All Unconserved Finds Must Die Die Die?

Several colleagues have told me this bizarre rumour that I hope is unfounded. Contract archaeologists at two sites on Öland and in Småland have found more Medieval coins than their conservation budget can cover. So they have to prioritise which coins to conserve. So far so good, and congrats on the lovely finds.


According to this rumour, someone in an official position is demanding that they throw away the coins they choose not to conserve. Because there is no place in this person's administrative framework for unconserved finds from a contract excavation.

Is this true!? Who is this person?

If this is true, then it beats my heretofore favourite example of administrative stupidity in archaeology, from the 1990s highway project in Möre. There were two little hills in the way of land development. Evaluation identified a poorly preserved Mesolithic settlement on Hill A and Bronze Age fossil fields on Hill B. "Scientific agendas" were drawn up accordingly for each site. During full excavations, a much better-preserved Mesolithic settlement was discovered under the fossil fields. But since the scientific agenda for Hill B was about Bronze Age fossil fields, nobody was allowed to dig the Mesolithic remains there.

I'll update this entry as information reaches me.

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Since there is a market for such coins, after you have sufficient examples of a coin at hand, why not sell the rest to private collectors, and help to finance the research? Once the museums have their specimens the private collector will likley ensure that the rest are properly cared for (if worth enough)

Why not? Because these early coins aren't standardised the way modern ones are. All are unique and thus represent an important information potential.

Rule number one in the Swedish archaeological bureaucracy ; If it sounds really stupid - then it's probably true

A more fundamental question is how much of this does society choose to buy versus other goods. The idea of conserving all leads to an ever expanding group of folks studying the issue, which IMHO is unsustainable. Just like more telescopes being build lead to more degrees in astronomy and a desire for more research posts in astronomy.

This is the fundamental problem IMHO with the research enterprise every research professor has far to many grad students in a career, ideally only 2 or 3 for a career.

No, there is no mechanism that leads from more finds in museum stores to more archaeology PhDs. That said, we do have a global glut of people like me. But it's down to other causes.

I'm going to ask a really stupid question. Probably a few.

Do museums not have somewhere that they can store unconserved finds, pending some future magical day when some money might become available to conserve them? Or do magical days just never happen? Or is storing unconserved finds not a good thing to do? If colleagues literally have to throw away unconserved finds, where are they supposed to throw them? My presumption is that maybe they would not do that, they would hold onto them in the hope that sometime they might be able to have them conserved - or would that be illegal, or bad or something?

Are there amateur conservators who like to dabble? Like, some Chemistry major or someone who might have relevant skills.

By John Massey (not verified) on 29 Aug 2016 #permalink

Museums try to avoid keeping unconserved objects. In Swedish contract archaeology, this has long been seen to through the principle that museums won't accept unconserved finds. But it's a huge difference in the decomposition rate of a piece of wet woolen fabric and a silver coin, even if both are from 1250.

I don't know what the protocol is when contract archaeology units throw away e.g. Early Modern carpentry nails and Early Iron Age wall daub.

I just had the random thought that if they threw away some mediaeval coins into a ploughed field somewhere, and then some archaeologist with a metal detecting licence finds them again, it could be really confusing and unhelpful wrt provenance.

Not to mention the tragic waste, of course. Actually, I can't imagine anyone actually throwing away a silver coin. I would need some convincing that anyone actually does that.

I don't really understand the logic of discouraging metal detectors because they don't want night hawks out there finding and squirrelling away potentially valuable finds, but then telling archaeologists to chuck away mediaeval coins because there is not enough money to conserve them. But then, maybe I'm not meant to understand the logic. Or because there isn't any.

By John Massey (not verified) on 29 Aug 2016 #permalink

It's odd - I always have this image, and always have had this image, ever since I got to know my first Swedish person (who was of no great status in terms of education - he was a whaler, in the days when Western Australia still had a whaling industry, but he was the most logical and rational of people), of Sweden being a progressive and exactingly logical, rational country. This seems so out of character. I'm confused.

By John Massey (not verified) on 29 Aug 2016 #permalink

Roman coins are common finds in Scandinavia, but when very rarely we find Greek ones from before AD 1 it's usually in or near towns where Early Modern scholars may have collected and lost them.

"I always have this image, and always have had this image, ever since I got to know my first Swedish person (who was of no great status in terms of education – he was a whaler, in the days when Western Australia still had a whaling industry, but he was the most logical and rational of people), of Sweden being a progressive and exactingly logical, rational country"

It used to be. The "change" in Sweden is well documented in the truly excellent book Fishing in Utopia. Read it.

By Phillip Helbig (not verified) on 29 Aug 2016 #permalink