Monday, 20 October 2014

Scientific research on the recent Jersey Celtic coin hoard

A collage of Coriosolite stater images from
coins that had been in my own collection
When the news of the latest (predominantly Coriosolite) Jersey coin hoard reached me, I knew that someone would be contacting me. I know more about Coriosolite coinage and its cultural connections than anyone in the world. I reclassified them over a period of about ten years and my book on the subject was published by Archaeopress at Oxford in 2002 as part of their British Archaeological Reports (International Series). My first publication on the subject was in the Annual Bulletin of the Société Jersiaise in 1992 and was about some coins from a hoard found very close to the latest find. That article had been requested by Douglas Corbel of the Société Jersiaise. So I was not sure if I was going to be contacted by the Société, by the Jersey Museum, by a numismatist, or by an archaeologist who specialized in Celtic numismatics. When that contact came, it was from a surprising source: a forensic scientist. I could not have been more delighted.

Trefor Jones is a British forensic scientist who started out as a science teacher but later in life got a degree in forensic science and became a crime scene investigator (CSI). He is currently working on his M.Sc  at the high tech Cranfield University and has picked this hoard's materials issues as the subject of his degree. I had always thought of archaeological research as being (ideally) like investigating a "cold case" where all of the witnesses were long dead. Sadly, though, that ideal is not always met. The problem with archaeology is its "theory-ladeness" while numismatics does not really have theories, only methods, and the best numismatists also create methods that are tailored to the subject they are investigating. It is virtually impossible to teach numismatics as a university subject to any great level of competence without having university courses spanning twenty years or so. It epitomizes interdisciplinary studies. Theory also leads to deductive reasoning but science is inductive reasoning. This is what Conan Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" did, deduction being a common misconception. Criminal investigation can include attention to just about every science short of theoretical physics ― the end result being a theory (who did what).

In April, Trefor emailed me to say that he had come across my research and the expert system that I had built to identify Coriosolite staters (that expert system had been one of the subjects included in a Ph.D thesis on artificial intelligence at Hofstra University and I had given some aid to its author in the nineties). He asked me for some further direction and later, having other reasons to visit Canada, decided to make a side trip to Calgary so that we could discuss his plans. As he was going to be staying just a couple of blocks from my friend Robert Kokotailo's coin shop, I thought it would be a good plan to meet him there and I thought, too, that Robert would also be able to contribute much especially about the coins' manufacturing process. Robert has a hypothesis about how the coins of my Series Y were struck that I feel has great merit, but it has yet to be tested. As a professional numismatist for many decades, Robert has studied and handled countless thousands of ancient coins and his knowledge goes beyond encyclopedic.

So, in early May, I set out to meet Trefor at Robert's shop. On the way downtown, I was wondering about Trefor's project. I already knew that the Jersey Museum had authorized his XRF analysis of some of the hoard coins and that Katherine Gruel had previously used Neutron Activation Analysis for just over eighty coins in a mainland hoard but its focus was the alloy and did not include some important impurities like Ni and Co which would have revealed if any British metal had been used in the composition (there were Coriosolite connections to the Durotriges metal refining at Hengistbury, Dorset at a slightly later date but pre-50 BC connections were less clear). That British fingerprint was not found by Peter Northover in his XRF analysis of seven Coriosolite coins, but as it seems that the alloys were prepared in small batches and also used some scrap metal, so few specimens would not eliminate the possibility. I imagined that Trefor might get to analyze about a hundred or so coins, but as I had expanded the previous classification of six classes to three series covering fifteen design groups, I was worried that the available samples might be too few in number to expand our knowledge that much. When I met Trefor, this was my first question. He told me that he would be starting with a thousand coins, and could get another thousand if necessary. My jaw dropped and I told him that those numbers were unprecedented. He had also showed me a number of "paper virtual coins" he had prepared from Rybot's drawn die reconstructions. This is exactly what I had done when I first started working on the coins in the mid eighties. I took this as good omen.

The shop started to get busier and with Robert unable to remain part of the discussion, Trefor and I headed over to the Ship and Anchor on  Calgary's trendy 17th Avenue for lunch. Over lunch, I mentioned my use of clustering patterns as opposed to using averages and what it had revealed to me saying that, with such a large sample available, it could verify what I had seen. Trefor rightly pointed out that it might also negate this idea too. I told him that this would not bother me and related a story about when I was working, long ago, in the short-lived numismatic laboratory at the Nickle Arts Museum at the university of Calgary. I had found a curious depression on an ancient Greek coin with some tiny crystals at its centre. Upon analysis these were found to be zirconium and I came up with a rather elaborate theory about how they got there. The following day, however, my theory got exploded. The other two people in the lab expressed their sympathy, but my reaction was to say that I thought it was all wonderful: I had built a model that was internally consistent yet absolutely wrong. It was a "Eureka moment" for me. It had reminded me a bit of Niels Bohr's resolution of the Einstein, Rosen and Podolsky paradox in the book I had been reading at that time.

That's the difference between pure research and academic empire-building; in the latter, it's always best to be right, but it is only with the former that being wrong can carry research forward. You do everything you can to get the result and leave no stone unturned. If you are then proven wrong, you get to add more material to your arsenal and you are off and running again. The poor saps who are only interested in being right might be left only with a dog-eared copy of a lecture to occupy their time before they are put out to pasture. Rightness can be an elusive goal in Celtic numismatics, that's why all of the late greats have been amateurs from Sir John Evans, through Commander Mack to Derek Allen and Henry Mossop.

Last week, Trefor emailed to say that all of the preparations have been made and now we are just waiting for the coins. If you allow it, this sort of research can lead you into unexpected areas and it is always best to follow where it leads you. I think that Trefor will be doing doctoral level research in this project and discovering new things and I hope that the M.Sc can be leveraged into a Ph.D, but I have no idea about how such things work. I left school at fifteen so it's all a "black-box" to me. One thing for sure: he's at the right university.


  1. Trefor emailed me this morning to say that his professional role in criminal investigation involved only fingerprint enhancement. I should also have mentioned that criminal investigation involves far more people and time than is indicated by TV dramas where only the main cast wraps everything up in the allotted 40 something minutes of the show, but you probably knew that already.

    My favorite TV exaggeration is where they transform a blurry video shot of a face consisting of about 12 pixels into a photo Karsh would have been proud of. -- if only!

    Thanks for clarifying that, Trefor. If only certain archaeologists were as honest ;-)

  2. Thanks John for this insightful message. The search for truth and knowledge has no "turf" to protect and needs no stewardship.

  3. Very much appreciated, Wayne. I needed something like that this morning after being saddened by finding a couple of published examples of where Carrie and myself had been "written out of history". I thought of doing a blog post about it entitled "Liars, cheats and thieves", but, for the time being, at least, I will remain silent.

    I will now start on a post featuring one of her poems. Better to bring beauty to the world than more ugliness.

    "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them" (Thoreau).

    1. grrrr. desparation, not desperation!