AIA President's Letter to CPAC Supporting Cypriot Import Restrictions
February 3, 2007 | by C. Brian Rose
Cultural Property Advisory Committee
Dear Committee Members:
As President of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), I am writing to express my strong support on behalf of the AIA for the inclusion of coins as a designated category of archaeological material in the extension of the bilateral agreement between the Republic of Cyprus and the United States under Section 303 of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. Our support for inclusion of coins applies only to those coins that are more than 250 years old and that are found on Cyprus.
Founded in 1879, and chartered by an act of Congress in 1906, the Archaeological Institute of America is the oldest and largest archaeological organization in the United States. Our more than 8,500 members include professional archaeologists and students, as well as members of the general public from all walks of life. Our diverse group is united by a passion for the reconstruction of ancient civilizations, and the desire to present those reconstructions to as broad an audience as possible. Many of our members, including me, are numismatists, and numismatic evidence is an important component of our scholarship.
As a form of cultural property, coins contain a significant amount of cultural, historical, and scientific information, and may be subject to import restriction pursuant to a bilateral agreement or emergency action. Coins play an important role in our understanding of the past because they provide a means of determining an absolute chronological date for archaeological strata, for tomb groups, and for the reconstruction of trade networks and economic history. While other forms of ancient material culture, such as ceramics, can help in establishing a relative chronology for archaeological deposits, such artifacts generally cannot anchor this relative chronology to specific historical events or dates.
Coins, however, typically include references to and depictions of known rulers, and the exact date of minting within that ruler's reign can often be determined. When a coin is found in a tomb or stratigraphic context, it can provide a terminus post quem—in other words, the date when the coin was minted provides the earliest possible absolute date after which the coin was buried. Therefore, for certain time periods and in certain cultures, coins are probably the best and sometimes the only means of obtaining an absolute chronology for the buildings and settlements that we excavate.
Indigenous Cypriot coinage begins in the sixth century B.C. when the individual city kingdoms of Cyprus established their own mints. Within their archaeological context, these coins provide a unique source of information regarding the continually changing political, economic, and ethnic dynamics of the island. Even after Cyprus was incorporated into the Roman Empire, uniquely Cypriot coins continued to be minted. When they are found in context on excavations, they provide historical information not available from other sources, such as trade patterns, fluctuations in the economy, and the operation of regional mints. All of these Cypriot coins are readily identifiable.
Coins minted on Cyprus were very rarely taken from the island in antiquity. If one examines the discoveries at officially sanctioned excavations in the countries that surround Cyprus, such as Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and even Israel, one can see how infrequently Cypriot coins figure among the finds. Dealers occasionally argue that some of the Cypriot coins they sell were found in other countries, but there is no proof of this—indeed, the discoveries at excavations in the eastern Mediterranean speak against it.
During the CPAC meeting in Washington on January 25, a Cypriot coin allegedly found in Jordan was cited as proof that Cypriot coins traveled to other countries in antiquity, but if the coin in question had actually been found in Jordan, then Jordanian law would have prevented its export. Dealers make a variety of statements about the provenance of the antiquities they sell in order to increase their value, but without documentation, one can never be certain where they were found, and such coins are consequently of limited value in our reconstructions of ancient history.
Coin collectors and dealers often suggest that collectible coins are discovered only in isolated hoards outside of settlement sites. Scientific excavations throughout the world demonstrate that this is not correct. Sixty-eight coins, for example, were found in a variety of contexts at the Cypriot site of Idalion, and were published with their findspots by Ino Nicolaou, then Assistant Curator at the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia, in the volume American Expedition to Idalion, Cyprus 1973-1980 (Lawrence E. Stager and Anita M. Walker; Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1989, pp. 447-456).
Coin hoards can be and have been discovered within habitation layers, buried under floors, and in deposits related to the destruction of settlements. When we find these hoards in context, we can often determine which coins were in circulation within a particular region at a particular time; if the hoard is looted and presented for the first time on the art market, we can never be certain whether all of the coins are genuine, or whether part of the hoard was actually assembled by the dealer in order to increase the value of the coins that comprise it.
Two publications of coin groups found at archaeological sites on Cyprus illustrate many of the criteria that are essential to CPAC’s determination regarding the inclusion of coins as a designated category of material in the Cyprus-US MoU. In his excavations in the ancient cemetery of Salamis (published in 1970), Vassos Karageorghis found a coin still in the mouth of one of the skeletons, thereby demonstrating that Cypriots, during the Classical period, practiced funerary rites in which the decedent was provided with a coin to pay the fare of the boatman to the underworld. This example illustrates the kind of cultural information, in this case mortuary practices, that can be determined if coins are found in their archaeological contexts.
In a second example, the coins found during the excavations at Paphos, published by I. Nicolaou in 1976 and 1990, have made significant contributions to our knowledge of this World Heritage site. A particularly cogent example is the Paphos House of Dionysus, a large and wealthy Roman residence containing the most spectacular group of mosaics so far found in Cyprus. Coins were sealed beneath the mosaic floors of the house, thereby enabling us to date securely the phases of construction and the mosaics themselves. In one of the rooms, the skeleton of a man with twelve datable coins in his purse or pocket was found crushed beneath a wall; this provides evidence for a previously unknown earthquake early in the second century A.D. The discovery of a hoard of 2,484 coins of early first century B.C. date beneath the third century A.D. mosaics indicates that the House of Dionysus was only the last in a series of three important structures on the same spot going back to the Hellenistic period (third-first centuries B.C.).
Coins are often found in tombs, and these are likely to be in collectible condition. But a sealed tomb is a time capsule of the artifacts, human remains, and faunal and floral deposits that again provide valuable historical, cultural, and scientific information about the past. When a tomb is looted, this capsule of information is irretrievably lost, as is the record of that person’s life.
The looting of coins from archaeological sites is a significant problem throughout the world, and especially on the island of Cyprus. Coins are popular as collectors’ items, as indicated by the vociferous objection of coin collectors and dealers in reference to the possible inclusion of coins on the designated list of the Cyprus MoU. Looters use electronic detectors to locate metal objects, particularly coins. In the course of their subsequent search, the looters cause significant damage by digging through the sites’ ancient habitation deposits to find the objects that the metal detector registered; this damages the evidence for settlement that we need to use in our reconstruction of life in that area in antiquity. In other words, it destroys the history of the people who once lived there, as well as jeopardizing the cultural patrimony of the Republic of Cyprus.
I therefore urge the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to include coins on the list of designated archaeological materials in the renewal of the bilateral agreement between the Republic of Cyprus and the United States.
C. Brian Rose