Monthly Archives: March 2018

A Collector’s Cabinet

Sorry for the gap in posting, as so often; marking and a professional need to finish up some publications have coincided in an awkward way. But another one is now off to readers so I can manage a quick post, and the one that is up next is the one where I explain what I did with the discovery mentioned a couple of posts ago that the University of Leeds has its own coin collection with which, when I arrived in post in late 2015, no-one was doing anything much. As explained there, for various reasons I couldn’t just start doing it myself, but I could try to get money for someone else to do it, and that is indeed what happened.

Obverse of a silver penny of King Harold II of England struck at Canterbury in 1066, SCBI 21 1105

One of the coins from the collection I’ve used, a silver penny of King Harold II of England struck at Canterbury in 1066 (as it would have to have been); here the obverse…

Reverse of a silver penny of King Harold II of England struck at Canterbury in 1066, SCBI 21 1105

… and here the reverse, hopefully but inaccurately proclaiming PAX, ‘peace’! The coin is published as SCBI 21 1105.1

There were various funding sources I considered for this, but the one that eventually looked like the best bet was a scheme that is now spread to quite a few universities, the Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholarships. These are a bit more than your normal involve-the-undergraduates-in-a-research project affairs: though that is the core of them, they aim help people who otherwise could not get to the top of society, to create new educated critically-thinking leaders for the future from all levels of society. To that end, as well as the research project, there is also a whole set of leadership training activities designed to ensure that the lucky recipients would be able to take charge of any situation in which they should find themselves with all the wit and intelligence that the best undergraduate educations should imbue. It’s a powerful mission, and one which, in this iteration, involved a range of activities under the heading of ‘cultural capital’, visits to things like theatre, opera, wine-tastings and so on that were meant to equip the person who has never experienced those things with the familiarity that will prevent those who have, and think they’re important markers of education and distinction, from dismissing these new leaders; in short, to give them the tools to level with elitist snobs. I’m not sure whether this is to reinforce or to undermine the British class system, but as someone with many stories of such exclusion, some even my own, I see its power. It’s also fascinating that the language we have for it has to come from 1980s French anthropology, too; we ourselves couldn’t look at it that closely, it seems.2 Now, for better or for worse, that seems to have been dropped from these scholarships in favour of an international component, which may be better directed toward the future I suppose. But, dear reader, I digress.

The Winchester coin cabinet, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Winchester Cabinet, in the strongroom of the Brotherton Library, in all its slightly wonky eighteenth-century glory (the cabinet, not the strongroom)

Whatever the wider social intent of this scheme, then, the core of it is still a research project, on which it will pay a student to work for twelve weeks spread over two years. So, all the way back in January 2016, I looked at the coin collection, for something that was a self-contained unit that could fill that much work but still produce something, and I lit upon the Winchester Cabinet, which is a rather fancy thing to have in a collection. It is actually a single big coin cabinet, complete with about three thousand coins, which were amassed and put in this same cabinet by one William Eyre in the late eighteenth century. At his death the cabinet was bequeathed to Winchester Cathedral, where he had apparently been a lay canon; they tinkered only minimally with it for nearly two centuries and then in 1954 decided to sell it the University of Leeds.3 So we have not just the coins but a collection, self-contained and almost closed since 1780 or so, of known provenance and association, whose collector could himself be an intriguing subject of study. Knowing that collectors are the hot thing in museums at the moment, and putting aside for a moment my reservations about privileging more or less modern human beings and their interests over the actual historical things we physically immediately have and what they might tell us, I decided that this was our hook, and so I wrote a proposal for a project called “Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet” and sent it in to see who would bite. And it got selected, so quite quickly I wound up interviewing several eager students all of whom wanted in on this opportunity, all of which was quite flattering but rather unexpected.

Laidlaw Undergraduate Research Leadership Scholar Emma Herbert-Davies promoting the Winchester Cabinet project

Emma Herbert-Davies promoting the scheme with, as her Twitter feed explains, the aid of Emperor Antoninus Pius, and whose better could there be?

Well, the successful applicant was one Emma Herbert-Davies, who has been exactly the kind of star we rather expected she would be; she has put in far more work on this collection than we could ever have paid her for and become quite the face of the Leeds coin collection, leaving me as the kind of scheming Brian Wilson in the background (which is fine by me). She’s catalogued quite a chunk of the cabinet, including many different numismatic cultures and areas, and I don’t know how many papers she’s given on this now but I know that it’s more numismatics papers than I have. Emma is not the first person I’ve trained up from zero as a numismatist, and I bet she won’t be the last, but she’s certainly the one who’s so far become best known in numismatic circles and here, again, the student may well have outstripped the teacher. So, I will not steal her thunder here, I will just point you to her work, which is what all the money and study went towards. Firstly, there has been since October 2017, should you be in Leeds and willing to negotiate your way into the Brotherton Library, an actual physical display of some of the coins, mostly with Emma’s captions and selections but also with two of my own; I’ll post something else about this soon when I have better photos, but meanwhile here is one of Emma’s.

The Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet exhibition, curated by Emma Herbert-Davies and Jonathan Jarrett, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet exhibition, curated by Emma Herbert-Davies and your humble author, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

But, in case you are not in Leeds or have no such library card, there is also a virtual exhibition, with more material in it, which showcases not just Emma’s grasp of the general interest of the coins but also our Library’s rather good digitization; it looks pretty smart and you can zoom in to an almost silly degree. So if you have some time and like coins, do click through and give Emma your web-traffic! I am very pleased with what we have, and by that I mainly mean she, has been able to do here.


1. Which, for those of you not fluent in UK numismatist, is Elizabeth Pirie (ed.), Coins in Yorkshire Collections: Part I, Coins from Northumbrian Mints, c. 895–1279; Part II, Ancient British Issues and Later Coins from other English, Irish, and Scottish Mints to 1279, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles 21 (London 1975), no. 1105.

2. The originator being Pierre Bourdieu, as in his “Ökonomisches Kapital, kulturelles Kapital, soziales Kapital” in Reinhard Kreckel (ed.), Soziale Ungleichheiten, Soziale Welt Sonderheft 2 (Göttingen 1983), pp. 183-198, trans. Richard Nice as “The Forms of Capital” in John G. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York City NY 1986), pp. 241–258, whence online here.

3. We have (and again I mainly mean Emma Herbert-Davies has) found out quite a lot about the cabinet, its original owner and its subsequent history, but I have to admit that why this happened no-one has been able to tell us.

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A Black Country Motte-and-Bailey

This gallery contains 12 photos.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, one of the last things I did before leaving Birmingham professionally behind me in August 2015 was squeeze in a visit to Dudley Castle, which came as something of a surprise to me. … Continue reading

15,000 more coins to play with

This post is a step or two out of order; I originally stubbed it in December 2015 and would, if everything were normal, have intended it for seven or eight posts down the line. But it occurred to me that I had also referred to various successes with publications and grants that I probably ought to mention while they’re still even near fresh, rather than queue them out of my usual dogged commitment to chronology; and then I totted up the grants and realised that the ones I had to start with were to do with the Brotherton Library Coin Collection, and that without this post you, dear readers, would have no idea what that was. So here we are!

The Reading Room in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, including readers

The Reading Room in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, including readers, photo from Leeds’s website

So obviously you will remember, because I am still writing about it, that between 2014 and 2015 I was Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, which involved me doing exhibitions, outreach and general work with a collection of just over 15,000 coins and items of paranumismatica. But I put all that behind me, excepting lagging publication commitments, when I came to the University of Leeds, who had hired me as a historian of the early Middle Ages, not as a numismatist. Admittedly, I had tried to set up an undergraduate module using the coin collection in Leeds Museums Discovery Centre, but due to staff shortage there that was never possible. But just as I thought I might be through with numismatics again, someone here asked me, “has anyone told you about the coin collection in the Library?” And it turned out, wouldn’t you know, there is a collection here of just over 15,000 coins and paranumismatica, just waiting for someone to do exhibitions, outreach and general work with…

A copper-alloy sestertius of Emperor Nero struck at Rome in 65 AD, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds, uncatalogued

A copper-alloy sestertius of Emperor Nero struck at Rome in 65 AD, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds, uncatalogued; obverse…

A copper-alloy sestertius of Emperor Nero struck at Rome in 65 AD, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds, uncatalogued

… and reverse, photographed by me for teaching last year

Now in some respects the timing of this was perfect: not only did it mean that I could in fact run that module the next and indeed this year on local resources alone, it also came a short while after the collection, which had for a long time been without a clear place in the University’s organisation, had been definitively placed in the care of the University’s Special Collections team. But they had no numismatics expertise in-house, and then there came I, a man who had quite literally written the book(let) on the care of coin collections (with really quite a lot of uncredited help).1 And so, while I couldn’t do much for the Library myself, not alongside my other responsibilities, one thing I could do was apply for money for someone else to do that work.

A copper-alloy forty-nummi of a type which has been suggested was struck by the occupying government of the Syrian provinces of the Byzantine Empire during their occupation by the Persians at the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries

I think this is an unusual one, a copper-alloy forty-nummi of a type which has been suggested was struck by the occupying government of the Syrian provinces of the Byzantine Empire during their occupation by the Persians at the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries. Here the obverse, fairly normal but a bit blocky and unclear of identification…

Copper-alloy forty-nummi struck during the Persian occupation of Syria 615-27

…and reverse, unobjectionable except for a jumbled mint-mark that just can’t be Byzantine. Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, no. not available to me but it does have one now. This is one of the cases where I’ve been able to improve on a previous identification. There aren’t many!

Now, I will talk about that in a future post, but first, how come the University has an orphaned coin collection at all, and what’s in it? Well, it’s not quite unknown: expert diggers in databases could already find out something of its history and the early British and English portions have even been published, although more was acquired after that was done.2 And in fact the history is composite, as these things so often are; while Lord Brotherton himself, the man behind our oldest library and the extremely significant collections therein, did not dally with coins, in 1918 the then-Department of Latin acquired itself a small set for teaching purposes, in 1949 the Yorkshire Archaeological Society presaged the eventual donation here of all its collections with a Roman coin collection, and in 1954 the rather fabulous Winchester Collection, which is where the funding story will come in, arrived here. Substantial anonymous gifts followed thereafter but the real difference was made by Mr Paul Thackray, of the same Thackrays as our local Medical Museum, who added 11,000 or so coins to our holdings in the early 1990s. Now, probably two-third, maybe even three-quarters, of all this is Roman, and almost all base-metal, although it’s an extremely good collection as far as that goes, with lots of varieties. There are also good representations of Chinese coins, including some genuinely rare items I am told, and of local merchants’ tokens, and a good set of modern world coins I want to convince my modernist colleagues to start using too. But there is also a small but precious selection of medieval and Byzantine items, and on them I have built my course. There is, indeed, more than I have fully discovered and some very interesting Eastern and Indian stuff, all of which is out of my competence, and two cabinets of Roman Provincial, which should definitely interest somebody, even if not me.3 Thankfully, even now we have actual hired help in place for cataloguing, though they won’t be able to do it all. But the potential is definitely here for people to do lots more with it, and it is a potential on which, as I shall describe in that near-future post, we have already started to deliver…


1. Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: their care and use (Cambridge 2009), now sadly out of print and unobtainable but obtained, thankfully, by Leeds just before that became true.

2. In Elizabeth Pirie, Ancient British and later coins to 1279 in the Yorkshire Museum, York, the City Museum Leeds and the University of Leeds, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles 21 (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).

3. That Roman Provincial coinage should be interesting more people has recently become clear partly because of the ever-growing database of it at the Ashmolean Museum but also because George Watson, “The system of coin production in Roman Asia Minor: new thoughts on an old problem”, in Maria Caltabiano et al. (edd.), XV International Numismatic Congress Taormina 2015: Proceedings (Messina 2018), pp. not yet known to me, has started to make it clear that there are systems to its production about which we had previously not suspected, making it a key to the administration of the Roman East we didn’t know we had. So I want someone to do something with our boxes of it… Any would-be research students, do get in touch

All That Glitters, Phase 4

The times continue strange in UK higher education, as you may have seen. Many of us are on strike for what is now the third week, more of us than ever now, and the employers’ representatives appear to be refusing to negotiate in person and then changing their mind by Twitter overnight. I don’t know what may happen in the next 48 hours and of course in case classes happen, they all have got to be got ready on the few days when we’re not on strike, in case something is resolved that means we go back to work. But, what this does mean is that my conscience is pretty clear about blogging. Having taken my first steps down a new road in the previous post, it thus behoves me to look around myself and say, ‘What was I doing in July to September 2015 that I haven’t already told you about?’, and the answer to that is not limited to but certainly includes, ‘zapping gold coins with X-rays some more’. So this is about our fourth set of tests.

Jonathan Jarrett and a gold solidus with XRF machinery in the Department of Chemistry, University of Birmingham

Posed, obviously; I may look intrepid, but you have no idea how tightly I was holding that coin. It rolling under the machine would have spoiled several people’s day quite badly…

If you remember, where we were with this is that having got money to evaluate techniques by which we might be able to use X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to measure the metal content of Byantine coins, with an especial eye on trace elements that might betray metal sources, we had fairly quickly established that the kind of portable machinery which we could bring to the coins in their museum wouldn’t tell us what we needed to know. So the working set-up for these experiments was now that, after having checked our insurance quite carefully, as soon as I could get into the Barber’s coin room of a morning I would remove from it about 100 g of high-purity gold in the form of 20-odd Byzantine and other coins, then University security would turn up (in theory) and transport me to the School of Chemistry (in theory). We would then do as much zapping as could be done, with at least two people present where the coins were at all times, before Security turned up again (in theory) in time to get me and the coins back into the Barber before it closed. And this time we did this for four days running. I won’t tell you how many ways this process could go wrong, but I haven’t flagged them all. But Chemistry were lovely and very generous both with expertise and with biscuits, and though we never had quite the same team there two days together it was all quite a good group exercise anyway. So, what were we doing this time and how did it go? The answer is a long one, so I’ll put it behind a cut, but do read on! Continue reading