Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Surviving the chase

Once I heard about a collector who didn't care what he had to pay for a coin, and cared even less what he could eventually sell his collection for.  I have yet to meet him, but he probably does exist—somewhere.  More typically, collectors envision their accumulations as having some value above and beyond the ethereal benefit that comes from personal satisfaction.  But is that really true?  Do we stand a chance, financially, of surviving the chase?  Most of us don't think about that too much, perhaps as a defense mechanism to ward off anxiety attacks.  But really, is it likely that our coins will be worth something someday? 

That is a fair question and it deserves an honest answer.  Beginning collectors, by nature, tend to lack the sophistication to collect in a way that will maximize their chances of a good return on their investment.  Many will be inclined to accumulate a menagerie of inexpensive coins which seem an incredible bargain in comparison to modern issues.  Coins like this, which exist in the hundreds of thousands or more, are undeniably worth the price that they bring on today's market.  But, will they be worth more tomorrow?  My guess is that they will, but only marginally.  It is unlikely that a collector who buys a “Heinz” variety of common ancient coins today will be able to resell them anytime in the near future at a profit.  As one might expect, the coins that traditionally appreciate most in value are also the most actively sought and competed for in the market. This can be an intimidating environment for fledgling collectors and not everyone is comfortable with it in their formative years.  Those who have the financial resources may choose to buy high grade and rare coins right from the start, but they should find a reputable advisor before jumping into the fray.  For those who simply want to enjoy collecting and do not have the budget to delve into rare and expensive issues, all is not lost.

There are many areas of ancient coin collecting that are neglected by mainstream collectors.  Sometimes, these coins can yield good returns, as well as important expertise, to the collector who bothers to learn about them and to collect them with persistence and purpose.  In coin collecting, like many other pursuits in life, knowledge is power.  And, for those who haven't yet figured it out, power = wealth.  The best way to turn an inexpensive collection into something of value is to stock it with interesting coins that others have failed to appreciate.  And, in the process, a serious collector expands the corpus of our knowledge about the past.  So, what are these coins?  They can be found in almost any series, but I will mention just a few here to give you an idea of what I am suggesting and then you can figure out for yourself what kinds of coins might suit your taste, budget, and inclination.  Those coins that seem to be found everywhere you look can sometimes hold potential for appreciation, simply because they are so cheap to begin with.  What happens when a huge hoard of one type appears is that the market immediately becomes depressed for those issues.    Nevermind that there are many rare specimens passing at generic coin prices, the entire market for a given series can suffer from the saturation caused by large hoards.  The savvy collector will see this as an opportunity to obtain rarities at common coin prices.  But, to do this, one needs to learn the series.

Market saturation most often comes from the discovery of large hoards—these are generally limited today to the types of coins found outside the Mediterranean basin,  where reasonable export laws allow international trade.  Keep in mind that hoards come and go.  A few years from now, something else will be common and the coins we see today may well be obscure.  We are seeing a rather unusual opportunity in the market today, as there are many more ancient coins available than there are collectors for them.
 The Seaton Down Hoard of 22,000 coins is one example of hoards found in Britain 
that could potentially end up in the ancient coin trade. (BBC photo)

So, rather than chase the high profile coins that everyone will bid dearly for, why not collect the coins that no one pays any attention to?  They are inexpensive, and often they are rare—but  at the moment few seem to care.  In the nearly 50 years that I have been collecting and selling ancient coins, there have been a great many changes in the market.  What is hot today is not tomorrow, and vice-versa. 

Another source of market saturation is the liquidation of very large old collections.  The Edoardo Levante collection is a prime example, but only one of many in the past few decades.  The added value of a distinguished provenance is increasingly attractive these days.  The key is to purchase during the rush to sell because these coins typically increase in value more quickly than hoard coins.

Over time, collections that are assembled with forethought and consistency will outperform those accumulated randomly, regardless of the series that they represent.  It can be smart to collect coins that others ignore.  Twenty years ago, Turkoman coins were so poorly understood that they were practically unsaleable.  Today, the market for these coins is stronger than ever in their history.  Nice Roman Provincial coins that were cheap in the 1970s and 80s, when the market was hot for Roman Imperial coins, are more highly regarded in todays market.  Meanwhile, the sestertii that were darlings of that era are much less in favor these days.  Today, there is international interest in Islamic coins that were looked upon with disdain by many collectors in previous generations. 

It is this writer's opinion that the way to survive the chase is to collect with a purpose and not be afraid to be a bit contrarian.  Regardless of your interest or budget, it is better to collect intensely within a managable area than to attempt an accumulation of many diverse and unassociated items.  A collector should not think in terms of years, but in decades.  It is very difficult to assemble a meaningful collection in a few years.  Choose your path carefully and plan to spend a good share of your collecting life following it.  If you do, and if you mature as a collector along the way, it is likely that your collection will indeed be worth something to someone when your time with it has come to an end.  And, as a bonus, it will bring you a lot more enjoyment in the meantime.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Did the Ancients believe the Earth was round?

A debate over whether the ancients knew the world is round has been simmering for centuries, and still pops up now and then.  In the February 1998 issue of The Celator, Michael Marotta presented a well thought out argument for the affirmative ("Ancient coins show they knew it was round"). Examining the literature and numismatic evidence, he concluded that the ancients did indeed know the world is round and that the globes depicted on ancient coins (both Greek and Roman) are sometimes a representation of the Earth.  Evidence and interpretations in these sorts of debates may continue to surface long after the initial discussion has run its course and this subject is no exception.  Crates of Mallus was extremely famous in antiquity, as a polymath grammarian and Stoic philosopher, and is no stranger to scholars of today.  Nonetheless, since his work is seldom mentioned in the field of numismatics we can assume that some numismatists might not be aware of his astounding hypothesis.

The Greeks, always seeking a sense of symmetry were ill at ease with the calculations of Eratosthenes (275-194 BC) who postulated the size of the terrestrial globe.  His theoretical size was much too big for the known size of the inhabited world that they knew .  In fact, the oecumene occupied only one-fourth of the theoretical size of the earth.  Crates solved the problem by anticipating the existence of three other continents, separated by water, which formed a balance and an acceptable harmony.  It was recognized by Crates that this could be represented accurately only in the form of a globe.  His theory was so highly respected that the Attalid King Eumenes II commissioned him to construct a 10 foot diameter globe at the library of Pergamum in 180 BC.
Actually, Crates credited this spherical earth theory to Homer.  He believed that Homer's writing was based on actual events and scientific facts rather than fanciful and poetic myth.  Crates went on to Rome, where he taught philosophy and literary criticism to the noble and wealthy.  Suetonius spoke highly of him, which would suggest that his views were not alien to the Romans.

The Globe of Crates
The Globe of Crates (Wikipedia)

The famous Roman geographer Strabo (63 BC - AD 21) wrote: “Whoever would represent the real earth as near as possible by artificial means, should make a sphere like that of Crates, and upon this draw the quadrilateral within which his chart of geography is to be placed.”  He went on to describe how the lines should intersect at  90 degrees and how such a globe should be constructed. 
This intersection of lines, or quadrants may well account for the intersecting lines seen on some globes on coins from the Flavian and Antonine periods.  These lines have been traditionally thought of as an equinoctal cross (see: Michael Molnar, “Symbolism of the Sphere”, The Celator, June 1998) and probably are in some cases.  However, given the widespread acceptance of Crates' theory, it is not at all unlikely that representations of the earth could or should appear on coins along with stars and intersecting lines of quadrilateral division.  The appearance of stars on or near a globe has often been cited as a celestial depiction with the globe representing the heavens.  It can just as easily be seen as Earth in its natural setting among the stars.

Sestertius of Antoninus Pius with Italia seated on Globe with intersecting lines (CNG photo)

Another Roman coin type of the Antonine era that suggests the belief in Earth as a globe is the remarkable bronze medallion of Commodus with Tellus, the personification of Mother Earth, resting her hand on a globe adorned by a procession of the four seasons.

 Tellus and globe on the reverse of a medallion of Commodus (CNG photo)

The theory of land masses on opposite sides of the globe was not lost over time.  Some of us today may remember that our grammar school lessons included study of the "Dark Ages" when people supposedly thought the world was flat.  This, unfortunately was a distortion of the facts.  The uneducated and ignorant masses of that time, steeped in the lore and fear of alchemy and magic, may have believed so, but mariners who trusted their lives to the sea understood well the principles of a spherical earth.  So too did the cartographers who recorded the journeys of these intrepid mariners and encouraged the Age of Exploration that led to several hundred years of discovery, mapping and colonization.

It is probable that Columbus knew precisely where he was headed in 1492, the only questions were how far was it, how long would it take to get there, and what would he find when he arrived?

Monday, February 09, 2015

Truth is still important

My post of last week provoked a response that deserves some attention.  A Punk Archaeologist @adreinhard posted on Twitter three Facebook profile photos of me with bold captioned "quotes":

1. "The AIA taps your phones to find out where your archaeology is hid"
2. "The AIA uses drones to pursue its agenda of world domination"
3. " The 'I' in AIA is for 'Illuminati' "

In another place my blog post was referenced as "AIA Is Isis".

I hesitate to post those images here because someone will surely claim that I endorsed them. 

When I tried to "Follow" the Twitter account above and explain my views in more detail, I was met by a message saying that my access was blocked by the account holder.

I have become inurred to sarcasm and ridicule through many years of being an archaeoblogger target. Consequently, I don't really feel too offended by this spoof which would be relatively harmless if not for the fact that some readers might take those words as being my own.  They were not and are not.

My blog was not remotely a suggestion that AIA has any connection to the Islamic State or that the AIA condones any of their actions, or is spying on the American public.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  AIA is as actively opposed to IS as they are to private collecting.   This perversion of what I said is so typical that it really should not require a response—but the facts are too important to ignore.  In my view, IS and AIA do have some things in common—things that I find objectionable.  While IS was ransacking the library in Mosul, the AIA was acting to repress any public sale of archaeological objects by its members.  Both acts, based on ideology, can be viewed as denying information about the past to the general public.  In the long history of antiquarian studies, libraries and independent scholars—including hundreds of notable private collectors—have played a significant role.  The accumulation of private collections has greatly enriched our knowledge of the past and in many cases has become the cornerstone of public institutions today.  The repression of private collecting, now an openly stated objective of the AIA, is in my eyes not much different than the ransacking of a library.  That does not turn AIA into IS by any means, but AIA deplores the loss on one hand and espouses it on the other. 

Control of the past is an ambition that IS and AIA share, not for the same reasons but certainly as a matter of ideology.  Where the Islamic State is theologically committed to erradication of non-Islamic history, the AIA is committed to erradication of private collecting and independent scholarship in fields of interest to their profession.  Both cases are examples of protectionism for an ideological position.  That does not turn AIA into IS, but they may be seen as "birds of a feather" in that sense.  The notion that AIA leadership today has little room for opposing views has been bolstered repeatedly and I don't think I am wrong to point that out. 

Is the AIA a scourge?  The profession certainly is not and the organization itself is certainly not.  What is a scourge is the attitude and ideology the permeates AIA leadership to the detriment not only of the general public but of its own members.  Would we consider Islam a scourge? Not at all.  Many of the world's greatest accomplishments were born under Islamic influence and leadership.  The West would have much less information today about the Classical World if not for those 10th century Islamic scholars of the Jazira and their enlightment of Europe.  The attitudes and ideology of IS today do not reflect the whole of Islam any more than the attitudes and ideology of AIA leadership reflect the whole of Archeology.

In the blogosphere, it's "fair enough" to say what you think.  But truth is still important and there comes a dividing line between opinion and fact.  The fact is that the words pasted over top of my photo in the citation above are not mine and do not reflect the concerns that I have about Archaeology today. 

Having said that, I finally have had enough of the rancor and literal hatred that permeates the cultural property war online.  I have tried every possible approach from entreaty to debate and cooperation to litigation.  In the process, I've gotten older and more cynical but obviously not wiser.   Long ago I should have ignored the archaeobloggers and trolls.  Instead, I fell victim to them—wasting valuable time over pointless tit-for-tat, time than cannot be replaced.  If I were the emperor, I would banish them all to Pandateria.   But, I am not and this is not an internet war game.   This is the last post that I will make with any mention of cultural property issues.  I am removing all previous posts and starting a new day.  The only posts on this blog henceforth will be about ancient coins themselves.  My advocacy for private ownership and collecting of ancient coins has not abated, but my willingness to argue the case in this climate has.  Everyone knows how I feel and that will not change—this blog will. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Analysis: one of the joys of ancient coin collecting

Mardin, Najm al-Din Alpi
AD 1152-1176 (AH 547-572)
Gemini / Virgo and Mercury

Did you ever look at the image on an ancient coin and wonder, why did they choose this particular image? If the coin happens to bear the portrait of a king or emperor, the answer may seem obvious. But what about the iconography of the reverse? Does the coin promote some political program, or record some historical event? Perhaps it pays hommage to a deity, or alludes to a social value. The possibilities are virtually endless, and they range from the patently obvious to the incredibly obscure.

The figural bronze coins struck in Mesopotamia during the 12th and 13th centuries are exceptional for many reasons, but foremost because they are unlike anything evenly remotely contemporary. Islamic coins struck prior to the advent of Turkish hegemony in the Jazira (Arabic for "land between the rivers") were devoid of images—primarily due to a perceived Koranic prohibition. Why should we suddenly find not only images, but bold sculptural renderings of classical designs and themes on Islamic Turkish coins? This question haunted numismatists for over two hundred years before its secrets were exposed through a comprehensive analysis of the figures on those coins.

The first step in analyzing an image is of course to identify its components. For purposes of illustration, let's examine a coin motif that I first wrote about some ten years ago in Turkoman Figural Bronze Coins and Their Iconography. The coin is a bronze dirham (34mm) of the prince Najm al-Din Alpi, who ruled Mardin from AD 1152 to 1176. Alpi was not a great historical figure, and he would be little remembered today were it not for the fascinating series of coins that bore his and his cousins' names.

The undated issue catalogued as S/S 28 bears on its obverse a depiction of two diademed male busts in profile, facing each other. On the reverse, a nimbate female figure stands, facing, crowning a male figure. The prototypes for this imagery are easily recognizable to modern collectors of ancient coins as numismatic. In other words, the die engravers of Alpi's time were inspired to use the images they saw on ancient coins which they obviously had in their possession. Specifically, the obverse type recalls Seleucid prototypes and the reverse is a nearly exact replication of the reverse of some earlier Romaion (Byzantine) imperial coins.

Having identified what the images represented in antiquity, we are still left to ponder what meaning they had in the 12th and 13th century Jazira. We know what designs the artist chose, and where they originated, but what did they mean? Celators seldom produce singular works. That is, they tend to develop themes and to think in iconographic programs. If we are to understand what the images on Alpi's coin mean, we will be helped by expanding the window of observation. In the case of Turkoman coins, this is easily done because the dynasties were fairly shortlived. The entire episode of figural bronze coins lasted little more than 200 years. Looking at a catalogue of the coins, one is struck immediately by the apperance of several unmistakable images from the astrological world. In fact, the elements of an iconographic program become more and more obvious as one examines the entire series from an astrological view.

Are there astrological parallels in the images on this type? Again, ancient coin collectors will recall that the Dioscuri (Gemini) were often represented by the Greeks and Romans precisely in the manner shown here. If Alpi's die engravers did actually intend to represent the Gemini, what then did they intend on the reverse? The scene, which clearly is copied from Romaion coins, illustrates the Virgin crowning an emperor. This was a common theme, through which the emperor bolstered his perceived legitimacy. It should be remembered that the virgin was also an important element of the zodiac. Not, of course, the same virgin as that of the Romaioi—but certainly not beyond metaphorical comparison. And, who is the male figure being crowned? A little investigation into the precepts of astrology reveals that Mercury is "exalted", or at his height of power, while in the constellation Virgo. In the astrological system of planetary domiciles, Virgo is the night house of Mercury. And who is Mercury's day house? You guessed it—Gemini. Well, now we know what the images are, where they came from and what they meant. But why would the mintmaster of a Turkish Emir choose such remarkable western images? Perhaps the mintmaster was not a Turk at all. In fact, the historical record tells us that locally educated Nestorian Christians were used by Turkish rulers to administer their financial affairs. This opens an entire new world of enquiry, and from the image on a single coin we can find ourselves exploring the whole social fabric of a people. Who said Art History is boring?

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Tips for Buyers of Ancient Coins

Some ACCG members have asked what they can do to assure that the purchases they make are legal.  One might theoretically ask the same question about many objects or substances that are traded domestically and internationally.  The ACCG web site offers a few common sense precautions and general observations that all collectors might keep in mind.
A basic precept of criminal law is that "the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind be also guilty."  This principle is called mens rea.  It simply means that an element of intent is necessary for guilt to be assigned.   Within fields related to art and cultural property, the responsibility of a buyer in this regard is often referred to as "due diligence".  A buyer should have a reasonable expectation that title is clear and transferable before purchasing something that may be controlled by law or administrative rule and should exercise a normal degree of caution in coming to that conclusion.  Of course, "reasonable" and "normal" are subjective terms that can and are debated endlessly.
The legitimate market for ancient coins operates worldwide, even in some countries (like Italy) from which import of certain types of ancient coins into the United States is restricted.  In some countries, like Israel, export permits are issued to registered dealers.  In other countries, coins above a specified monetary value require export permits.  Buyers from established dealers in the traditional market can reasonably expect that their purchases are offered with good and transferable title.  But, it never hurts before making a purchase to ask whether a coin has been (or is being) legally imported into the United States.  The seller of a coin already in the United States may not know when or where a particular coin was imported, and is not required to know.  But the seller should be willing to state in writing that he or she has clear title to the object being sold.  This statement is obviously a "best knowledge and belief" statement because ancient coins do not come with a title like an automobile.
Here are a few very simple precautions that a buyer might take:
  • Only buy from reputable sources that will guarantee title for your purchases. 
  • Always ask for an invoice for your purchase, which should be retained along with any collecting history you have for your coins.
  • For purchases directly from abroad, make sure the sender properly declares the country of manufacture of the coin and its value.
  • For coins subject to import restrictions directly purchased from abroad,  ship separately from other coins and make sure they are accompanied with certifications attesting to the fact that they were out of the country for which restrictions were granted before the date of the restrictions.
 The prospect of seizure of coins from law abiding rank and file collectors is remote and is not a cause for undue concern.  This does not, however, absolve collectors from doing their part to discourage the illicit transfer of cultural property.   The ACCG is chartered to defend the legitimate hobby of ancient coin collecting and calls on all of its members, collectors and dealers alike, to exercise due diligence as buyers of cultural property.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Roman Dodecahedron

An article in Fox News recently asked for reader opinions on the purpose of an unusual artifact that is found in widely dispersed areas and has apparently stumped scholars for centuries.  Here's my guess as to its purpose:

This is a game piece similar to rolling dice.  A round ball, slightly smaller than the largest hole in the dodecahedron, is dropped through the largest hole into the center of the ball.  The dodecahedron is then rolled, like a die, and comes to rest on one of its twelve sides - held slightly above the playing surface by its projectile points.  If the ball drops out of the hole that comes to rest on the bottom, the player gets a point.  There can be more than one hole large enough to pass the ball.  The more large holes the dodecahedron has, the easier it is to score.   For example three large holes offer more chances to score a point than one large hole (3:12 vs. 1:12).  Therefore, the dodecahedron can be manufactured in different degrees of difficulty that changes the chance of success from easy to hard.   One can imagine playing to a total of ten, twenty or more points depending on the number of players and the amount of time at hand.  This game is highly portable, culturally anonymous, educationally unbiased and can be played by people who cannot even speak each others' language.  The winning prize is limited only by one's imagination.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Dancing with the Universe

With kind permission of John Hooker

I'm sure that most are quite familiar with the infamous Wanborough Hoard of Atrebates coins. As the link here describes, it was a badly mishandled discovery which became a major impetus for the new Treasure Act to replace the old treasure trove laws. Pretty well every account of the hoard focuses only on the circumstances: a "packet" of the total was discovered; It was reported to a museum; At the inquest, the location was revealed in open court; There was an immediate "gold rush" of metal detectorists which wrecked a lot of the site; The police were called in and recovered some of the coins, but many thousands more entered the international market.

Apart from that, the best account of the hoard details are recorded in Colin Haselgrove, Iron Age Coinage in South-East England -- The Archaeological Context_, 2 Volumes, British Archaeological Reports, British Series 184, Oxford, 1987, a brilliant work that, ironically, seems to have been read by very few archaeologists who constantly talk about looting and the importance of context for everything. If you happen to be one of those archaeologists, it's probably best to preserve your ignorance because it paints a picture rather different from your Weltenshauung! It is also not an "easy read": heavy in data, I found it most useful to read it three times, cover-to-cover and in quick succession.

So much for the background, now on to the postmodernist bit:

Back in 1963-6, I was already very interested in British Celtic coins, "ancient British" as they were commonly called back then. I used to visit Seaby's in Great Portland St. on a regular basis. Often, I would ask if they had any ancient British coins. Most often, the answer was "No", but sometimes they would have a British tin coin, common Iceni unit or a cast AE Durotriges stater that I could afford. On a rare occasion, a gold stater that I could not afford. Once, I bought a corroded Coriosolite stater, which changed the direction of my life.

The commonest Wanborough coin was the silver unit of Epatticus, difficult to find back in the sixties. I think I recall that one would cost a few hundred pounds back then, but my 1976 Seaby's catalogue lists them at 150 pounds. The metal detector was already being used by 1976, but not by many -- still, I think it had had already started to reduce prices a little. The Wanborough hoard changed all that. I bought some of the Wanborough coins in Calgary (of course, not advertised as such) within a couple of years of the discovery. The price of that Epatticus was then about a hundred dollars for a mint-state example, with rough ones going for about half that. They are much more expensive now, probably mostly around the 1976 price again. Of course, inflation must come into play.

In 1966, I was earning the princely sum of seven pounds, ten shillings a week at a prestigious West End antique shop (Pearl Cross, St. Martin's Court) as the shop's young "gopher". I had been offered the job not long after I left school. I got home, one day, from my first job at Southend Airport at the age of fifteen and my mother told me that a man had phoned to ask if I would be interested in working for him in London at an antique shop. I had never met him, and was unfamiliar with the shop, although I had visited a couple of shops in the adjacent Cecil Court. Someone must have told them about me, but no one in Cecil Court had my address, so it was quite the mystery. I got the job at once, and when my father dragged me off to live in western Canada in 1966 I got the most glowing letter of reference from my former employer. Useless, though, because I was too young to be "bonded" at a jewelry store here at the time (jewelry, silver and clocks was -- and still is, Pearl Cross's specialty)

My time at Pearl Cross was life-forming. I got to meet some of London's greatest craftsmen, and often got to see them work. Being the "gopher", I was always dismantling clocks and taking them and other things to various restorers, metal-smiths, enamelers, platers, and so on. They all liked me because I was visibly impressed with their skills. I also worked in the shop and its customers were unlike anyone I had ever known. One of the best customers was Marius Goring, They told me he lived at Hampton Court and was acquainted with Her Majesty. He always wore a duffle coat and scuffed brown shoes, and drove an old Humber. The only clues to his eminence were his five carat diamond ring and his hand-made Havana cigars. There was Princess Marina, who always made a grand entrance -- all furs and diamonds, and of course, all manner of theatre people like some of the cast of Lionel Bart's Oliver! which was playing at the New Theatre across the court. I used to often buy books at Marks & Co. around the corner, and I like to think that, once in a while, while I was browsing in the shop, Frank Doel was in the back corresponding with Helene Hanff in New York City.

My first experience with "provenance" came when, as part of my apprenticeship, I was taken on a buying trip one evening to a house in North London. The lady of the house wanted to sell some of her husband's effects just after his death. He had known the Emperor of Japan and once, when walking with the Emperor in his garden, had picked up a pebble from the path as a souvenir. The Emperor told him that he was not allowed to do such a thing and took it from him. Just before the man left Japan, the Emperor presented him with a silver dish, duly inscribed as a gift from the Emperor. At the centre of the dish was set that same pebble! The lady insisted that we should have the engraving removed before we sold it. The dish never found its way into stock. I suspect that my boss took it home with him.

Life became quite different for me than it had been when I was a young street-urchin living in Palace Gates Road in Wood Green. There was little history in that part of London. My friends and I had a little "gang" and our entertainment was distinctly on the wrong side of the law -- but not oppressively so, like some of the older guys.

Once, at the age of twelve, I was walking through Alexandra Park with my girlfriend, Diana, when we encountered about half of the Muswell Hill Mob. I was rather concerned about this. I knew that I might have to "defend Diana's honour" and that could end up very bad for me! Fortunately, they were surprisingly civil, chatting with us for a while before waving goodbye and heading off to do whatever evil they had planned for the day.

I was what is now called a "gifted child", but back then -- according to one headmaster as he dragged me from my class, cane in hand, a "lazy bastard". I had learned to read at the age of three and was devouring teen novels by four. At seven, it was Robert Louis Stevenson, a bit of Dickens, and my favorite of all: Jack London, who lives in my soul to this day. At school, I excelled in what interested me and ignored everything else. Think of a scaled-down version of "Good Will Hunting". I despised mediocrity, it was either all or nothing. I didn't like the "good kids", they got tolerably good marks in everything, were teacher's pets, spouted things like trained parrots, and undoubtedly left school for well-paid, pedestrian jobs. Worse still, some of them probably became academics of the gray majority -- builders of the boxes that I like to think outside of (note the sentence construction -- I also love to start sentences with "And" and "But").

But what of these boxes of which I speak? Where is Derrida when we need him (Do we ever need Derrida?) Once, at the age of eleven, I was walking with a friend back along the railway cutting that ran from the abandoned railway station behind Alexandra Palace. We had been wandering about Highgate Wood generally doing nothing. In the railway ballast left after the tracks had been removed, we found a few fossils and took them with us. As we entered Wood Green we saw a man working on his racing motorcycle and stopped to admire the bike and chat a bit. In the course of the conversation, I showed him the fossils and asked him if he knew anything about such things. He didn't, but then he said something that changed my life from that moment on. He said, "Everything that you would want to know is in a book somewhere". Of course, the son of a bitch had lied to me, but at that time, and until much later, I didn't know that.

Books were entertainment, a refuge from drab Wood Green, the sound of dripping taps, and the clink of tea cups in boring relative's living rooms as the clock measured time oh! so slowly -- tick, tick, tick. I met him again after that summer, at my new school. He was my arithmetic teacher! Of course, arithmetic was boring too, so I ignored it. Many decades later, I met my wife. She was also a teacher, and I saw her inspire kids in just the same way (We do need these sort of people).

And so, I bid farewell to Jack London and resumed my studies in the non-fiction section of the library. These studies had been abandoned at the age of four when I was forced to go to school -- what cruelty that was! I never forgave my parents. I had been very busy mentally cataloging the insect life in my back garden, but there was something else there too -- the detritus of human existence, bits of broken pottery in the earth that I had disturbed to see what the ants would do. I read it all, correctly. Now, I would call it a natural "vanitas". I saw our existence as temporary, we could so easily be forgotten and most of us will be forgotten. I asked my mother, "When I die, who will my next mother be?" She freaked.

In London, back in the sixties, and after I left the prison called School, the class system was rather different than it is now -- there was a sort of "noblesse oblige" that does not exist much today. Regardless of your original social station in life, if you had that that certain spark -- a passion, if you will, it was recognized by those at the opposite end of your social and educational spectrum who shared the same passion, and nurtured.

I walked into "Pearl Cross" one morning. Everything about the shop was much as I had left it the previous day that I had been there. Keith greeted me at the door, he was my immediate superior. The boss was not around. "We were just talking about you last week", he said. It was 1999 and I had last walked out of that shop more than thirty years earlier. I was sorry that Dennis Strange -- my old boss, was not around. He was still alive, though, and came in twice a week. I returned to visit him. He looked just like his father had looked back when. White haired, he was a picture of bliss: someone who had spent his whole life doing what he loved. It was a terrific reunion, but then some gray people came in to measure the place -- his 99 year lease was about to run out. It had been in his family all of that time.

I said a fond goodbye and left to meet Joe for lunch. Joe Gillespie is an ex web guru and designer. A couple of years earlier, he had joined myself and my family for a holiday at the Sylvia Hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was impressed by that city, its architecture and its polite and helpful people.  "London is not like this anymore", he had lamented at the time. Joe's first customer in London, as a photographer and advertising designer many years earlier, was Camilla Parker Bowles who, at that time, owned a boutique in Chelsea. Joe is an unassuming and soft-spoken gray-haired man who came from a very poor background in Northern Ireland. His subsequent fame and fortune had never ruined him -- the most delightful person you would wish to meet and a mentor to many young web designers. I think he has finally retired completely, but in 1999, he just retained his two favorite clients, for whom he created their product CD's: Sony and Canon. He said he loved to work with the Japanese, their word was their bond, and he never needed a legal contract with them. They paid him handsomely, and his bag contained a couple of their products he was given for his work - as yet not released.

After lunch, I dragged him off to Spinks as I had brought a little Langyao bottle-vase of rare form that I thought I might need to sell. I was patient with the woman at Spinks. At first, she did not recognize it entirely. Its crackle was subtler than most you see about, and it did not have the celadon base of the inferior varieties, but one of fine white glaze with just a couple of little "pin-holes" deliberate, so that it would not be perfect. It was liver-shaped with a carefully trimmed foot rim, unctuous to the touch. It had the smallest layer of white at the top. It was Imperial ware -- and of course, because of its blood and liver connotations, did not have the Emperor's mark. Spinks only wanted to pay me 800 pounds for it, so we left. I still have it, and it, or the money it gets will go to my daughter.

Joe had been sitting, bolt upright and silent, in a chair near the door of that department all this time. As we left the building, he gave this huge sigh of relief. "I was too afraid to open my mouth!" he said. "Why?" I asked. "I didn't want her to hear my accent", he replied. I was shocked -- this famous and talented man was intimidated by his imagined class. I apologized to him, saying that it was not my intention to make him so uncomfortable and had no idea that this would happen. We went to the closest pub!

A few days later, I was back in Oxford, where I had been staying in order to inform the Institute of Archaeology that I would design and my wife would build an on-line Celtic Coin Index. I was walking down a narrow street, behind a professor who was wearing robes and seemed in a hurry to get somewhere. An Indian or Pakistani woman was walking fairly slowly in front of us with a toddler in tow. I heard the professor say "Get out of my way, woman!" I was shocked at this, and before I could think of something particularly nasty to say to him, he was gone. I understood why Joe had reacted the way he did.

So why all of this in an article about the Wanborough hoard? If one takes a good postmodernist approach it is all very important. What I see through my eyes is not what is, neither is what you see through your eyes. Our observations are as much ourselves as what we observe. It is a dance where we lead and the universe follows. Sometimes, a number of us get together within a temporary, and carefully constructed matrix and we build ourselves a box to contain what we create, together. If we are not vigilant, that box starts to look like reality, and it captures us. We lose our freedom and what is just a box can seem like the whole universe. We can see other boxes, though, but from within our box they look just like other boxes. Snug, smug and secure within our own box we think that we are looking out from reality, and that the contents of all of those other boxes contain things that are not reality.

What is the universe's response to this? It forgets us, because we can no longer dance with it -- we are stuck in a box! Frustrated, by this, the universe then does its best to dance with all of the boxes together. It finds this quite difficult to do and often has to eliminate a few boxes who can't keep step with the rest. But at best, it is a clumsy dance full of trial and error. We call this evolution. Those of us who are vigilant quickly step outside of our box and say "I am here!" and the universe either starts to dance with us or at least marks us down on its dance card for later.

So what becomes of those people who still think that their own box is the entire universe? They die, turn to dust, and are forgotten. What they created for themselves starts to fragment, and eventually becomes little potsherds in a boy's back garden in Palace Gates Road, Wood Green. The boy is more interested in the insects that crawl over them. The insects contain life. One day, and to his horror, his parents place him in box called School, and if he does not get out of that box in time it will capture him and he too, will be forgotten. When he escapes from his box, he plants a tree, raises a child, and writes a book. Problem solved? Well, not exactly.

The universe, with gratitude, accepts the gift of the tree and they contribute to each other. The child is also similarly favored, providing that her father has not tried to make her just part of his box that he has just left. She too, must dance with the universe in her own way, being wary of others who might place her in a box later.  That danger is ever present and might manifest itself anywhere -- in the form, perhaps, of an Oxford professor in hurry to attend a ceremony in his own box. If she is lucky, she will encounter someone who has rejected the box that others have placed them inside and thus step out into the sunshine nurtured by someone like a teacher fixing his bike on the street, or Joe, taking a fledgling designer under his wing and allowing them to learn while being themselves. All of these nurturers are agents of the universe, and they are dancing too.

The orchestra takes a break, and the universe returns to her table and reaches for the book, or perhaps views a painting, or listens to someone's idea. There are so many things that she does when the music pauses. If she sees that the book, painting or idea is original, this pleases her, and she emits something we do not understand, but it gives our bodies' brain certain chemicals that makes us feel wonderful and endorphins that ease our physical pain and exhaustion from all of the creating we have been doing. However, if she finds no originality and discovers that it is just another expression of an old and tired out box that someone else had created a long time ago, then it, too, gets trashed and turns to dust. Even if it survives, say, as a book in a library somewhere, no one ever opens it covers and looks inside. Even if the book's original idea becomes commonplace, people still will look at again to see where they have come from and its author achieves a sort of immortality within the universe. The spirit of Plato, Mozart, Darwin, Cezanne and Einstein will last as long as humans walk the earth. They have become part of the universe too.

But what of those people who, having stepped outside of their box turn their own creation into another box and then retreat back inside where they feel it must be comfortable? The universe, slowly, starts to turn off the taps of those lovely chemicals until the flow stops. They must then make their own chemicals, with drugs, alcohol or other worldly pleasures of some form -- even apathy can become a pleasure. The problem is it does less and less and demands more and more and it becomes a very strong box indeed, one that the universe will cast aside with a casual sweep of her hand.

Let's look inside one of the boxes marked "Wanborough Hoard", the very box I gave a link to at the start of this article. Why this one among all of the other boxes marked "Wanborough Hoard"? Because its author, Suzie Thomas is still very much alive within her box and she might break free of it at anytime. She sees a few things that others have not, but she has not quite lost all of her shackles yet.

The universe reads "commodification" and giggles -- that is the door to this box! The universe also smiles kindly at the touches of humanity, at least some people are not being cast aside.

What did the Wanborough situation create? New laws to prevent the same thing happening again? Sure, but that is just box building again. A box stays built the way it is, you can tell this easily -- it doesn't change, or it becomes more so and even more solid. The universe only rewards creativity. There has to be newness in the isness or its entropy for all!

The paper posits a stone that has been tossed into a pond but has made no ripples, or at best, has ripples that travel only a short distance and then stops! Come on Suzie, get that brain working! This is not how the universe works. If you really want that sort of thing, it can only take place within a box obeying very different rules to those that the universe is operating with.  Yes, you can do that, but once you take it outside the box it loses corporeality. Inside the box, it has substance, but remember what the universe does with boxes that lose step and get confused by the rhythm. You really don't want to do that. The universe and Bob Dylan are both saying "That he not busy being born is busy dying"

So where did those ripples really go -- you know they are still traveling, right? The universe is a very big pond indeed.

The Wanborough hoard, at least the parts of it that got away, went around the world and worked their magic. People started buying metal detectors to find even more, and what do you know? They did! The little coins inspired me and many more, Some of us started to collect and write about them. The literature and the research ballooned. Before all of that there were only a few people working on this stuff -- Sir John Evans in the nineteenth century, then much later, Commander Mack, and the very great Derek Allen who was a friend of two friends of mine, a smallish assortment of lesser known scholars and a few collectors who could wait for the occasional British Celtic coin to show up at Seaby's. I was one of the latter before I climbed on to the shoulders of a few giants. It was too small a flow to reach escape velocity, you need much larger numbers for that sort of thing.

Wanborough was our salvation. The commodification of Celtic coins eventually created even conferences about the things! Evans would have shaken his head in disbelief if someone would have predicted such a thing to him.

So what would have happened if the restrictions preceded the hoard? The site would have been excavated and the report, if it was ever published, might have been read by a few inhabitants of boxes, but two weeks later, the world would have forgotten about it and the hoard, itself, would be in its own box in the bowels of the British Museum, soon to be forgotten. A few might have gone on display as entertainment, or something to look at before the rain stopped.

Don't believe me? I have worked at a museum. Get permission to randomly look in their storage cabinets and boxes to see what you might find. It will amaze you to see what has been forgotten and is sitting in boxes while the universe dances on.

Do you want proof of what I say? go here:

This is the bibliography that Philip de Jersey constructed at Oxford for the Celtic Coin Index and was migrated to the online version. Analyze the dates and their frequency, plot it out and compare it to metal detector use. People found coins, they asked about them, Those they asked started to look more and write. Some of the collectors turned to scholars and wrote more. This is a frozen view -- it stops in about 2002. It is even bigger now.

This is what those commodification ripples achieved and they are still moving. This is how the universe works -- growth, expansion and small deaths along the way, but it is surviving. Conservationists are trying to freeze time, but it will all turn to dust for them. We need death to continue life. Things evolve only outside of the boxes that people try to create to save them. Inside the boxes are just forgotten bodies.

People don't like this -- it scares them. Some academics see commodification as a bad thing. A few of them look at coin dealers as maggots, but without maggots, dust mites, and dung beetles we would soon be buried in our own muck. They do not know that many of these coin dealers and collectors sometimes make amazing discoveries -- they are dancing with the universe. Even more of them are inspiring others to take to the floor.

It is so poetic: through variety and recombination, we avoid entropy. Look at the dna molecule, one of the universe's greatest hits that she loves to dance to because it is ever-changing. It is a sestina that contains only four different words, and it keeps changing. How amazing is that?

© John Hooker, 2011.