Wednesday, July 30, 2008

iArtifact / GoogleArtifact

I applaud Saving Antiquities for Everyone's mission although I disapprove of their strategy and tactics.

Can antiquities really belong to everyone?

Imagine a future in which I own the ancient coins I have today and all of the antiquities that SAFE has saved on my behalf. I'd certainly want pictures of my antiquities for my records. Both the ones in coin folder in my bookcase and the ones SAFE is storing for me in the museums of the world.

I was trying to discuss this with Paul Barford but followup comments were somehow lost.

I don't just want pictures of the ancient coins that some professional has decided are interesting. I want to decide for myself which coins to look at. I literally want every box of coins scanned and put online with a Creative Commons license allowing me to use the image for any purpose. Perhaps some images could be tagged with metadata such as NUDS but it's expensive to gather and maintain that information. Images, which are the most important documentation, can be obtained for nearly free by dropping coins into a hopper for digital scanning. That techology is nearly free. Volunteers placing coins on a flatbed scanner is free. Graduate students might be available to do it cheaply. Internet storage from is free.

Identifying and documenting coins takes time. In the preface to H. C. Lindgren's third volume (Lindgren III (1993)) he estimates 2000 hours for 1500 coins. It will take a long time to document the world's ancient coins at that rate and be very expensive. Perhaps in some places grants could be found for experts but not everywhere, not this century.

Perhaps there is a way to generate metadata for antiquities that doesn't cost any money? I've mentioned automatic classification of ancient coins from scans. Another idea is to use Google Image Labeler-type technology. Imagine a game whose goal is to find all the coins of a particular emperor from a particular dig in a museum's online photo archives. Players create detailed coin records without knowing it as a side effect of competition. Professionals may not understand but some of us enjoy finding and identifying coins. There is even a popular FORVM board where collectors identify each-other's coins. I'm proposing a new hobbies involving images of coins similar to how 'photo safaris' replaced big game hunting during the 20th century as it became expensive to get permits.

People are already doing 'armchair archaeology' using Google Earth [story by Brian Handwerk for National Geographic News]

I am sometimes told there isn't enough money to scan every box of potshards. Surely it's cheaper to only scan the good stuff than to scan everything? Consider Google Books. The amazing thing about Google Books is that while others were starting pilot programs paying experts to debate which books deserved scanning Google decided to scan everything and let people decide on their own what to read. It turned out to be cheaper to pay folks to turn pages near a digital camera than for experts to argue literary merits!

How much would it costs to put the world's basement antiquities online? The German's are scanning and collating 600 million scraps of shredded secret police documents and estimate the cost will be $30 million.

Even if no one turns out to be interested in the boxes the photos may provide a valuable record when the contents someday are restored. They provide a safeguard against theft. Remember when 11,000 ancient coins were stolen from Veliko Tarnovo museum? A list of the stolen items was promised to be made available by February 6, 2006 but it still hasn't been posted! I know people who would have loved to have spotted a stolen Veliko Tarnovo coin in a glossy auction catalog.

I don't take it seriously when SAFE promises to save antiquities for me because I don't believe they will let me see the antiquities they save.

Remember the Lydian treasure? The New York Metropolitan Museum bought it and had to give it back to Turkey. Much ink was spilled when New Yorkers had to pack it up and send it to a tiny regional museum in Turkey where less than 800 people saw it in five years. It made international headlines when it was stolen from the little museum. No one even noticed that a billion Internet users don't have high-resolution pictures of it.


RJO said...

This isn't numismatic, but it's ultra-cool and perhaps worthy of a post:

Voz Earl said...

Great post Ed.

"I don't take it seriously when SAFE promises to save antiquities for me because I don't believe they will let me see the antiquities they save."

Judging by their record til now, I'd say that's a "SAFE" assumption (pun intended). I searched through the patchwork quilt of online coin databases recently supplied by Nathan Elkins and was sadly underwhelmed. Lots of fancy titles and mission statements but almost no coin photographs! As far as NUMIDAT-WEB is concerned, no matter what search criteria I entered, the database found no records. I tried very specific search criteria and exceedingly broad criteria; I even tried two different web browsers--yet every search attempt came up empty. Has anyone else had success using this database?

The IARCW database came back with four hits on the keyword "Constantine"--none with photographs. The PAS database does generally return a few hits per query, although most of the coins are barely identifiable and using the site may require the patience of Job--but hey, it's a start.

Meanwhile, in their spare time collectors and enthusiasts have cobbled together dozens of sites of more usefulness than all of the aforementioned combined.

Voz Earl

Nathan T. Elkins said...

Hi Voz and Ed,

It is true that images are rarely provided in many of the online databases of excavated coins. I believe this is symptomatic of a few conditions. First of all, for people who are conducting research on archaeologically recovered finds, economic concerns or circulation are usually of primary importance. If you've seen one Vesta as of Caligula before, then you've seen them all. The descriptions or RIC numbers usually suffice for research and other distinguishing features of the coins are provided by notes referencing punching, countermarks, cutting, etc. Another reason for the lack of images is that they may not be available. A lot of coins that have been entered into these online databases come from old excavations when photographs were not commonly taken of finds. The data is simply transcribed into the database. Finally, it is time consuming and expensive to photograph finds and, from my own experience, I can say it is often easier to identify and enter a coin in a database than to properly photograph it. These online databases simply do not have the funding to hire someone to enter the photographs into a database. Of course, not every coin is going to be 'photogenic.' I should emphasize, however, that the printed versions of these finds inventories, such as FMRD in Germany do provide some illustrations, even though they may not be in the database.

By contrast, most images of coins from the market in some of the online databases are provided by dealers since they can afford to make the images. A collector won't buy a coin without an image. When CNG is grossing in the neighborhood of $10 Million or more a year, for example, they can afford to make photographs. Fortunately, some these photographs have been archived in places like CoinArchives.

Museums are starting to make images available online, but they often suffer a bit of personnel or funding problems, though not as severe as some of the finds databases. It would be great if some erudite collector with the means would willing to subsidize the photography of coins for some of these finds databases.

This all reminds me of a passage in Bill Metcalf's essay on Theodor Mommsen (W.E. Metcalf. 2004. "Mommsen and Numismatics in the 21st Century," in H.-M. von Kaenel, M.R.-Alföldi, U. Peter, and H. Komnick (eds.), Geldgeschichte vs. Numismatik. Theodor Mommsen und die antike Münze. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 295-302). The quoted passage is on 301-302:

"Today we face a different kind of problem. Mommsen could formulate the 'corpus vs. collection' issue in very concrete terms, for in his day (which, numismatically speaking, we may regard as confined to the period up to ca. 1890) the problem could be defined in terms of these two coordinates. Either one studied an individual collection, such as Berlin, or one collected examples from the major collections, somewhat à la 'Antike Münzen Nordgriechenlands' or 'Recueil général.' But since the begginging of the twentieth century - and again, expanding beyond control - there has been a third factor, the trade."

"In the beginning this could simply be set to one side. Though it is impossible to estimate the number of coins in private hands at the beginning of the twentieth century, it seems certain that the number has grown exponentially since Mommsen's death. Not so the major collections: of the 'big five,' only New York has grown on this scale. One is put in mind of Hubert Lanz's remark at the Berlin congress, that it was no longer the museums that had the good coins, it was the dealers. There was a chorus of laughs, but many of them were nervous ones: many of us in the museum community had to acknowledge that he was right."

"More than that, many of these coins are, in some sense, 'available,' and it is an act of intellectual dishonesty to ignore them. My own study of the cistophori of Hadrian would have been incomplete to the point of vacuity without coisn from the trade, which present certain problems (e.g. autopsy is seldom possible, and tracking a single specimen is time-consuming and tiresome), but offer equal advantages: it is often the very rare or unique item that is selected for citation or illustration, and equally often that very item commands a price so hight that it is never likely to find a resting-place in an accessible collection"

"This would have been bad enough, but now the market is out of hand. Even very common coins now command prices sufficient to justify their inclusion in printed catalogues and websites, and in the case of the latter, some more permanent forms of documentation must be undertaken immediately or it becomes impossible..."

"It would be easy enough to present this question, hypothetically, to Mommsen and expect that he would mobilize the resources at his command. One imagines an army of German graduate students clipping catalogues, downloading images, and creating a vast archive that would be available for all. But this is the twenty-first century: there is no Mommsen, there is not army of potential numismatists out there, and governmental resources are limited worldwide in the face of legitimately more compelling issues. The fact is that only the dealers, who after all create the images most of us feed on, have the resources to pull this off, and they are even more jealous and finicky than professional scholars. Would Mommsen have approached a collaboration of this sort, givin the opprobrium that attaches to the trade in antiquities? On can only guess; if he were reincarnated today, Mommsen would at least have the advantage of facing the question afresh, without the prejudices that have built up (on both the academic and commercial side) over the years, and above all without the legacy of name-calling and resentment that so clould the whole issue..."

Suffice it to say, in my own opinion, I think there are problems both with academic finds databases and the way that collectors and dealers handle and archive material, but certainly the financial resources favor the market.

All the best,