Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Iceni hypothesis — part 23

Reconstruction of a Celtic village
Photo: National Museum of Wales
The practice of dividing a series of coins into classes has limited applicability. At best, it gives us an idea of whereabouts within the chronology issue we can place a certain coin. Classes are determined by one or two design features (usually something very noticeable to us). As data sets, classes are almost completely useless. They are modern constructs based only on how something looks to us. Any person who made or used the coins would see all of the design elements connected in ways that we mostly cannot fathom today, so we are like the blind men and the elephant in that respect: everything we know, or think we know is based on our modern impressions. Not everyone has fallen into this trap: Robert Van Arsdell takes all design features into consideration and builds up a chronology through those, and through gradual changes in their metal (mainly expressed as decreases in the coin's intrinsic worth) and divisions made by changes in technique (such as cast Durotriges bronze coins following the issues of struck coins). My own method is only slightly different, as is our notation system. The differences are best expressed as being that my study was only of a single tribe (which ended up being of two different tribes and three mints). Robert Van Arsdell's system was applied to all British tribes. If I tried to apply my method to his subjects, it just would not work and his method applied to my subject would miss out on all of the peculiarities of that coinage that are not present in other issues. But for the most part, our methods are more similar than different in that no significant changes are noted as such, and all changes in the designs are recorded.

I concluded that the only objective division of an issue of coins is noting a sudden and dramatic devaluation that occurred at some point within the chronology and noting each individual coin die's design in detail. Gradual reductions in silver content of about two percent has been proposed by Katherine Gruel for each of the classes in Coriosolite coins, but as the classes meant nothing at all to the people who made and used these coins; as "two percent" had no meaning to them; and that errors in achieving anything like a standard silver content were often considerably higher than two percent makes you wonder if they were even capable of creating such a definable series of devaluations. It looks to me that they became increasingly sloppy in their work and Gresham's Law (Bad money dives out good) provides a reason why certain coins that were too silver-rich were culled to profit on the metal. The coins were struck al marco so the moneyers were more concerned about getting the job done quickly rather than wasting their time on adjusting each coin or batch of alloy. The coins were to paid in in large quantities only for the hire of troops, they were not used for buying candy at the corner store.

So when I heard that the Celts were not considered to be a unified culture based on only about three criteria for what a culture is, I found the notion to be utterly absurd (and that is not even taking into consideration, its "absence of evidence" content). If I could not properly classify a single coinage by using the dozen or so attributed classes given to it, then what hope is there for defining an entire widespread culture using only about three criteria?

Next in the "Macdefinitions" for the consumption of students in a hurry, comes "tribal" and "statehood" (Do you want fries and a drink with that?). I have had various experiences with tribes, and not one of them seems to behave in the way that is claimed to define a tribe for Celtic subjects. I noticed that Ian Leins used the word tribes within scare-quotes in the way that some write "Celtic". Yet Caesar specifically uses the word tribes in his commentaries about Britain, and unlike Ian Leins, he was actually there at the time. It is truly wonderful: if you utilize the sort of question that would cause a Zen master to exclaim "Un-ask the question". or Wolfgang Pauli to exclaim "It is not even wrong!", then you have created unanswerable questions in their stated forms. This provides an endless supply of possible papers, conferences, and even degrees in something that does not really exist. Just think of the income that could generate. Colin Haselgrove (BAR British, 222, p.125f) lets loose a volley aimed at the core of what is called Gaulish statehood:
"I would certainly argue that  — on the basis of the coin evidence at least  — the case for pre-Roman statehood in central France has been significantly overstated; the coinage system of eastern England in the first century AD displays a markedly higher level of development. Again, inter-regional comparisons appear to offer a sensible approach to such issues."
We have all heard of confederations of Celtic tribes, and the historical records mention them too, yet most tribes are not truly isolated from that label: inter-tribal marriages, fosterage, trade agreements and services  (not to mention personal feuds or alliances) shape tribal society and you can see more differences by travelling further within a tribe's territory. One farm might look very similar to its neighbours, but as you go further, more differences show themselves. They evolve, first, according to local conditions, but eventually there is some leveling of practices and customs to better facilitate communication and the resolution of problems based only on misunderstandings. If you were to be magically transported from one part of the territory to another, the differences might seem far more dramatic. Imagine that in one moment you are on an Amish farm, and in the next moment you are on the Las Vegas strip. Would you say that both places are representing the same culture? Of course not. Yet both places are under the control of a single national government -- a statehood. The Americans have been extra obliging to such scholars by calling their country The United States of America, and this eliminates the need for conferences to decide on whether the U.S. is a unified culture or not. It is a shame that the Celts did not have the forethought to call their country the United States of Gaul and Britain. In that way, they would have remained a people, even under academic eyes. We do have the historic information (Caesar II,4) that Diuiciacus of the Suessiones was an overking of Britain as well as a king in large parts of Belgic Gaul. If absence of evidence is acceptable, then actual evidence should be prime, no? Try this an an experiment: use that passage in Caesar to argue for a unified Celtic culture against someone who claims that Britain was not Celtic. The response will question Caesar's narrative, but will not offer any real evidence, whatsoever, that the narrative is wrong. Again, this is another sort of the absence of evidence argument.  You will get some general memes about how you cannot trust the Classical authors, and someone might suggest that he spoke of the power of the "Late pre-Roman Iron Age people" to build himself up in the eyes of his investors, but this is all just opinion,and if it dos not contain some specific evidence to that claim then it is obviously a meme and nothing else.

So having deconstructed a lot about how we look at Celtic coins, where do we go from there? That will be tomorrows topic.

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