“Let’s think of an ancient coin as a murder weapon. No one would disagree that going into a crime scene before the investigators arrive and absconding with the bloody knife, cleaning it and then putting it in a private collection would seriously compromise the case. But this is what happens when looters descend on an archaeological site and remove coins and other artifacts: They disturb objects, their relationships with one another and remove evidence that may well be the ‘smoking gun’ for an excavation.”
So writes Baylor University professor and Huqoq numismatist Nathan T. Elkins in “Investigating the Crime Scene: Looting and Ancient Coins” in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. In his Archaeological Views column, Elkins describes the importance of ancient coins as primary chronological indicators. When found under sealed floors, foundations or walls, they can provide definitive chronological evidence. Unfortunately, they are also the most widely collected and sought-after artifact type, and millions of coins enter the market each year from unrecorded digs.
Looted ancient coins do still provide information for numismatists who want to study, say, iconography. But Elkins notes that ancient coins’ iconography, archaeology, text and inscription are all pieces of the same historical puzzle, and we must “endeavor to preserve, and encourage the preservation of, as much information as possible.”
If archaeologists are the detectives of history, then ancient coins are the “smoking guns” of the ancient crime scene, according to Elkins. Detectives reconstruct crimes by looking at the relationships between weapons, footprints, fingerprints, broken glass and other evidence. Archaeologists do the same by analyzing artifacts within their find contexts. Looting not only removes valuable evidence from the equation—such as dates or imperial faces inscribed on ancient coins—but also scatters the primary context of the disturbed area, destroying our ability to recreate the story behind the evidence.