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.
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