Roman Coin Prank

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For many years, the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm was strictly a custodian and exhibitor of archaeological finds, performing no excavations of its own. Recently, however, its staff has resumed excavations on a small scale. The unusual nature of this fieldwork identifies it as inspired by post-modernist trends in museology.

I have already blogged a bit about the museum’s reverse excavations, an “incavation”. But my colleagues there are excavating as well. They started with their own back yard a few years back. The museum grounds are on the erstwhile site of a cavalry regiment in a part of Stockholm that was on the city’s semi-rural outskirts until the 1890s. The regiment moved out in 1928 and the museum’s additions to its buildings were finished in 1939. So the back yard trench yielded 18th and 19th century refuse (much like the stuff my friends at Djurhamn and I dug up to our disappointment this past June) plus remains of the museum’s popularisation work in the past half-century. Until the other day, the funniest finding was a fake Viking Period cremation grave with replica bronze jewellery and beads.

Now museum staff is trial-excavating the nearby remains of a scale reconstruction of Medieval Stockholm, built for the 1897 Stockholm exhibition. The characteristically post-modernist slant to these two fieldwork projects lies in their pre-occupation with meta-archaeology: digging the diggers of the past. The project directors want to study how people in the past (the 1890s and post-WW2) thought about their past (the Middle Ages and all of Prehistory). To my mind, the results of their efforts may be of some interest to Late Modern historians and museologists. And, of course, to all the museum visitors who get to take part in the excavation of these non-critical remains. Punters are being entertained.

A recent find from the trench in the museum grounds is very likely a wry gift from an archaeologist wishing to remind the museum staff of why most of their colleagues dig. A little Swiss girl picked up a bronze dupondius struck for Emperor Nero in AD 66-68. Coins of that era are almost unkown in Sweden, and it is in my opinion completely out of the question that it would have happened to lie around the museum’s site since antiquity and happened to end up right in the trench. Poor specimens of bronze issues like these are cheap on eBay. Maybe the finder’s parents (they’re from the Empire’s territory, after all) seeded the trench to entertain their daughter. Or maybe, just maybe, and I’m speculating wildly here, it might have been dropped by a visiting coin collector in the decades after WW2.

Sadly, my old buddy from grad school, Marie Svedin, suggests on the project blog that the coin would have been part of an ancient burial deposit on site. She bases this on a few 1st Millennium potsherds also found in the trench. But ugly household pottery of this type is a common find whereever you dig in agricultural Sweden. It is nowhere near enough to allow us to postulate a destroyed burial or settlement deposit with a unique coin. Ockham’s razor: the find must be treated as entirely spurious.

Come on now, guys. You know that most field archaeologists think your back-yard digging is pretty much a waste of time to begin with. Can you really afford to be taken in by pranks as well?

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Comments

  1. #1 Fredrik Svanberg
    August 24, 2008

    Please Martin, don´t hesitate to continue your very personal crusade against the Museum. As you well know, there are quite a number of professional archaeologists out there who take an interest in historical archaeology and the communicational aspects of archaeology. I think a quite plausible explanation for the coin find may be that it was aquired in Italy (or even Sweden, see below) by one of the 19th century officers of the regiment as a souvenir and later lost. You could actually buy antique coins at the 1897 exhibition we are currently excavating some 500 meters away (http://publikarkeologi.wordpress.com/), though I don´t know if that included specimens of this kind. Btw – you havn´t done too much professional field archaeology yourself, have you? I strongly suspect we are quite a number of museum staff archaeologists here with substantially more field experience than you have. In my mind that doesn´t really add up to that you are the voice of field archaeology in this case. Rather the opposite maybe, since you tend to take up a rather narrow-minded old-school perspective, untypical for current Swedish field archaeology.

  2. #2 Martin R
    August 24, 2008

    Every time I mention the Museum here, Fredrik’s Mr. Hyde personality shows up like an irate wasp to defend his nest. I must say that I prefer his Dr. Jekyll version, who wrote a good book about Viking Period burial and did a lot of really valuable fieldwork in Blekinge and Scania.

    Fredrik, why not just accept the frank opinions of a tax-payer and colleague instead? Don’t tell me that you believe in the silly coin?!

  3. #3 Marie Svedin
    August 24, 2008

    Hello Martin,
    It is kind of you to write about our excavations at the Museum of National Antiquities, although I have to clear out some of your misinterpretations and misunderstandings. First, as I was present when the girl dug out the coin I know that her parents not were present to hide the coin in the trench for her (in fact her parents were not present at the museum at all!).
    I have not postulated that the coin is from an ancient grave from the site! Where have you got that idea from? I have only discussed different possibilities of when the coin could have been placed or dropped in the area. Of course I don’t know when the coin came to the site. It could have been during prehistory, pre-modern time or during the 20th century.
    I want to point out that there are several artifacts (not only “ugly household pottery”) with a prehistoric origin found at the excavation. I am aware that most of the oldest prehistoric objects found in the area that is the Stockholm of today are from the Viking Age and so we really did not expect to find these artifacts. Yet, we did find them.
    Yes, I am aware that some archaeologists think that excavating at the museum is a waste of time. I do not agree with you, it is well invested time. The primary purpose of this excavation is public archaeology and the activity is highly appreciated of the museum visitors and is give high points in the public inquiries. The excavation has a large value for the participating visitors, especially for their understanding of what archaeology, cultural heritage and related subjects are. The visitors have the opportunity to follow a whole archaeological process, from the excavation to the interpretation. We as archaeologists have the fantastic opportunity to talk, discuss and answer to the many questions that the visitors have about questions related to history and prehistory.
    I also disagree with you when you write that the material that we found could be of scientific value. As that particular discussion probably demands a bit of space I have to come back to you about it, maybe in an article in Fornvännen.
    /Marie Svedin

  4. #4 Martin R
    August 24, 2008

    Quite right, you didn’t say “burial”. You said “coin and pottery and some glass that might be really old, come to think of it”. I wrongly interpreted this as a reference to a burial, since that is the kind of context where you’ll find coins and glass in the Roman Period. I have now corrected the blog entry.

    I wonder if there’s a “not” missing from the final paragraph of your comment. Did you really mean to say that you think the act of digging is valuable because the museum visitors like to dig, but that the finds they help you collect and interpret have no scientific value?

  5. #5 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    August 24, 2008

    Ha, the “Little Swiss Girl” ploy. I must have use that one a dozen times myself.

  6. #6 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 24, 2008

    King of the Jinns
    by
    Jonathan V. Post

    A Science Fantasy Short Story
    approx.3,000 words

    © 1991 by Emerald City Publishing

    I was watching CNN when Ali brought in the strangest coins I’d ever seen in my life.

    Patriot anti-missile missiles had just intercepted three Iraqi SCUD missiles over Tel Aviv, but one had crushed an elementary school. Ali entered my Brooklyn coin shop, coughed slightly as the door swung shut, and laid four coins on the black velvet tray in front of my stool.

    Like most Islamic coins, they heeded the Koran by showing no pictures. Obverse and reverse alike showed only writing — a slightly squared-off Arabic script — and both were worn to somewhere between “Fair Plus” and “Good Minus” condition….

    (Thanks to Jed Stevenson, “Three mysterious coins of the ancient Middle East, fact or fantasy”, The New York Times, 1 February 1991)

  7. #7 Marie Svedin
    August 25, 2008

    Ok, it´s good that you corrected the blog entry. Yes, there is a no, missing in my comment. I do think that the archaeological material could have scientific value in a Public archaeological exavation. Not always ofcourse, it depend on how the excavation have been conducted, what artefacts you find and the context.

  8. #8 Martin R
    August 25, 2008

    Well, yeah, the levelling layers on the site may have something to say about events in the area mainly in the past couple of centuries. Including recent activities in the museum grounds.

    Public archaeology is nothing new. It’s only been a few decades since we stopped employing local farmhands at our digs.

  9. #9 Mattias Niord
    August 25, 2008

    I understand Martins scepticism, even if I personally have little field expirience when it comes to excavation. But there is still a big source critical problem Marie, and I belive you agree with me on that part, even if I come mainly from the museums teacher archaeology field, so to say.
    Since you have found a fake viking burial and other stuff left by older antiquarians, it do become a bit suspicious if you happen to find an old, but still very cheap roman coin. Basically, a antiquarian may have decided to play a prank back in time, maybe it was meant for an early discovery, but as things turned out, it may have been forgotten. The very setting speaks volumes about the possibility of a prank.
    And other events can teach us that well meaning archaeological pranks between collegaues have turned out bad. And then there is the history of the Japanse archaeological professor who basically planted his way into the top and who when it all broke left a complete mess of uncertainty for his collegaues to start to piece together part of Japans prehistory trying to sift out his planted stuff.

    Be not angry about this. I would myself dearly want old roman influence, and would feel a resistance toward being a suspicious, but that´s what collegial discussion are for.
    But I do not know the setting, the layer sequence or such. But until I get to learn more, and see the evidence presented cleary, I will not be able to use this find in my field of Museums teaching or writing.

    With all respect

  10. #11 Theres
    August 25, 2008

    At every excavation I’ve taken part (they are not many) we have always left a swedish coin (1 krona), with the year of the dig imprinted on it, at the bottom of the trench. Just to say “hey, we were here!”. Maybe not wery wise but of course a future archaeologist will see that there has been an earlier excavation there…

  11. #12 Martin R
    August 25, 2008

    I do that too at my digs. Even if the archive report should be obliterated, future colleagues will know that somebody’s been digging and when.

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