Monday, 16 June 2014

In praise of metal detecting. 1. Celtic numismatics

Metal detector at the Elements zone (Earth)
at the 21st World Scout Jamboree

photo: Superchilum
For the study of British Celtic coins, the popular use of the metal detector is about as important as the discovery of fire or the wheel for mankind in general. In fact, it was a collector of Celtic coins (Henry R. Mossop), who was one of the first metal detectorists in England, obtaining his instrument from the U.S.

Henry Mossop's character cannot be faulted: he served as a gunner on the Lancaster bombers in WW 2 until his plane was shot down and he was captured. This earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). After the war he worked on the family farm on the Lincolnshire coast. Starting in the fifties, he was fighting again, but this time it was against river pollution. As one of Britain's early environmentalists, he planted thousands of trees on the family farm and was awarded the Lincolnshire and South Humberside Conservation Award in June, 1988.

The above information comes from a biography written by Robert Van Arsdell in the Glendinnings sale of the Mossop collection, 6th November, 1991. Bob also says:
"After writing The Lincoln Mint [c. 890―1279, 1970] Henry found, in the Celtic series, a challenge to engage him for the rest of his life. He was a correspondent of Derek Allen and Commander Mack, worked closely with archaeologists in Norfolk and at Nottingham University, and was collaborating with Dr. Jeffrey May on a sylloge of Celtic coins at the time of his death. He carried on Sir John Evans' work in recording findspots, and kept detailed records rivalling those at Oxford... He always worked closely with archaeologists, and identified many significant sites in South Humberside. He felt the modern use of fertilisers and pesticides, and the action of farm machinery, would eventually destroy and silver or base-metal coins left in the ploughsoil.
"Henry was a man of great generosity and visitors to his home could spend hours looking over his collection and using his library. He would always insist on filling the car with petrol from his storage tank, saying "After all, you've driven so far to come to see me"."
The most important event in British Celtic numismatics was the discovery of the so-called Wanborough hoard (actually a "multiple deposit") which, although illicitly, much of it came onto the market. I describe why it was so important for it to become available to collectors in Dancing with the Universe – The Infamous Wanborough Hoard of Atrebates Coins. You can also read Robert Van Arsdell's reconstruction of its contents from Spink's Numismatic Circular.

After Robert Van Arsdell published Celtic Coinage of Britain (now an online work in progress) in 1989, many new types and varieties have come to light as a result of metal-detecting and its legal status in England (no Celtic coins were issued in Wales, although the same laws also cover that country ― and some Celtic coins have been found there). Eventually they will be added to the site, but many of them can be seen in the "Not in Van Arsdell" category in each of the tribal headings of the revised version of the original Celtic Coin Index Online that my wife and I built.

From Sir John Evans to Robert Van Arsdell, it has been the amatuer who has dominated the field of British Celtic Numismatics. As far as ancient numismatics is concerned, it is the most difficult of collecting areas because of its accumulated knowledge. Of course, every answer poses even more questions and the numbers of  coins discovered, and their distribution patterns revealed by those sensible laws and voluntary reporting have proven far more effective in advancing numismatics than any other series. The same could be true for continental Celtic issues and the Greek series too, but restrictions on metal detecting, imports and exports and the status of private collections has meant that the latter studies are still, essentially, back in the nineteenth century in their scope.

Apart from the British Museum, many museums restrict the online presence of ancient coins and it is curious that the worst offenders are countries with draconian laws where the collector and detectorist can have little voice. I suppose that, because mastery of the subject usually takes at least twenty years and involves so many different disciplines some (few but vocal) archaeologists would prefer to hide their lack of knowledge and disciplinary scope by trying to interfere and stop such dedicated amateur work. The subject is far too vast for it to be "academically funded" or even taught. My own classification of the Coriosolite coinage took me about ten years, evolving as time went on. Can you imagine trying to get a grant for such work? I am reminded of Bob Dylan's lines:

"While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in"
More on metal detecting in general tomorrow.

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