Friday, 1 May 2015

The Iceni hypothesis — part eleven

Could we be looking at Celtic coins in the wrong way? When we look at a single coin, we often use a magnifying glass to see more details. But when we look at a series of coins, we might plot the finds of each example with dots on a map. Robert Van Arsdell outlines some of the problems with distribution maps and suggests a number of more focused patterns. I was especially drawn to the one about the Jurassic Way. For another example of coins found along its route, see Colin Haselgrove's Potin coinage in Iron Age Britain, archaeology and chronology, fig. 55. Of course, we cannot know just how reliable is each findspot, but we hope that most of the dots will be in the right place. Another good place to read about the dark-side of distribution maps is Warwick Rodwell's Lost and found: the archaeology of find-spots of Celtic coins in, Coinage and society in Britain and Gaul: some current problems, The Council for British Archaeology Research Report No 38, 1981 (The link will give you a PDF of the entire book).

Rather than just giving more examples of the things noted by Van Arsdell and Rodwell, I will take a different philosophical approach: looking through a magnifying glass, a coin looks bigger, but when it is just a dot on a map it gives us no detail but its alleged location. The map does not tell us if it was lost, or deliberately deposited; it does not tell us if it was new coin or worn one; it does not tell us if the coin was found in the fill of a foundation that was gathered from a distant location; it does not say if its last owner was a Celt of two thousand years ago, or a coin collector in 1950.

In a scientific study of anything, we take little pieces of evidence and from them construct a theory that encompasses all of the information we have gleaned from those little pieces of evidence. This is inductive reasoning.  So of what can we be sure with the distribution map? The dots represent alleged finds of a type of coin which is defined by a modern person working from a philosophical perspective that might be different from that of another person. Just a minute, a few seconds ago we were thinking about scientific methods and now we find ourselves in the country of the oracle. We are trying to compare various uncertainties and from them build a theory. This is what the oracle accomplishes, exactly. The oracle says, "The blue bird flies north and sees apples", then the priest explains what the blue bird represents; the significance of "north", and what it realizes from seeing the apples there. All of this is then related to the person's question that the oracle has answered.

Deductive reasoning is where you note how the evidence confirms a theory, but a theory can be constructed that consists of only a certain type of evidence. It might be metallurgical, art-historical, mythological, archaeological, sociological, psychological, anthropological, political, geographical, and so on. The good thing about these is that they can provide actual units of understanding: 7.3% Fe; pellet within an annulet; matrilineal; peat bog. Of course, we will do better if we take a multidisciplinary approach, and include as many types of evidence as we can perceive, but if we just stick to one then it at least deals with facts within its parameters.

It can get very confusing for everyone, though, when theories, themselves, are given as facts and then compared with other theories which are also posing as facts, like: "No central tribal authority" (tribal structures are very diffuse); "Social relationships" (giving a couple of examples of such at best, and never specific to the hard evidence being studied). These theories paint a picture of a society which is based on the theory itself, and it becomes a circular argument. If the theory is successful and becomes widely accepted, it is sometimes because the evidence from the past is understood from the perception of the present: You drive through a rural area consisting of many small farms and you think of simple rural folk carrying out their chores every day without a thought to deeper issues. So when you read about small farms in Dobunni territory, you think of even simpler rural folk in a time before televisions, pickup trucks, tractors and mortgages. There will be few that will realize that even owning a small farm meant that one was a person of status; he would have retainers below him, but would also serve those above him in return for their protection. He might even own two or three of the adjoining farms and be paid with stock from his tenants. He could be a king at that point. He might loan some of this stock to others to increase his status. If he, and his neighbours get carried away, however, too much cattle speculation creates a bubble and when it bursts, no one will give you much for your cow as there are just too many of them available. How many people would think that seeing an area filled with small farms would mean that it was a very wealthy area? How many people can equate farmer with king?

The Celts also engaged in cattle raiding, and there were stiff laws against it. If the guilty party could not be fined and the victim compensated according to his honour price, then the family of the guilty party would pay. If anyone allowed stolen cattle to graze on their land, then it would be them who would compensate the victim. In that society, no central prison would be visible either. No prison of any sort, in fact. Sometimes, the laws got a bit soft and an Irish cattle raider collapsed the local bullock market as late as 1536! (p.220). 

If we are not too selective, and gather up enough small pieces of evidence, then larger pictures start to emerge. Inductive reasoning is the only approach that can have any claims to be scientific. We take the small and make them large by combining them. Dots on a map takes the large, and tries to make it small. More on Monday, have a great weekend.  

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