Monday, 18 August 2014

Archaeology and the psyche: part one ― introduction

Psyche and her sisters
Jean-Honoré Fragonard

"Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!"

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

I've always been a "systems person". When I was three years old I disturbed an ant's nest just to see what the ants would do about it; I built my first expert system before I ever heard of the term "expert system". It was Robert Van Arsdell who identified it as such when he read the manuscript of my book after I had first submitted it to Spink & Son, Ltd. I had called it a "quick identification chart".

Everything was always connected. Nothing was isolated, not even my own life: before I started school at the age of four, I asked my mother, "When I die, who will my next mother be?" I don't remember if she tried to answer that question, I do remember her being startled by it though. Neither of my parents were religious. Sure, they put down "Church of England" on the forms, but I have no knowledge that either of them had ever seen the inside of a church. I became interested in Bible stories until I had a nightmare full of Biblical imagery followed by a very scary out of body experience in which I started drifting toward my bedroom window. There was something in the room with me: a ball of golden light, an inch or two in size, that just hung there in mid-air. I tried closing my eyes, but it didn't work. When I was fifteen, I started to become interested in philosophy, and then Tibetan Buddhism, but a growing interest in girls put most of that out of my mind! I didn't even realize I was being driven by biological urges. Now, at the age of nearly sixty-five, having been married for twenty years, and on my own for more than ten years, such biological urges have little effect on me. I'm pretty well free of both desires and fears. I'm not free of curiosity, though. It drives me.

Pam in Banff, Alberta
Oscar Wilde's lines came to me when I was in my early twenties and heard an older friend say that his wife had been a ballerina, but that he had put an end to that. Not long after that, I met Pam, a ballerina from Los Angeles and she moved in with me. She had come to Alberta to continue her dance studies at the Banff School of Fine Arts. I was afraid that I might be holding her back, and I broke up with her. I don't know what happened to her after Banff, or if she achieved her goals, but I hope she did. It was quite the sacrifice to me at the time, but I felt that I had no choice. It was her passion, and she understood. Her best friend in Los Angeles had been Jimmy Webb's girlfriend and he had written the song MacArthur Park about his relationship with Pam's friend. I used to think about that song whenever I walked through MacArthur Park in the summer of 1969 and it all became part of that experience for me, later, when I met Pam in Calgary. Everything is connected.

Coin of Karystos from the Wallace collection
Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc
Long before the Internet, when I was working on the research for my book, I had corresponded with various British archaeologists about the Celts and their coins. I never heard anything bad from any of them about my collecting ancient coins and artifacts. I did experience two examples of hostility here in Calgary, though. The first one came from an emeritus professor of archaeology who had purchased the Wallace collection of Euboean coins. Only the League coinage had ever been published, and I had been picked by the curator of the Numismatic Department at the Nickle Arts Museum to die-link and study the coins of Chalkis and Karystos, which were on loan from that professor. He had wagged his finger at me when I said that I was a collector. Nothing ever came of that, I still have my notes somewhere, though. The intended book was never published: the university had refused to pay for the photography, and the professor was too eager to split up the collection in a number of auction lots and make a good profit to allow enough time for the study to be completed. The second time was when my wife was marking papers for a woman who was an art-history instructor at the Alberta College of Art. She came over to the house once and saw my little display case with its Celtic coins and antiquities. "These should be in a museum!" she said officiously. In deference to my wife, I did not kick her out of the house. Later, she was picked as the new curator of the coin department at the Nickle when the previous curator retired. He wanted me to take over, but she was married to a professor of Classics there and got the job instead. She also had  a Ph.D. She got fired after she sent all the Greek silver coins out to be polished so that they would be more attractive for the public. I have not had much to do with the Nickle since then.

I decided, that such people who wag their fingers at collectors are a bunch of nuts who have achieved that negative Jungian state known as Enantiodromia. I still do. Since then I have always championed those who have had a real passion. Everything is connected.

This series will examine not just the psychology of the good archaeologists who still have that passion, but the nuts, too. It will also examine the psychologies of those who are being studied by them: it's really not the things that are important, it's the people who made and used them. I was going to call this series "psychic archaeology", but then people might think it was about dowsing for artifacts, rather than "dowsing" for meaning. But everything is connected isn't it?


  1. "I decided, that such people who wag their fingers at collectors are a bunch of nuts who have achieved that negative Jungian state known as Enantiodromia. I still do. Since then I have always championed those who have had a real passion. Everything is connected"

    Indeed...great post John. Looking forward to the follow-ups.

  2. Thanks Dick, Actually I'm looking forward to seeing where this line of inquiry is going to lead me too!

    Usually, I come up with some idea and by the end of that post I have a vague idea about how the next one will start and, so far, it seems to work itself out along the way. I never know what I will be writing about until the day before. It's virtually a stream of consciousness thing. I've never been one for writing outlines first.

  3. After thirty years of working with archaeologists in the UK, I can say they are more open to the ideas of non-archaeologists than you might expect. If you get it right, they don't worry so much about your credentials.

    As you remind everyone, archaeology is about people. Sometimes that gets lost in the debates.

    In 1849, Akerman published one of the earliest distribution maps of Celtic coin finds in Britain. That started a 150 year investigation - something that's taken on a life of its own. The early workers hoped to identify the people who struck the coins. Some workers today insist the coins should be catalogued according to where they're found, instead. It's supposedly more "objective" (scare quotes mine).

    While I'm not suggestIng the identification of the people can be done with any great precision or accuracy, at least the people still stand at the endpoint of the process.

    The Denial of the Celts movement of the 1990s is part of the same problem. Thankfully, that should now be behind us. Koch's work on Tartessian, and the books Celtic from the West 1 and 2 have moved the debate on. If you want to see British archaeology working hand and hand with other disciplines, those are good places to start.

    1. I'm glad to hear that is still the case, Bob, I had great discussions with British archaeologists in the eighties, but going online in the mid-nineties, I started running across tremendous hostility. I started to think that it had all changed. It was at that time that I started calling myself Canadian instead of English. I felt like some fossil from a previous time. A lot of it had to do with that Celtic denial and it affected more than just myself. Vincent Megaw used to engage in on line discussions and he even came to my defense when I started talking about the evolution of Celtic coin designs. After a while, he just had too much of it and now does not do that anymore. It is a great loss to all. I still communicate with him, privately, though.

      Canada still seems too enthralled with credentials. I attended a talk at the Nickle where the current curator was spouting the most absurd things about Armorican coin designs, most of the examples were Coriosolite but variously described as "Coriosolite", "Armorican" and NW Gaul, and this also gave the impression to the audience that what was actually local was really widespread. I just kept quiet. Most startling of all, a friend agreed with her even knowing about my book. I got the distinct impression that her position was influencing him.

      I, too, have noticed some strange reattributions of Celtic coins based on their find spots and this is especially curious when they are gold and were used to hire troops from other areas. Perhaps people are starting to apply the trend of lower denomination coins staying fairly close to home, to the gold, too. Although I cannot imagine why they would do so. Perhaps it is because of the idea that regions make things instead of people. That happened with the Gundestrup Cauldron. Just because it was made by Thracians, it was assumed that it had to have been made in Thrace, for some Celts nearby. The reverse happens, too. There are obviously Greek works, and most likely made by Italian and Sicilian artists that are being called Thracian because they were made for Thracian clients and are found in Thrace.

      I also think that Nationalist ideas are starting to diminish, but like a flame that burns brightest just before it goes out...

      I would still love to visit one of these days, can I bring my dog?

  4. The cat indicates you are welcome to come, but a dog....?

    Incidentally, REAL archaeological teams are assembled by taking everyone who volunteers (beggars can't be choosers). Then you lose the feckless ones.

  5. Maybe next year. I'll bribe the guy next door to look after him. Having a "rescue" coyote hybrid with separation anxiety has its problems, but he's improving bit by bit.

    I'm really excited by that recent big Jersey hoard. At least a thousand of the coins are going to be analyzed by XRF and I'm more than curious to know what else is in there. It looks like it might have quite a number of Series Xn (ex. Abrincatui). A gold coin in one of the photos looks like it might be a Senones quarter stater of all things. I have a suspicion that it is a slightly earlier gathering of coins than Le Catillon by a year or so, so there might be some Durotriges in there too. With so many coins, there should be a few new types. And I thought that Wanborough was big -- sheesh! I've been hoping for another big Jersey hoard for thirty years now, but never imagined one that big. It would likely take more than a year just to sort the Coriosolite coins by my groups once they are cleaned (allowing about two minutes per coin).

    Thank goodness we have digital photography these days. The cost of regular film and developing would be staggering.