Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

'Smoking gun' ancient coins are being looted from excavations

Date:
June 16, 2014
Source:
Baylor University
Summary:
Millions of ancient looted coins from archaeological excavations enter the black market yearly, and a researcher who has seen plundered sites likens the thefts to stealing “smoking guns” from crime scenes. But those who collect and study coins have been far too reluctant to condemn the unregulated trade, he says.

Ancient Constantinian coins.
Credit: Nathan Elkins photo

Millions of ancient looted coins from archaeological excavations enter the black market yearly, and a Baylor University researcher who has seen plundered sites likens the thefts to stealing "smoking guns" from crime scenes. But those who collect and study coins have been far too reluctant to condemn the unregulated trade, he says.

Related Articles


"Archaeologists are detectives. When something has been taken away from a historical site, the object is divorced from its relationship with other objects, and its utility for the writing of history -- much like solving a criminal case -- is diminished," said Nathan Elkins, Ph.D., assistant art professor in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences.

Elkins is the staff numismatist at the excavations of an ancient synagogue from the Roman/Byzantine period in Huqoq, Israel. He has written an article, "Investigating the Crime Scene: Looting and Ancient Coins," that appears in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Numismatists -- those who study or collect such currency as coins, tokens, paper money and even such trade objects as shells or lambskins -- must not condone or, worse, encourage that destructive behavior, Elkins said.

Coins are among objects stolen and sold through the multi-billion-dollar black market in antiquities. The New York Times recently reported looting in Spain and also in Egypt, where looters have taken advantage of political upheaval to steal thousands of objects from unprotected sites and even a national museum. The U.S. market alone imports "hundreds of thousands of earth-encrusted coins annually that are smuggled from Balkan nations such as Bulgaria," Elkins says.

He saw up close and personal the results of thefts at a site he previously worked -- a Roman Empire-era fort in Israel.

"One season we arrived and found one area that had been looted by someone with a metal director. Pits were dug into the floors and walls, and the soil dug out was greenish, indicating they had removed copper coins and perhaps other metal objects," he said. "It caused a lot of damage to the site and destroyed information."

Coins taken in such illegal and secretive excavations and touted with fake histories are easy to find in auction catalogs and online storefronts -- and inexpensive to boot, he said. "'Common' coins such as these may sell for the price of a fast-food lunch, but they're invaluable sources to archaeologists and historians," he said. When discovered beneath floors, foundations or wells, they provide information about how people lived and behaved in the past and can date occupation levels and monuments.

Elkins noted that there is "a widespread demand for biblical coins on account of their associations with Judaism, Christianity and the Bible, which of course exacerbates the looting problem. And the intellectual and material consequences of looting biblical coins are equally severe as that of Roman imperial coins and Greek coins."

Among such biblical coins are those used to pay temple taxes, tribute coins to Romans rulers and the "widow's mite," a small coin of little value mentioned in the Gospel of Mark.

For some coin collectors, obtaining coins of questionable origin is a matter of short-sightedness, he said. The origin and history of a coin may be irrelevant to them if their interest is merely in its image, rarity and method of production.

Some scholars and collectors may be hesitant to question a coin's background for fear of alienating dealers or other collectors, Elkins said. And, to be fair, some coins are in public or private collections with no recorded history rather than having been illegally obtained and passed off with a fake history, he said.

Elkins said that most collectors have "a genuine passion" for ancient history, but they must be more assertive and conscientious in reporting suspected illegal activity, insisting on the provenance of coins and avoiding giving money to those who buy from looters and smugglers.

Elkins became fascinated with ancient coins as a teen who was interested in Roman history. "Those (coin) images tended to be politicized, commemorating an imperial virtue or referring to a recent military victory, for example," he said. "As much of the ancient population was illiterate, and the majority of people lived outside of Rome, coins were a primary vehicle for the communication of political ideology in the Roman Empire.

"The study of coins lies at the intersection of multiple fields, including archeology, art history, Classics, ancient history and economics," Elkins said. "Coins are the 'smoking guns,' the definitive evidence -- and it's important to preserve as much evidence as possible."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Baylor University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Nathan T. Elkins. Investigating the Crime Scene: Looting and Ancient Coins. Biblical Archaeology Review, 2014; 40 (04) [link]

Cite This Page:

Baylor University. "'Smoking gun' ancient coins are being looted from excavations." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 June 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140616203724.htm>.
Baylor University. (2014, June 16). 'Smoking gun' ancient coins are being looted from excavations. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 27, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140616203724.htm
Baylor University. "'Smoking gun' ancient coins are being looted from excavations." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140616203724.htm (accessed November 27, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Fossils & Ruins News

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

New Dinosaur Species Found in Museum Collection

New Dinosaur Species Found in Museum Collection

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Nov. 27, 2014) A British palaeontologist has discovered a new species of dinosaur while studying fossils in a Canadian museum. Pentaceratops aquilonius was related to Triceratops and lived at the end of the Cretaceous Period, around 75 million years ago. Jim Drury has more. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Classic Hollywood Memorabilia Goes Under the Hammer

Classic Hollywood Memorabilia Goes Under the Hammer

Reuters - Entertainment Video Online (Nov. 26, 2014) The iconic piano from "Casablanca" and the Cowardly Lion suit from "The Wizard of Oz" fetch millions at auction. Sara Hemrajani reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
3D Map of Antarctic Sea Ice to Shed Light on Climate Change

3D Map of Antarctic Sea Ice to Shed Light on Climate Change

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Nov. 24, 2014) A multinational group of scientists have released the first ever detailed, high-resolution 3-D maps of Antarctic sea ice. Using an underwater robot equipped with sonar, the researchers mapped the underside of a massive area of sea ice to gauge the impact of climate change. Ben Gruber reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Ruins Thought To Be Port Actually Buried Greek City

Ruins Thought To Be Port Actually Buried Greek City

Newsy (Nov. 24, 2014) Media is calling it an "underwater Pompeii." Researchers have found ruins off the coast of Delos. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins