Thursday, 23 October 2014

"Faux amis"

Kilroy's nose was not here
Owner's name withheld by request
For decades, I have told people that what you think you are seeing on a Celtic coin might well be something very different. I have even seen an academic paper saying that Halley's comet was depicted on some Armorican coins (it is really an abstracted four-string lyre symbol).

Fragments of objects, too, are imagined to be fragments of different objects: a Georgian broken spigot handle from a barrel has been imagined to be a fragment of a Hallstatt sword chape. The owner of the object seen here had noticed one of my Celtic sword pommels and had seen the resemblance in the style of the head. It looks like a Celtic head with its limed hair doesn't it? The reverse design is also similar to a device seen below the chariot on early Cunobelin staters. Previously, he had wondered about some sort of "Kilroy was here" wartime trench art, but the fabric had looked like a much older coin. He noticed that it bore a slight resemblance to a type of  medieval coin depicting a hand on the obverse (Hand-heller) but the weight was very wrong. Had it been altered?  Was it some strange variation? Still, it seems to have been hammered around the edges, and that is not usual for coins. It was mystery and he sent me the image to see if I could make it out. It was like no Celtic coin I had seen.

I forwarded the image to Robert Kokotailo of Calgary Coin Gallery, and Robert knew right away that this strange edge always appeared on a certain series of Medieval coins. He told me that he had a book in his shop which listed them. As I was going to be meeting him at the shop later, he said  that I could check for it in that book (a German book on Medieval Polish coins). Sure enough, I found it within a minute of opening the book. It took me longer to find the book, though! The coin is of a Bishop of Prague and is very rare.

Even if its find spot had been recorded the identification would have been no easier without considerable knowledge, and Robert really knows his Medieval coins. Funnily, it might have even emphasized a Celtic connection.

Certain archaeo-bloggers who constantly criticize collectors and dealers are always very nasty. There have been times when even relatives and friends of dealers and collectors have been the victims of their ire. The person who owns this coin holds an important position and did not want his name associated with it for fear of being bullied. That could have brought trouble to even his organization. He did not want to have to deal with such evil people. I could certainly understand that. I do not have a Facebook page for the very same reason. I would not want to see my daughter or my friends harassed. I have been ignored by people whom I have asked about the find spots of certain Celtic objects because they have wondered if I was such a person attempting to trap them. So this coin has no recorded provenance because of the existence of such people. There is a little irony here, and more than one sort of "faux amis". So be aware, and do not get taken in by such people's lies.


  1. The idea of 'seeing' things which may or may not be there has connections with Gestalt theory, where the human mind tries to find some kind of pattern explanation for something new or strange, interpretation of Rorscharch ink blots in psychological testing come under the same umbrella. In coins, (your field!) imposing interpretations of designs needs to be done with care, we do not have the ancients to converse with, or in many cases, any written record of the actual representations and what they are intended to mean. Exactly the same care is needed in interpreting microscopic views of objects or even observations of parts of the Universe which are beyond our reach of close examination. All we can do is put forward a theory which could explain the situation / phenomenon - but one man's perception and explanation will not necessarily agree with another's hence, over time, interpretations change, but what is the 'correct' answer?

  2. Hi Trefor, Indeed, this sort of thing can be extremely difficult and can take a long time to establish a certain degree of confidence. The first thing of all is to find a way to avoid jumping to any conclusions. Rorscharch depends on a sudden reaction to a stimulus to deliver an unconscious response. If we are conducting any sort of investigation we have to find ways of eliminating that phenomenon.

    I was first inspired to my method by seeing a television show about a naturalist who lived near Loch Ness and became interested in "Nessie reports". We can fairly safely assume that his education would have eliminated any ideas of a dinosaur in a body of water formed long after they became extinct. So he already knew that trying to identify a species of dinosaur would be pointless. When he saw the most famous photograph, he thus had no sudden unconscious reaction and knew that he did not know what he was looking at. As he gathered the reports together, he also knew that the chances of the sightings being tree branches or some other sort of flotsam were largely impossible because of the movements reported. Bit by bit, he eliminated the "obvious". By the time he finished all of that he knew what it was not.

    Then came his stroke of genius. He pinned up all of the photographs on the wall of his bedroom and just looked at them morning and night without any attempt at interpretation. All novel ideas started to fade: there was no stimulus/response. One morning, he looked at that famous photo and knew: It was a sight he had seen many times, an otter's tail bending at its tip as a preliminary movement in a barrel roll. These photos had just become shapes to him that had no significance. He was no longer thinking anything like 50 feet (or whatever) long. These reactions had come about because people had imagined that they had seen a monster (and monsters are big). He also knew that there was no scale with which to measure a solitary object on open water. The witnesses had created that scale by "knowing" it was a monster. It thus was obvious to them that it was a neck and head of a plesiosaur-like creature, and they could not rid themselves of that impression.

    After framing the problem as otters, all other descriptions then fell into place: humps were otters porpoising through the water. The "monsters" on land all took two or three steps and slid into the water. Always at dusk when size was illusory. The land monsters were thought to be young and only about five feet long but the light allowed for that poor estimation and the mind had already exaggerated the size.

    So I looked at the Coriosolite designs morning and night without trying to think. After a few months I saw the solution: not the big shapes that had been used to classify them -- these could have been arbitrary and based on God knows what, but the tiny details. We all perfect our actions for any repeated task over time, these form sets of overlapping changes. I was then able to rough out the chronology in a surprisingly short time. My mind had been chugging away at the problem below my level of reaction.

    The good thing is that then the model can only be argued with at an (at least) equal level of complexity. Each detail must be argued. I had looked at hundreds of details.

    Meanings become easier with a certain chronology of numbers of variations. Even then, we need corroborating evidence from mythology and art history. Sometimes, there is just not enough and we have to wait for more to show up. That's how it starts.

  3. A couple of other things. We have all seen patterns in wallpaper or clouds. We never believe that there was any intention at play. Remember that slice of toast where the image of the Virgin Mary was imagined? It sold for a huge sum. Now had the image of Bugs Bunny been seen (one head, four limbs, just like the Virgin Mary), everyone would have thought along wallpaper or cloud lines. Unlike Bugs Bunny, the Virgin Mary arrives with numinosity. I saw a talk show where a man collected potato chips that all looked like different people and objects. Even he saw no meanings in those, they were just amusing curiosities.

    What got to me about the otter thing was its elegance. To most people it was probably a disappointment. the naturalist's explanation faded into obscurity and people continued to look for the monster.

    Then there's the Sherlock Holmes thing: Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains... The proof of the classification came with the sudden visibility of distribution patterns that were not visible before.

    I treated the designs like a cypher or a language. No one has suggested a different interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphs because what we read now has meaning. The Gundestrup cauldron imagery all carries the same themes. The images have to share context. If there is a meaningless pastiche of different interpretations for each part, we can be 100% certain the translation is wrong. There has to be elegance and interconnections.

  4. As for those who constantly bitch and moan about collectors/dealers, ignore them. Let them drown in their own negativity. They have few friends and we should pity their families..

  5. Yes, the merry-go-round turns and nothing ever changes, save that some people realize that there comes a time it is best to get off and go back to work, or to just try a different ride; talk to friends -- anything to break the monotony.

  6. Oh dear, John! There are people out there in the ether who strive to be your intellectual equal and crave your general knowledge, but when they put pen to paper, always come up well short.

    I can hear a-wailing, and gnashing of teeth, here in England echoing on the wind blowing in from Warsaw.

    Best wishes

    John Howland

    1. Hi John, I was busy writing the next comment while yours was waiting for me to see. Take heed of my advice, and that of Dick, too.

      As for PB, remember my observation paraphrased from Chuck Lorre et al:

      You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, but you can catch even more with bullshit

      He seems to have caught at least one so far.

      His last comment: "This is the man who made up composite images of the Coriosolite coins and then based his infamous study on them...." is, as everyone knows, blatantly false. I create the image he speaks of for Archaeopress as cover art. My study has only received very good reviews:

      and he cannot cite a bad one.

      This behavior is libelous and it would be child's play to win a libel case against him. Psychologically, it is the equivalent to "suicide by cop". But in 1969, my mentor warned me "There are those who would appoint you their executioner " Sorry, Paul, I am not going to make you a martyr, you will have to act like a man and do that job by your own hand.

  7. Sometimes, "Fortune has has its cookies to give out which is a good thing"

    Paul Barford has not only validated my friend's concerns

    but also the work of the psychiatrist Dr. M. Scott Peck:

    by presenting us with a text book case of the latter's "People of the Lie -- The Hope for Healing Human Evil":

    With regard to the subject matter of his post, Numismatists (like archaeologists) consist of generalists and specialists. For the last thirty years, I have been one of the latter. That is why I was chosen to write the entry for Celtic coinage in John Koch's 5 volume Celtic Culture - A Historical Encyclopedia:

    As anyone involved in the academic world will tell you, a request for information about some subject of which the recipient has no information, is met with a referral to someone who might. When that referral goes to a generalist, specialists quite often contribute extra information if need be. Such actions usually take place with a spirit of camaraderie, and as luck would have it I can give you all a current example of that on the discussion list of the Council for British Archaeology (Britarch):

    which got this response:

    In a subsequent private email, Lynne told me, this morning that many more British archaeologists (she is Australian) came to her aid off-list. She has decided to go private with future discussion, perhaps, partly, because of one nasty respondent (there are "inclusions" in the best bottle of wine). Lynn has a book coming out very soon through Cambridge University Press and her research is very important to her.

    For collectors, dealers, and metal detectorists, it is important to realize that most archaeologists will be very helpful. It is always best to seek out those who have actually published on their chosen specialties and no to be mislead by the rhetoric of embittered failures.

    I would quote from Peck, but I gave my only copy to a young girl who had escaped from an abusive family into the arms of an equally abusive man. I was trained as a counselor in Los Angeles in 1969. It was a short-lived career. Empaths take their counselling failures very badly and counselors, by necessity, must live with many failures among too few successes. It can sometimes even lead to enantiodromia. I got out before it got me.

    Now, Life is good! It's about time for a Jungian post, I think...