Friday, 20 February 2015

Safety in numbers

Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel
"the collector earl" (
portrait by Rubens)
The popular picture of the collector is of some very wealthy person sipping a brandy while gloating over their latest acquisition. After their death, their collections are sometimes displayed in museums bearing their name. Most collectors, however, are far from wealthy, and when they die, their collections are sold off and provide opportunities for a new generation of collectors. A small percentage of collectors become recognized authorities in their chosen interest and their resulting books become the standard texts on their subject.

There is no way to predict which young collector will rise to such eminence. One young man was given a coin collection by his father and it captured his imagination. The son of a cleric, he never finished university and went to work for a family members paper business. The family thought that he might not amount to much. He was later known as Sir John Evans, the father of British Celtic numismatists and one of the founders of modern archaeology. Another prominent archaeologist, the Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie, had started by collecting ancient coins s a boy in London. It is said that he would now and again find a rare coin after scoring the London shops which he would sell to the British Museum.

When I was at school, there was no such things as computer games and social media. A computer was a large machine in big offices and was never used as a source of entertainment. Some of my friends collected coins or stamps. I remember that in one class, I was one of two kids who collected ancient coins. Whenever I have attended an event at the local coin club, I am always struck by the age of most of the members: most are middle age to elderly, but the fewer younger members are always encouraged.

Sometimes, when things get very busy at a friend's coin shop, I will help out for a few hours and the most rewarding days for me are when I manage to get a kid interested in ancient coins. Given that my competition is probably graphic-intensive computer games I take any such wins very seriously. obviously, I cannot say whether anyone whom I have encouraged to collect ancient coins will go on to be an authority, but I like to think that there is a small chance — like buying a lottery ticket that pays out millions.

Becoming an authority depends on discovery and there actually is a study on the probabilities of new ideas emerging within a university environment. The results are not encouraging. Aaron Lynch says:
"Practical implications may follow from the above model of population creativity for ideas. For example, proposals to make education highly uniform and enforced by nationwide testing may tend to limit creativity by reducing the variability of combinations of important ideas. Creativity in an organization or a society might alternatively be enhanced by encouraging the acquisition of highly unusual combinations of ideas and fields of learning. Cultural, educational, and experiential diversity might turn out to increase population creativity by increasing the occurrence rates for extremely rare combinations of ideas that could lead to the formation of new ideas. In particular, this might result in higher creative output for universities, research institutions, and other organizations that deliberately strive for a culturally diverse mix of people. Yet even a 1000-fold increase for an idea combination that exists at a prevalence of 10-9 only involves one person in a million, representing only a tiny dent in the prevalence for extremely common combinations of ideas that would form the mainstream of a society or a subculture. Factors such as that might even be investigated as sources of different creativity rates in different countries. Such practical implications also warrant separate papers in their own right. The focus here is on the role of quantitative processes in a population affecting population creativity, and thus the evolution of ideas."
So there is safety in numbers.We cannot predict who will become the next Sir John Evans or Sir William Flinders Petrie, so all who show any interest at all should be encouraged. There is only one quality which will will increase the chances of such success and that is a passion for the subject. Archaeobloggers who condemn collecting, or try to set up impossible standards for collectors never try to give kids, or anyone else for that matter, any passion for the subject. All they give are rules and warnings. All kids get that for everything. It never inspires.


  1. "Archaeobloggers who condemn collecting, or try to set up impossible standards for collectors never try to give kids, or anyone else for that matter, any passion for the subject. All they give are rules and warnings. All kids get that for everything...."

    Indeed and what business is it of theirs, aside from the 'we want it all mentality'?

    1. I think that what some of them want is just the conflict. Perhaps they are better at that than they are at good archaeology where difficulties only lead to new solutions.