Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Do not try this at home

12th century copy of Pliny the Elder's Natural History
The Washington Post headline, "MRSA superbug killed by 1,100-year-old home remedy, researchers say" caught my attention this morning. Ancient remedies fascinate people because there is a common perception that people in the past knew great secrets that are now lost to western medicine. In some cases this is true: local native remedies evolve through practice and researchers have become very interested in native remedies from the Brazilian rainforests and the like. Sometimes, these native remedies have been changed from the original formulae to be more effective and are marketed as "alternative treatments": the Canadian Ojibwa remedy that became Essiac being a good example, and one that was praised by Dr. Frederick Banting.

Before you start to search the online English translation Pliny the Elder's Natural History for a remedy that will become the next great treatment, you should understand that some of these ancient remedies are not only unworkable, but could even kill you. The Romans misguided use of lead being an example well known to many. Over thirty years ago, I was interested in the history of witchcraft and wondered if some of the legends about witches had a basis in the symptoms of consuming the plants used in their potions. I picked one plant that was used by witches and bought some of it at a "health food store" (my use of scare quotes is intentional). I reasoned that, while some plants might be ordinarily safe if used as prescribed by the witches, others might suffer from improper storage. I was inspired in this thought by reading about ergot poisoning cases. The plant I picked had nothing at all to do with ergot and, because people might be tempted to try something very foolish, I am not going to name it. I decided to try growing a mold on this plant material as this was a likely way that things could have become contaminated in ages past. Unlike some nineteenth century medical researchers, I decided not to use myself as a guinea pig. I had a friend who was a medical student and he arranged to have my mold sample tested.

Not all scientific discoveries are met with enthusiasm, and my friend was given a stern warning about the willy-nilly testing of substances for members of the public. The results of the testing was so dramatic that a formal warning to my friend was deemed necessary. It turned out that my suspicions were correct: one hypnotic drug contained in the plant was increased to a staggering degree by the mold. In what must have been less than 500 mg's of mold, there was enough of this drug to kill a dozen people.  This really solidified my belief in not using myself as a guinea pig and gave me pause to wonder about health food stores in general. I am sure that many witches "flew", but not on broomsticks!

Monday, 30 March 2015

The Viking's ring — part five

Ahmad ibn Fadlan manuscript (10th Century)
This series has focused on two very different views of the Vikings: the first with the Archaeological Institute of America news report on research surrounding a Viking grave excavated more than a hundred years ago; the second with a fictionalized and partly invented account of Ahmad ibn Fadlan's visit to the Rus by Michael Crichton.

The AIA's policy of not publishing artifacts without certain acquirement standards is not even a subtext in resulting publications. While its author could have added more interesting content using Islamic coin discoveries at Viking sites which would have given a clearer picture of the different interpretations of the site and could have still been compliant to the AIA dogma, we can imagine that jumping through the necessary hoops might have left the author thinking " I'll just avoid the whole situation by not even mentioning the coins".

Michael Crichton's "novel", however, accurately judges the public interest in the subject, but if its dust jacket were to be lost, all identification of it as a novel would also be lost and a reader could imagine it to be a fictionalized history, or even a true history written as a novel to introduce a hypothesis about the survival of extinct hominids in the tenth century — typical "History Channel" stuff. Even if we do all of the research on the Crichton work, we are still not sure about the "make Beowulf interesting" idea and we might wonder if Michael Crichton's motives might have changed during its writing.

Any reader coming across either work who is new to the subject could easily be misled. The AIA report omits the most interesting questions about the site because (presumably) it would make the job more difficult and it might have been difficult to have been published because of their policies. There is also the chestnut about trade: we are supposed to believe that coins were only used in the modern sense; to make small purchases at a market and not as payments between states which can then have a later, localized, function as market currency.

Michael Crichton's work could easily inspire an interest in the Vikings, but the average reader cannot differentiate between the true content reported by ibn Fadlan and the "fantasy fiction" which was added by the author. The AIA report omits some intriguing information about Islamic coins which was referenced in the original researchers paper and which could have inspired more interest, but the overriding consideration was the AIA publication policy — again, something that would be missed by the average reader. It adds, too, the lazy explanation of trade to explain anything that might show up in an unusual location. Clearly, little thought was given to the practical matters of trade and the very common political/military use of money throughout history. Ironically, the AIA report lacked very important context. Dogma often leads to enantiodromia.

Friday, 27 March 2015

The Viking's ring — part four

My first-edition copy of Eaters of the Dead (with
its rather tattered DJ) and a "Venus of Willenfrog"
ceramic sculpture by Megan Evans.
The only identification of the first edition of Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead as a novel is on the dust-jacket. Contrary to the Wikipedia article, the appendix does not state that the book was based on ibn Fadlan's account of his travels with the Rus and a retelling of Beowulf but instead is an account of Ibn Fadlan's description of the "Wendol" and how it describes Neanderthals. Of course, ibn Fadlan's account does no such thing but Crichton's book has fooled a few people as described here.

I'm also not buying Michael Crichton's explanation that he wanted to create an interesting version of Beowulf. The names in the latter work are changed slightly in Crichton's book and it has the appearance of a spoof, rather than a novel. Most people, you would think, would realize that it was wrong as soon as the subjects of Neanderthals and the Venus of Willendorf figures were mentioned. Less obviously, some of the reference citations are fictitious (but not all, just those that would seem to be difficult to obtain). Yet, it is all taken on faith by some readers. Did Michael Crichton speculate about becoming another Erich von Däniken under a pen name? After talking to someone who knew him personally, it would not surprise me too much. Spoof or novel? You be the judge.

The summation to this series will appear on Monday.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Viking's ring — part three

Sassanian Persian coins in the Sundveda hoard, Sweden
When most of us think of Viking voyages, we think of them travelling to Scotland, Ireland, England and further west, past Iceland and Greenland and all the way to Canada. But there were eastern routes, too, along rivers, sometimes involving portage, there were routes that went to Istanbul and to the Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq.

People traveled these routes in both directions but calling them "trade routes" gives only one function: these were diplomatic routes as well where leaders could also cultivate allies, hire troops and tax the populations. one of the most important rivers on these routes was the Volga and an early visitor to Viking lands was the Persian, Ahmad ibn Rustah. He wrote about visiting the Rus, who most scholars identify as Vikings, and travelled with them to Novgorod.

While it would be wonderful to associate the pre-Islamic Sassanian Persian coins in the Sundveda hoard with this explorer, the hoard is dated to the previous century. We are lucky to have some surviving texts from Arab explorers, but there must have been many other similar interactions which are lost to history. One of the common methods of securing alliances was through marriage and it seems fairly likely that the owner of the Islamic ring at the Viking site would have been a Muslim woman who had married a Viking. Talking about the site to my friend, Robert, who is far more knowledgeable about the Medieval period than myself, he said that a silver ring would indicate someone, while not necessarily extremely wealthy (the Vikings loved silver), nevertheless, would have had some status. As I said in the last episode, minor items usually do not get traded very far and it taxes the imagination to suppose that such a long-distance trading expedition would be made to bring such culturally specific objects to the Vikings.

The name most commonly associated with Arab/Viking contact is Ahmad ibn Fadlan who also visited the Rus, and his stories inspired a very strange work of "fiction" in our time. That will be tomorrow's topic.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Viking's ring — part two

One of the most famous coins of the British Mercian King Offa is the imitation gold dinar illustrated on the right. It had been acquired by Pierre Louis Jean Casimir de Blacas in Rome between 1814 and 1828. It was published by P . W . P . Carlyon-Britton , F.S.A. (British Numismatic Society publication), and you can read the paper here.

The most popular theory about the coin has not changed since that publication: it is considered by most to have been part of a payment from Offa to the Pope. However, the evidence for this is slim. While such a payment is recorded, the form of that payment is not and many people question why a coin of a modified Islamic type would be used as a payment to the head of the Christian religion. My own thought is that the coins were specially struck as payments to the Abbasid Caliphate. Ideas that such coins were used in market trade can, I think, be dismissed summarily: imagine going to a convenience store with a thousand dollar bill. Just because a coin was bought in Italy nearly a thousand years after it was minted is no great justification for saying that it had been in Italy all of that time. Collecting and trading in old coins in Italy had been going on at least since the Renaissance. A more likely candidate for a payment to the Pope is the gold penny of the same king which is in the style of a Roman coin. The imitation dinar is of correct weight for an Abbasid gold dinar. I don't think that it is too much of a stretch to say that Offa was probably contacted by pro-Abbasid supporters against the Umayyad's in Spain just as was Charlemagne.

I think that one of the commonest mistakes made in the study of early coins is the constant association with trade. Starting with the Greeks, gold coins were mostly issued to be paid for military support, and many of the best known Greek silver coins were issued for cross-state and international payments to other states. Sometimes, gold or silver coins are also used as political tributes by leaders seeking allies. Efficient trade was carried out by loading ships with a commodity to be traded, far away, for another commodity. Who, in their right mind, would sail an empty ship a great distance and then purchase a cargo with coins? Ships going to America were sometimes loaded with ballast as the point was to remove wealth from the Americas, and not also to supply the natives with European goods.

The ring at the centre of this topic was not the sort of merchandise any trader would want to fill his ship with as such things could be sold easier at the source and could not compete with local jewellery at the destination. Traders had to recoup the expenses for a journey and then make a profit on top of that. The game was to buy in bulk a commodity that was common at home and was rare a great distance away, and then do the same thing in reverse for the return trip.

So let us imagine that the Islamic coins found in Viking hoards in Britain and on the continent were originally payments made to northern Europeans by Islamic rulers for military, economic or political reasons. Once they become part of the Viking economy, they can then be used locally for small market transactions. Under the term "hacksilver", some of the coins are broken or cut into smaller pieces to facilitate trade. The cut dirham would have given the silver value of two local pennies, Viking or Anglo-Saxon. Quarter dirhams are also known which would have traded as a penny. The dirham, itself, would have been the value of the much later English groat.

Tomorrow, a couple of explorers from the Islamic world among the Vikings.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Two years

Pol Roger Brut Réserve (my favourite)
photo: plindberg
Yesterday's post was the 400th for this blog, and today is its second anniversary. Somehow, I am still managing to find new topics or different views on old topics so it looks like the blog will continue for a while.

The "most popular posts" gadget in the left column arranges the posts in descending order of the number of page hits and it is no surprise to me that Living with a coyote hybrid Coydog) consistently gets about twice the hits as the second most popular post. While original research, such as the posts about the seal of Alexander the Great and the only British example of Jacobsthal's Plastic Style of early Celtic art are important for their subject matter to specialists, most people are (understandably) more interested in the type of dog they own. Dogs are, after all, family. I think it helps to put things in the right perspective.

My own favorite post is So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 5 ― excerpts from T.S. Elliot's Four Quartets, although its formatting challenges just about drove me crazy!

I would have preferred to include more guest spots and to have had more "live" collaboration in the research articles and thus have better "emphasized the community of inquirers -- for it is only in and through such a critical community that one can adequately test the collective strength of such multiple argumentation." (Richard J. Bernstein). Contact me at john [at] writer2001.com (you know the format) if you would like to contribute something of your own.

As for the future of this blog, I cannot say. I do have to get a couple of E-books prepared for sale: one being on the iconography and background of the Gundestrup cauldron and the other being a speculative novel on the primary cause of war that is set in the Megalithic and also presents some speculations about the nature of Megalithic belief. My main purpose in writing it, though, was to give a story with a unified mythological theme as I found too many mythologically-inspired novels fell into a rather disorganized pastiche of mythological elements woven around a lot of "feel-good" New Age themes. Perhaps I will blog about working on these projects at the same time, it all depends on how the extra work load affects me, and I am also in communication with Trefor about his study of the materials issues of the latest Jersey hoard. Worst case scenario is that I might reduce the posts by one or two a week, or include some sample chapters, now and again, from the e-books in progress.

Tomorrow, back to the Viking's ring series.

Monday, 23 March 2015

The Viking's ring — part one

15 English, and 76 German coins.
photo: Daderot
Whenever I notice a news report that I might use as a subject for a blog post I read the headline link and then the article. Usually, the news organization publishing the report does not interest me much: I find that relatively minor publications can get things just as right or wrong as the bigger presses, so noting where the article was published is the third thing I do as I want to know if it is a spoof article (like in The Onion, for example), or whether the publisher has some particular ax to grind which could slant the story.

After reading a news report about the recent analysis of a ring with an Islamic inscription in a Swedish Viking hoard it did not come as a great surprise that it did not mention the large number of Islamic coins that have been found in Viking (Norse) hoards over the years. It was common numismatic knowledge, I knew about this as a child. It seemed like a typical "hyped" article, and a reader could be forgiven for thinking that the ring is the only firm confirmation of such distant contacts after reading: "Ancient texts mention contact between Scandinavians and members of Islamic civilization, but such archaeological evidence is rare. “Being the only ring with an Arabic inscription found at a Scandinavian archaeological site, it is a unique object among Swedish Viking Age material,”".

Looking at the source of the report, I was rather surprised to see that it was from the Archaeological Institute of America. Surely such an organization could cut through the initial hype and say something like "While the ring is a unique item for a Viking hoard, Islamic coins are actually rather common in such hoards." Its absence was such a surprise that I even started to doubt what I had been hearing since I was a child, but a quick web search soon validated my memories. By far, the best thing I found on my Google search was: Islamic Coin Hoards and the Trade Routes: How Dirham Reached the North by Dr. Aram Vardanyan, Institute of Oriental Studies, Yerevan, Armenia, and this paper tells me that Sweden has recorded 70,000 Islamic dirham finds in recent years and leads the northern countries list of more than 114,000 such coin finds.

The original paper certainly does not hide the fact of such coin discoveries, but tries to separate the importance of the ring from them as it seems to be a product that was fairly new when it was buried and the coins are usually worn and sometimes cut or broken for "smaller denominations". This does not explain, though, why such coins were not mentioned in the AIA article and how that could question their statement: "Ancient texts mention contact between Scandinavians and members of Islamic civilization, but such archaeological evidence is rare.". Then it dawned on me, the AIA restrict publication of anything that was not the result of an archaeological excavation. By projecting this policy to all archaeology, accidental finds like the Sysma hoard that was uncovered by a plough cannot be spoken about at all. So (by their standards) archaeological evidence is rare. Would the public understand this? Of course not. The AIA's ideas of "political correctness" gives the uninformed public reader a very different picture of the importance of the discovery.

Part two of this short series will appear on Wednesday as tomorrow's post is a "special". In it I will give much more of the Islamic links to the Vikings and NW Europe in general, including some of the medieval (not "ancient" history) and  a bit about a modern "novel" about the subject that seems to deliberately confuse such histories.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Happy vernal equinox!

Diagram of ecliptic coordinates, depicting the ecliptic,
equator, ecliptic poles, longitude and latitude, and the
vernal equinox direction.

author: Tfr000
Today's Google doodle of flowers informs me that it is the first day of spring for those of us in the northern hemisphere. I prefer to call it the vernal equinox (4.45 pm Calgary time) because telling anyone here in Calgary that it is the first day of spring could get a rather sarcastic response. It is a gloomy, rather chilly morning and the only signs of spring I have experienced in the last few days has been a small group of young male magpies fighting it out over an apparently absent or imaginative female, and a local woodpecker starting one of Calgary's first construction projects of the season. The grass is still mainly brown and some snow is still visible in shady areas. The March hares (jackrabbits) have not even started acting mad.

Spring, as a real experience for us, is still a long way off: sometime around Victoria Day (the last Monday before May 25th) we can be fairly optimistic that we have seen the last frost. That is the busiest weekend here for the garden centres, and the customary start to the camping season, although campers have often experienced a late snow storm on that weekend.

In the mythosphere, however, Blodeuwedd, the Welsh goddess of spring is being assembled from flowers and the Greek Persephone is back home with mother Demeter.

Beneath the doodle, Google also tells me that it is the International Day of Happiness and that certainly works for me because, as of today, I am officially an FSA.

So I wish every happiness (and a great weekend with fair weather) to all of my readers, and I'll be back on Monday.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

New Coriosolite stater variety revealing design evolution

New Corisolite variation
Citation: Hooker, Series X, Group C, Coin 9.1
photo: Robert Kokotailo
No, it is not from the latest Jersey hoard but was purchased as stock by my friend Robert Kokotailo of Calgary Coin. I had identified it for him as a new variety, but I think it is best to give such things a fuller treatment after they have been sold to avoid any accusations of conflict of interest.

Were you to use my expert system instead of my book to discover its place in the chronology you would attribute it to Series X, Group B, but I am giving it to the earliest (so far!) reverse die of Series X, Group C, instead. With a coin that exhibits the characteristics of an obverse die of one group and a reverse die belonging to another group, the normal description used by numismatists would be a mule. However, this particular coin is a transitional piece.

Obverse (or "anvil" dies) last longer than reverse (or "hammer' dies) because the coin blank acts as a buffer which absorbs some of the energy from the strike of the hammer. When you see ancient dies, they are usually of a rather short "sugar-loaf" shape. In our rather messy world, discoveries are often forgotten and I had the great pleasure, as a kid, being able to hold the earliest known (then, at least) English coin die (the hammer die of a Henry II Tealby penny). No wonder that those coins are very weakly struck, it was at least four times longer than it should have been for a proper strike. It was owned by a collector in Prittlewell, Essex but the British Museum had seen it, and were very interested in acquiring it. Where it is now, I have no idea. It was not considered to be a forger's die, but a genuine die that had been stolen from the mint. It was recovered from the Thames near a bridge and was perhaps thrown in the river by the thief in a moment of panic. It was from part of the estate left to the collector by one of H. G. Wells' brothers along with many other objects in the collection.

Although an obverse die is most often earlier than the reverse die of the same coin, there are some exceptions: most commonly seen when the obverse die finally wears out (reverse die can sometimes break, rather than just wear out), the Armorican Xn Series of staters and quarters had a series of die links all over the place, including some dies that had been cut by the same person who had produced both Coriosolite (Series X) and some Veneti dies (the Coriosolite dies being very slightly later). I have concluded that the reason for the erratic die links in Series Xn is that they had obtained dies from itinerant die cutters rather than hiring them to produce the entire coinage. You see damaged dies being reused rather too long, and the dies are sometimes crazed which would cause them to eventually break at such weak spots.

The dies are very close, in their evolutionary chronology, to Coin 8 of my Group B, especially where the pony's head is set forward of its neck. This feature continues on Coin 9, which I placed as the earliest reverse die of Group C found in the La Marquanderie hoard. However, the lips of the obverse head are V-shaped instead of the stalked lips that do not meet that are seen on the obverses of Groups A and B. This is thus typical of Group C.

Furthermore, the beaded decoration in front of the nose on the obverse of the new variety is fully integrated into the top of the nose, as it is starting with the first coin of Group C (9) in my book. The design of the driver and the pony's head both seem to be identical, in the new variety, to Coin 9 as the line that forms the front of the mane and continues to the end of the pony's nose is a reconstruction made by Rybot (being identified as such by the broken line).

Not only does the new variety omit the curl which hangs from the reins on Coin 9, but the die cutter had already decided to introduce a curve to that part part of the design, in the reins, themselves. Perhaps he thought that this made the reins look slack and so abandoned that design on the next die, or it might have been that he was just dissatisfied with it for compositional reasons. We cannot go back and ask him to clarify that decision! Still, being able to penetrate so deeply into the thought processes of someone who died more than two thousand years ago and left nothing else to us about his identity and life. or even if he was a "she" instead of a "he" is one of the most satisfying byproducts of the method I developed nearly thirty years ago, and the experience of writing this post brings me back to that golden time when I would write while my baby daughter was napping in her crib and Celts, long dead, were sharing their thoughts with me.

If you have downloaded my book from academia.edu. you could add this coin image and its description to just before Coin 9 by cut and paste as the book is Microsoft Word (.doc). Perhaps add it as an "insert" so that the pagination and index remains correct. I am not changing the earlier version on my web site as the entire site is archived because I wanted it to remain as it was before the death of my wife, Carin Perron.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Another strand in the cable

Gold foil decoration of early La Tène style mounted
on a modern wooden form reflecting the shape of
the appliqué. From Schwarzenbach, Hunsrück,
Rhineland. Jacobsthal (1944) 18: "... Furtwängler (AA 4 
1889, 43) was the first to see that the piece is not a
flat strip, but the veneer of a hemispherical cup; yet 
misapprehensions and incorrect drawings still linger
[For an explanation as to why I am not titling this post "Another link in the chain", see here (Richard J. Bernstein quote).]

Very early Celtic gold foil appliqués are mostly associated with Rhineland graves, and the earlier Hallstatt D gold foil appliqués with the grave at Hochdorf. Jacobsthal listed only one strip of gold foil from France (Jacobsthal 25, from Somme-Bionne, Marne, Morel, Pl 8, 6, a cart burial) of a slightly later date and although, technically La Téne 1, it is of the "early style" which is reminiscent of the geometric Hallstatt D styles and could be called "transitional". Later Marnian examples from France illustrated by Jacobsthal are more plentiful and their decoration is often based on the classical Dionysian ivy-scroll.

It was easy to get an impression that the practice of using such foil applications started in the workshops of the Rhine area and then spread to the Marne. However, there are some very early Marnian finds already known. I own one myself, the archetypal La Téne 1 brooch which has certain Hallstatt features and the rare type, known from only two other examples is also considered to be transitional Hallstatt/La Téne. It cause some excitement when shown, by its previous owner, to the British Museum.

My own theory about the La Téne style is that it marks a syncretistic transition between the native Celtic religions and the Greek Dionysian religion and that the "melting pot" was in northern Italy. Most of the Italian finds, however, showed a far greater transmission to the Rhineland, and the design elements were based mainly on such things as palmette derivatives, dragon pairs, etc. even though the connections to wine are always very strong. The definitive ivy-scroll which deals with an opposite to the vine scroll in Dionysian imagery had shown no clear movement from northern Italy directly to France and was widely called "the Marnian scroll" because of its focus on that part of France (it also exists in Britain).

So I am very happy to see that the recently discovered Celtic princely tomb in Lavau has yielded a Greek or Etruscan gold foil-decorated black-figure oinochoe depicting a Dionysian subject while the foil is of Hallstatt, rather than La Téne style. There is a picture of the foil decoration at the lip of the vessel here and at just above the foot in this photograph.

The later focus on the ivy-scroll in Champagne might point to a different focus on the nature of the Dionysian/Celtic syncretism in France (perhaps also connected with the Senones' presence in northern Italy), or it might be a later development that saw no transmission along the Rhine, but it is a very welcome new strand for me. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Here's a twist

Rock art at La Mosquitia, Honduras
photo: Dpavon22
For a long time, I have been rather critical about archaeological reporting. Not so much for any inaccuracies (although they do exist), but for what I see as hype that is either promoted by the archaeologists or a sensationalist dressing by the press. Too many things "are going to rewrite history"; every hoard of Celtic coins was deposited by people fleeing from the Romans ("banking" and recycling hoards are just not sexy enough). But I frequently check news reports, anyway, and will often blog about them. I don't much like reporting such things unless there is something that I can add that is not covered by the press.

So, this morning, I had no idea what to write about today and was checking the latest archaeological news. I was tempted by the discovery of the remains of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, but I could add nothing new to that story, important as it was. Then I came across "Archaeologists condemn National Geographic over claims of Honduran 'lost cities'". There we go!

The National Geographic article that earned the ire of the archaeologists was "Lost City Discovered in the Honduran Rain Forest".  Apart from accusations that years of research was not mentioned, the main problem seems to be one of "political correctness" against "colonialist discourse". Now, National Geographic editors have a pretty good grasp on what will capture the public's interest. They are aware that their oldest readers grew up with novels by Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, and others who produced novels in the "Lost world genre", while their younger readers are more familiar with film and television archaeological adventures like the Indiana Jones movies. Realistic? Of course not. Inspiring? definately. After all, even the Archaeological Institute of America adopted Harrison Ford.

What interests the specialist, is often rather boring to the public at large and even to some generalists or people with other interests within the same discipline. I remember, at fifteen years old, laughing my head off about the title of an article in a numismatic publication: "Yet another Heraclius die variety". Even a lot of collectors of Byzantine coins would yawn at that one and you will never see such a title in the National Geographic Magazine. There are very few collectors of ancient coins who collect by die varieties, and the term "die variety" is probably never uttered by anyone who is not a numismatist. If NG had a habit of catering only to the specialist reader, they would not have lasted over 120 years.

Such stories, with personal literary connections, do certainly inspire and will draw people to pursuing life-long interests in the past. This is the pool from which many archaeologists and numismatists emerge. If you are such a person, I'd love to hear what it was that inspired you.

This is not the first time that the National Geographic Magazine has been criticized by archaeologists: Christopher B. Donnan is a specialist in the Moche culture of Peru and was criticized by archaeologists for using many ceramics from private collections in a couple of his NG articles. His answer included: "If I had known now what a crucial difference the information [recovered from privately held collections] would make in our ability to accurately reconstruct this ancient society. I would have gone about recording it with even deeper resolve.", Alison Wylie, Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology, p. 235.

To those archaeologists who signed that open letter, take a 'lude! Try not to be like an old Victorian lady offended by the sight of an ankle. Without such inspiration, there will be far fewer of your numbers in the world of tomorrow, and your funding will diminish as a result. Sometimes, if it can inspire, a little hype is a good thing.

Monday, 16 March 2015

The Newark torc is going home

Newark torc
photo: Newark_and_Sedgeford_torcs_at_the_British_Museum
derivative work by BabelStone
A Celtic gold torc in the Snettisham (Norfolk) style will be going back to Newark, Nottinghamshire (the area of its discovery) in May. It is currently housed at the British Museum where it was originally being studied. Its new home will be the Newark Millgate Museum.

The Newark torc is variously described as being made of gold or electrum. Electrum is a natural or artificial alloy of gold and silver while the torc (like all British Celtic gold coins) is made from a three-part alloy of gold, silver and copper (with various impurities in small proportions). The British "Norfolk wolf stater" starts out in a yellow gold alloy and then later becomes more debased through the addition of mainly silver but also copper until it appears first silvery and then coppery. The latter appearance coins are usually described as copper cores and assumed to be plated forgeries of the same period. It is possible, I think, that some of these "cores" are "official" coins that are at the end of a long period of debasement. Some of the Snettisham torcs are also very base. The same situation happened with the coins of the Durotriges. One type started in so-called "white-gold" (modern white gold usually is of a gold nickel alloy that is rhodium plated, and not the heavy silver gold alloy of the coins) and eventually became bronze.

How the torc came to be found in Corieltauvi, instead of Iceni territory is unknown. There were certainly many connections between the two neighbouring tribes and I would think that it was a high status gift or political tribute, although a captured piece cannot be ruled out. We cannot be sure, however, that either the torcs or the wolf staters are actually products of the Iceni or are from an unknown tribe that maintained a separate identity within the larger tribe's territory. Little is known about the geographical foci of the various Iceni types, and why different types in different alloys exist within the territory. Iceni coin hoards seem to be later hoards of earlier coins and original distribution patterns have yet to be discovered. I have an idea, though, on how this might be done.

I am always pleased when the museum that gets to display such pieces is close to the find spot.

For another example of the Snettisham style from my own collection see:

British Celtic Snettisham-style strap junction which I purchased from a shop in York.

Friday, 13 March 2015

The treasure in the library

Thomas B. Lockwood Memorial Library,
University of Buffalo, NY
photo:  Breadchastick
A successful treasure hunt resulted in the discovery of dozens of ancient Greek and Roman silver and gold coins. The treasure was not found in a farmer's field or at an archaeological site, but in the Thomas B. Lockwood Memorial Library at the University of Buffalo, NY. They had been donated about eighty years ago by Thomas B. Lockwood, himself. The irony is in the word "memorial", as the coins seemed to have been forgotten rather quickly. Perhaps that is why I have yet to see the name of the library in any of the news reports.

Although the collection is quite valuable, even its historical importance is probably not really "priceless" as is reported as all the coins illustrated so far in the reports are types already well-known. Mind you, an aureus of Otho does not come cheap, only the wealthy can afford such.

Coin collectors are wondering if bequeathing their collections to a museum is such a good idea, now. If you donate your collections to a university which then houses such in a library named after you (the main part of the collections was the works of James Joyce (one of the most expensive authors for collectors of modern first editions), then you probably would not expect that one of your collections would be stored away and forgotten.

In considering bequeathments, and at sixty five years old, the topic has already come up for me, many things should be taken into consideration. First, talk to your heirs about your ideas. If you are thinking of donating a collection, then think about how it will fit in to the current collections of the institute in question. Are such things already displayed there? Do scholars already use the institution to research such items? When Richard Hattatt donated some of his ancient brooch collection to the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, they were types that were absent in the Ashmolean collection. The rest of his bequeathment to the museum was cash. He regularly sold off his brooches after he published each of them as part of a series. I used to have three of his brooches, myself. Hattatt's donation was carefully considered and he had enjoyed a long working relationship with the Ashmolean.

The other possibility, of course, is to have your collection return to the trade from whence it came and allow others to become as inspired by them as you were. But again, talk to your heirs: what you might think would be welcomed might just give them extra stress at a difficult time.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow

British Celtic miniature terret ring

A bit smaller than a quarter, this was the first Celtic antiquity
that I purchased. These miniature terrets are sometimes
called "votive" but I think that they are just simple strap ends.
The miniature terret ring illustrated here was the first Celtic object I bought that was not a coin. It was about thirty years ago, I didn't have much money to spend at a Calgary coin show I was attending, but there was a British dealer there who had brought a few metal-detector finds including a mixed lot of bronze harness rings of a wide date range. I saw a typically crude fifteenth century ring among the lot which seemed to be mostly Roman (although there is usually little hard evidence for the date of a plain harness ring). Happily, the dealer was not selling everything as "Celtic ring money" which commonly happens on Ebay. I saw the Celtic miniature terret and bought it at once. Like all of the rings, it was only three dollars.

What identified it to me as British Celtic was that it was in the form of a swelled ring (or a ring with an off-centre hole). Being now mostly interested in applied decoration, such items that were in my collection have all been sold off to buy more interesting (and often expensive) items. But I kept this one as it was the first of the collection.

That is the thing about collecting. I have noticed that some metal detectorists (when asked by an archaeologist) what interests them about their hobby, they will usually say "It's the history". That's the problem with "surveys", often, people will give the answer they think is expected or that will meet with some approval. While history is undoubtedly one of the interests of most metal detectorists, I think that it really is a constellation of interests that inspire detectorists. Besides the history of any area, there is the thrill of discovery; there can be friendly competition between detectorists; it can even be a joy just to get out in the country; any find will be a permanent reminder of the time of its discovery and thus also of associated events. The history is also personal: it is part of the discoverer's life and the significance of a discovery can be expressed in a multitude of ways. I have just mentioned a few of the commoner reasons.

Lower linchpin terminal, Dobunni,
1st cent. AD, Width: 24mm.
All of these experiences, together, can lead to certain themes. I found the linchpin terminal (mentioned also in an update to another item) on the left on an Ebay auction. Again, the swelled ring made an appearance. It was also shown (with a blurry small photograph that did not show most of the decoration) in a price guide of antiquities with an absurdly low price. I was battling it out with a bidder from the Netherlands and I won it at about $500. I was very pleased with the result and the only slight problem was that I could not afford to spend $500 at that time. Of course, I had many other things in my collection that I liked a lot less, and a friend is a dealer in such things. That was why I sold my British A gold stater. I can buy another British A pretty well any time the fancy and finances permit. I would like to buy the upper terminal for this linchpin but it probably has not been discovered yet.

The next, and final example of the swelled ring in my current collection is a fairly recent purchase (see here, here, and there. this type of strap junction is known only from an inferior and fragmentary example excavated at Camulodunum (Colchester) and first published in 1947.

British Celtic strap-junction, circa 20-40 AD
Bronze, with six glass inlaid discs.
H. 4.4 cm W. 4.8 cm Taylor and Brailsford
type 1 Figure of eight form (flanked at each side by
a vertical bar attached at each end), No. 4 (variety).
Dealer states "ex Ringrose coll. (Essex)"

So why this interest of mine in the swelled ring? That it is a design that appeared on my first Celtic antiquity certainly has something to do with it, but the other two items shown here also have other, applied, decorative elements and through the comparison of these we gain context for dating and otherwise attributing other objects. Context is not just about the relative positions of often disparate objects in an archaeological excavation, and while not even find spots are recorded for these things, the context that they provide is far more informative than if they had been discovered as parts of archaeological excavations. Most of this type of material is not found in stratified sites in Britain but as accidental losses and more rarer, votive offerings. The reason that the context of each design element is important is because it connects ideas and not just the happenstances of things being abandoned. I learned all that through my work on Coriosolite coins. Familiarity with artistic devices can lead to the identification of specific workshops and mints and while we cannot find their exact location, the distribution patterns will usually give a rough location. We can also track the development and influences of design.

However, had I not found a three dollar miniature terret at a coin show, I might not even have started collecting early Celtic art, and you would never get an opportunity to see the photographs and read the descriptions. Who knows?

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

There will be forms

photo: Tom Ventura
Yesterday, I got the confirmation letter about my FSA from the Society of Antiquaries of London. One of the disadvantages of getting an email advance notice is that such things do not include the fine print. Along with the letter, subscription details and the information package about the society were forms to be filled out (of course). I also learned that I cannot use FSA after my name until all of the i's have been dotted and the all of the t's crossed so I took that detail off my profile first thing this morning.

This is the year of forms for me: first there was all of my pension forms and forms to replace lost documents and next there is my income tax forms to complete and send off.

I hate forms.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

More Amphipolis updates

The Lion of Amphipolis
photo: Kkonstan
The Greek Reporter is staying up to date with the reporting of the excavation and theories concerning the tomb at Amphipolis. On March 1st there was a story about the skeleton remains and discussion of the main hypotheses about their identities, and on March 7th came the idea that the lion at Amphipolis was too heavy to have stood on the tomb's mound.

This is really what archaeological news reporting should be about: many archaeological sites had a life somewhat more messy and disorganized than what is thought to be the main story, but the public has come to expect that they will receive the required pronouncements from experts and that will be that. Is this a chicken or the egg question? Do some archaeologists follow previous styles of reporting or is the reporting the result of the hype given by the archaeologist in hope of further funding? Quite often, the reasons for the interpretation are not given. After all, many news organizations feel they are there to give answers, and not more questions.

But archaeology is not about the answers but the questions. Any archaeological site worth its salt will present more questions than answers. If that was not the case, there could be no more advancement on the subject. Sometimes, though, we might wonder if archaeology is mainly about career advancement. Well done to the Greek Reporter for a balanced coverage of the excavations and theories. This is the sort of reporting that promotes an interest to discover more rather than to feel satisfied with the single view so often given for nationalist or career motives.

Still no discussion about the thirteen steps, though.

Monday, 9 March 2015

The sound of the carnyx

French reconstruction of the carnyx
photo (cropped): CptKeyes
Past Horizons blog recently had an interesting post, "Reconstructing the Deskford Iron-Age Carnyx. A YouTube video of the sound of the carnyx being played by trombonist John Kenny is included and you will note that he used a couple of didgeridoo techniques while playing the instrument including a voiced growl. John Kenny is the first person to play a reconstructed carnyx.

While he says "I have been at great pains to disclaim any notion that the carnyx was some kind of bronze age didgeridoo", he adds:
"It is worth noting that the characteristic sound world of the didgeridoo derives in part from the speech patterns of Aboriginal language and accent, as well as from observation and imitation of their natural environment. I believe that the zoomorphic nature of the carnyx likewise invites the incorporation of vowel and consonant colours drawn from Celtic tongues and our own northern natural environment. Indeed, Nigel Osbourne’s piece Forest-River-Ocean makes extensive use of precisely this sound palette, deriving material based upon phonemes of the Gaelic language as well as nature sounds taken from the find site at Deskford on the shores of the Moray Firth."
The main didgeridoo connection is, I think, in the use of so-called "circular breathing" which is really using the air stored in the mouth to make a continuous sound while "sniffing" air through the nose. It took me a little while to learn how to do this, but I'm not ready for the stage just yet! When I first encountered the didgeridoo, I got the idea that the bagpipe might be a workaround for the "circular breathing" thing and there is something about the sound of the drones which reminds me of the didgeridoo.

Irish late Bronze-Age horns. The bottom example
has the side-opening mouthpiece. Ulster Museum.
photo: Notafly
Supporting the idea that the carnyx and the didgeridoo shared similar techniques, late Bronze Age Irish horns were of two types: the familiar horn design with the mouthpiece at the end, and one where the mouthpiece hole is much larger and oval-shaped rather like the opening of the beeswax mouthpiece I made for my didgeridoo which seems to get the best sounds for me (It's a bit like blowing a raspberry into the tube).