Connecting the Dots

Connecting the dots….. This blog could have many headers. I settled on “connecting the dots” because there are many interconnected topics I would like to address here. The starting point for all of us is a brief mention of our museum in a recent CNN blog. In a story about the US government returning cultural treasures to Iraq, one can read about one particular item being returned:

Roman denarius featuring the head of Apollo

A roman coin (not the one featured in the article)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Smabs Sputzer

“A Roman coin from A.D. 248-250, when the Romans occupied the region. The coin had been left at the Houston Museum of Natural Science by a man who said he was a contractor in Iraq. The museum’s curator of anthropology alerted federal authorities.”

In late February 2005, a visitor to the museum left a coin. This individual, who said that he had been working as a civilian truck driver in Iraq, had acquired other antiquities as well, including a clay statue. Excavations were going on all over the place, he said. They are indeed, except, in my world these excavations would be called looting. Here are the first two dots I want to connect: the coin, and the Parthians.

The coin was well preserved, with a legible Greek legend. With the help of the American numismatics society’s website it was possible to identify the coin as dating back to the reign of Emperor Philip (244 – 249 AD). Also known as Philippus Arabs, this Emperor lived during a period of major upheavals besetting the Roman Empire. Born in the Roman province of Arabia around 204 AD, he held several important positions before becoming Emperor in 244 AD. He succeeded Gordian III who had suffered an ignominious defeat against the Sassanid Empire. Gordian ended up being killed by his own soldiers. Sassanid artists commemorated the death of Gordian and the subsequent suing for peace by Philip in a large rock carving at Bishapur in modern Iran. After this rather rocky start to his own reign as emperor, in 248 AD Philip presided over the festivities celebrating the 1,000 anniversary of the founding of Rome, a celebration commemorated on many Roman coins. Things turned sour pretty quickly after that however. One year later, he was killed by his own soldiers after a defeat against rebellious forces near Verona.

I can imagine people thinking “A Roman coin in what is now Iraq? Surely that must have gotten there by accident?” Not really. Here are dots number two and three: the Parthians and their successors, the Sassanid Empire.

Statue of Alexander in the
Istanbul Archaeology
Museum

Emerging from the upheaval caused by Alexander the Great and his successors, during the third century BC, the Parthians established themselves as a major political, military and economic force in what is now Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

As Rome slowly grew and started asserting itself in the eastern Mediterranean, clashes occurred between the two empires. These encounters did not always end well for the Romans. In 53 B.C. Crassus and over 40,000 Roman troops were annihilated by the Parthian forces of Orodes II in the battle of Carrhae, a clash that continues to inspire modern historians.

The western border between Rome’s dominions and Parthia gradually stabilized on the banks of the Euphrates, but war was always a threat. Over the next two hundred years, Romans and Parthians would fight many wars. By 232 AD, the Parthians themselves were overtaken by the Sassanid Empire, which brings us back to dot number one: the coin left at the museum. The coin residing ever so briefly at the museum is a silent witness to those final years of Roman involvement in that part of the world. This brings up dot number four: looting and repatriation.

Looting is a scourge that besets archaeologists all over the world. Archaeological sites are being destroyed on a wholesale basis, with materials ending up in private hands, and sometimes in museum collections. International treaties attempt to curb these activities but are not always very successful in doing so. International treaties aimed at stopping this wanton destruction of our past are good, but… there is also a need for people to know why this is necessary. Failure to communicate this need usually makes people think “Sure, it is only the archaeologists who want to be able to dig. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to do the same?”

Here is why you cannot or should not be digging randomly looking for “treasure.”

Pottery Shards
Context is important in Archaeology -
Knowing where the pottery comes from is
just as important as having the shards
Creative Commons License photo credit: Todd Huffman

Any object retrieved from the soil has a context. There is a story that can be told based on how the object got there. The coin that was brought in, the pot that was found, all got to the place they were found because someone dropped it, or placed it in a tomb, etc. Archaeologists are trained to retrieve materials and take note of the surroundings in which they found these items. Context makes the story much more complete. It represents the difference between retrieving half a book versus a whole book, half a story versus a complete story. In specific terms, context will help us to decide which of the following headlines makes sense: “A Roman ship landed in Mexico!” Or: “Something cool collected from the crew of a Spanish ship or an early Spanish colonist got traded to the residents of the town of Toluca.”

The coin in question dates to the end game of large-scale Roman involvement in Mesopotamia. I am not sure if a lot of these coins have been found in what is now Iraq. Without an accurate accounting of what is found and where it was found, we will never know. Conceivably, the coin’s context could have told us something about those final years of Roman presence. Perhaps it came from a small military encampment. Perhaps it was found with a lot of other coins – a hoard as it is sometimes known – which would indicate that the owners buried it for safekeeping. We will never know.

Saying no to looting is not the end of the story. Archaeologists have their work cut out for them too. We need to collect the context information, look for patterns to make sense out of it all and then share our findings with the public. The latter is very important. The more people know about what we do, the greater the understanding will be as to why it is a bad thing to acquire looted items or to go out and dig holes yourself. You are not doing history any service, and you might be breaking the law as well.

And so it is that we come full circle, connecting dots from coins to Romans and Parthians and international treaties regarding the protection of cultural property. It is all interconnected. I am sure that colleagues at other museums have had similar experiences. This is proof that working at a museum is so interesting, or “QED” as the ancient Romans would say.

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