (ed). 1996. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bowden, M.C. 1984. General Pitt-Rivers: The Father of Scientific Archaeology. Salisbury: Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.

Browman, D.L. and D.R. Givens. 1996. “Stratigraphic Excavation: the First ‘New Archaeology,’” American Anthropologist 98.1: 80-95.

Drower, M.S. 1996. Flinders Petrie: a Life in Archaeology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 2nd Edition.

Renfrew, C. 1984. Approaches to Social Archaeology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Renfrew, C. and P.G. Bahn. 2004. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. London: Thames and Hudson. 4th Edition.

Regarding your questions about Hölscher and Stewart:

Tonio Hölscher writes in German, for the most part, and his work can be quite cerebral, but are very good nonetheless. His theories and methods are perhaps some of the most prevailing today regarding Roman art history. One of his most widely acclaimed works is "Bildsprache als semantisches System," which has recently and conveniently been translated into English:

Hölscher, T. 2004. The Language of Images in Roman Art. Trans: A. Snodgrass and A. Künzl-Snodgrass. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Some of his specific studies of ancient coins as communicative media are:

Hölscher, T. 1980. “Die Geschichtsauffassung in der Römischen Repräsentationskunst,” Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 95: 265-321.

Hölscher, T. 1982. “Die Bedeutung der Münzen für das Verständnis der politischen Repräsentationskunst der späten römischen Republik,” in T. Hackens and R. Weiller (eds.), Proceedings of the 9th International Congress of Numismatics, Berne, September 1979. Louvain-la-Neuve: Association Internationale des Numismates Professionnels.

Hölscher, T. 1984. Staatsdenkmal und Publikum. Vom Untergang der Republik bis zur Festigung des Kaisertums in Rom. Konstanz: Universitätsverlag Konstanz GMBH.

Hölscher's methodology and its value to numismatics has also been discussed in Howgego's widely read textbook on numismatics (esp, on pp. 75-76):

Howgego, C. 1995. Ancient History from Coins. London and New York: Routledge.

Peter Stewart is a Senior Lecturer at the Courtald Institute of Art, and since he writes in English, his work should be more accessible to the American lay person. I also find his writing style and use of language easily accessible. He employs approaches similar to that of Hölscher. I haven't read the book you cited, but I quickly looked at some reviews and I'm sure it would be quite good. Two other books of his I am familiar with and would recommend are his general textbook on Roman art:

Stewart, P. 2004. Roman Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press

and a more detailed study:
Stewart, P. 2003. Statues in Roman Society: Representation and Response. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

I hope this helps. If you'd like any copies of the articles I mentioned, I could mail them to you if you send me a message privately - I know some of these journals/collections of essays can be difficult to get if you don't live in proximity to a good University library with strong archaeology or classics sections.

All the best,

Nathan T. Elkins said...

The session has been accepted and a description of the session with a list of panelists can be found