Friday, October 09, 2009

Notes on Alan Walker's review of Benner's Achaian League Coinage of the 3rd Through 1st Centuries B.C.E.

Alan Walker reviewed Steve M. Benner's Achaian League Coinage of the 3rd Through 1st Centuries B.C.E. for the September 2009 issue of The Celator. It's a long review and an even longer version of the review is available from Walker and (soon) on The Celator's Website.

The book being reviewed is #7 in the series Classical Numismatic Studies published by Classical Numismatic Group. It costs $65. I haven't seen the book but believe the review itself is worth commenting on.

Alan Walker's review is important. He spends 12 single-spaced pages correcting Benner's mistakes and typos. Anyone interested in Achaian League coinage needs the review to annotate their copy of this book, their copies of General M. G. Clerk's Catalogue of the Coins of the Achaean League (1895, recently reprinted from scans), and Margaret Thompson's The Agrinion Hoard (1968) with corrections. Numismatic scholars with little interest in League coinage should still read Walker's review. His complaints about the structure of this book explain how scholars use numismatic references and what a book should have. The ideal structure of scholarly numismatic books is not discussed anywhere else that I know of.

Although Walker has a few positive things to say (e.g. “... the photographs are as good as they can be ...”) much of the review is negative
... I found it tremendously disappointing. It contains so many mistakes, both of fact and of organization, that the only way to correct it would be to re-write it.
Someone at CNG green-lighted this book before it was ready. The volumes in the Classical Numismatic Studies series by Brian Kritt and David MacDonald are quite good. Classical Numismatic Studies does not have a named ‘series editor’. With authors like Kritt and MacDonald a heavy-handed editor isn't needed.

Walker's most biting comments are directed at the poor organization of the catalog rather than simple inscription misreadings.
  • “[Benner] confuses issues with varieties
  • “instead of making an alphabetical list of names ... [Benner] has made a list that is in alphabetical order by mint ... making it a real chore to find anything.”
  • “the Greek lunate sigma, ϲ, is sometimes listed under sigma, but sometimes at the beginning of the alphabet, as if it were a Latin C ...”
  • Use of a monogram table instead of putting monograms inline
  • the monogram table is not indexed back to the catalog
  • Benner credits dealers for photographs but doesn't provide the auction name and lot number
  • The concordance appendix is reversed from the usual practice
Many of the mistakes that Benner made are mistakes that I could easily make. I'm mostly self-taught. The structural principals Walker describes are not codified anywhere that I've found.

Until I read Walker's article I didn't understand the meaning of ‘issue’. It's not defined Melville-Jones' A Dictionary of Ancient Greek Coins. Walker explains
Normally an issue is considered to be a single discrete series struck under a single magistrate, who may have a number of junior colleagues who also sign the dies using full or abbreviated names, monograms, symbols or a combination (Athenian New Style tetradrachms are like this, as are any number of other coin series). Coins of a single issue can vary in the way the magistrate’s name is placed, often just due to the whim of the die cutter; thus, a single issue can contain many varieties due to changes in the junior magistrates or from the way the die engraver arranged the legend. In some cases, all the varieties of an issue are simply die variants. SMB, however, confuses issues with varieties: he apparently considers every change in legend, no matter how slight, to indicate a new issue.
Putting magistrate lists in alphabetical order by mint rather than by magistrate name implies that Benner has not spent a lot of time looking up magistrates in catalogs. The purpose of the list of names is to help people look them up, not to know which magistrates worked in which cities.

Regarding alphabetizing, I can't add much to Wikipedia's article on Collation. Sorting foreign languages can be hard for English speakers. It's also hard for computers (and impossible for computers without correct multi-alphabet typesetting.)

If space and paper quality permit it's always better to include symbols and photos inline. No one wants to flip around trying to find things.

The lack of an index back to the catalog implies that Benner has not spent a lot of time looking up symbols in catalogs. Benner probably knows Achaian League coinage well enough that he no longer needs his own tables. Lack of two-way indexes is a common problem in numismatic books. I often see coin on plates I cannot find it in the text. Usually this is because the text and plates are in a slightly different order, or the plated coin is only discussed in a footnote! I once spent over an hour trying to find a coin in a short article written in modern Greek that used Greek numerals. Remember that if your numismatic book becomes important most of your readers are not yet born. Don't expect them to read the way you do.

When citing coins it's always best to include as much information as possible so future authors can track your sources back. In his review, Walker shows that Benner uses the same coin to illustrate his Dyme #11 and Dyme #13. This wasn't a simple typo — one photo came from Clerk's 1895 plates and the other was cited by Benner cited as “Dr. Busso Peus Nachf”. Walker tracked that coin to a specific sale (Peus 378, 28 April 2004, lot 142). I was surprised to see a Clerk coin at auction because Walker tells us elsewhere that “in 1920, after his death, [Clerk's] collection went to the British Museum” Perhaps this coin was sold by the BM, such as in the famous “Duplicates” sale, Ars Classica V, June 1923? It's awkward that Benner didn't notice the coin was the same but I've had a hard time telling myself especially if photos of casts are used. The general principal is to leave enough clues behind so future scholars can track back your work to published sources.

The backwards concordance indicates that Benner hasn't spent time going through coins cataloged under an old system and using a concordance to find the new numbers. I am not a cataloger like Walker and I've never done it either although I knew what a concordance was for. Note that the Wikipedia definition of concordance doesn't describe the numismatic kind. Is there a book for numismatic scholars that defines ‘concordance’? I know of none.

I hope Walker's review becomes widely known among numismatic authors. Perhaps my review-review will inspire someone, even Walker himself, to write essays describing the organization of numismatic reference works and to document how they are employed in the course of numismatic research.

[Update 10-11-09] Alan Walker reminds me that his review of Benner does not contain corrections to Clerk nor Thompson.

1 comment:

RJO said...

> "Normally an issue is considered to be a single discrete series struck under a single magistrate, who may have a number of junior colleagues who also sign the dies using full or abbreviated names, monograms, symbols or a combination"

So is this notion of a single "senior" magistrate whose name appears in full, combined with "junior" magistrates whose names are abbreviated, also a common understanding? I haven't seen that mentioned before, but I'm of course an amateur also. Many coins of interest to me combine a full name and a monogram; I wonder what evidence there is of the specific relationship that existed between these two people? It's a common pattern for Hellenistic Greek coins as far as I know; perhaps the Athenian situation is very well known, and is generalized to other cities.