HomeUS CoinsFirst Read: Numismatic Archaeology of North America: A Field Guide

First Read: Numismatic Archaeology of North America: A Field Guide


First Read, a continuing series of essays about classic and contemporary works of numismatic literature

Review by Charles Morgan for CoinWeek …..

Numismatic Archaeology of North America: A Field Guide is a book that sought us out. Almost Literally.

In Army chow halls across the country there’s an expression: “Eat First – Taste Later”. That’s certainly a sentiment that carries weight at busy coin shows for your faithful CoinWeek editors. And while we certainly do our best to take in all of the sights and attractions at each of the major coin conventions and auctions we attend throughout the year, it isn’t until we get back to the office, process hour upon hour of footage and follow up with friends and colleagues that we truly get a sense of what we just experienced.

Yet suffice it to say, from the moment we were introduced to the book by the authors we were intrigued.

A flip through the 280+ page, lavishly illustrated book revealed not just the potential usefulness of such a volume – especially for metal detectorists – but also the book’s narrative point of view, which was immediately apparent even though we were just kicking the tires at first.

“Ok, I’m in,” I said. And $50 later, I took my handsome copy of the book and tucked it in amongst my things at the CoinWeek booth.

The book’s introductory chapters describe the origins and development of scientific approaches to numismatics in Europe and how American numismatics is different. Indeed, the United States remains a young country and our archeological history as it comes to money is much different than it is in the so-called “Old World”. But the use of money on the American continent predates European settlement and the mixture of indigenous and invasive cultures presents researchers with a complex, often surprising tapestry of monetary “stories”. And it’s the story that found numismatic material can tell archaeologists that forms the basis of this narrative.

The story of money in North America is a story of Spanish silver and cowrie shells; of wampum, achum, commodity money and money of necessity; of silver and gold coins; of base metal tokens; of paper money, coupons, and scrip. It’s also a story of the intermingling of moneys from faraway cultures and the tales these transplanted stores of value tell us about how these objects were used here, when, and by whom.

It is in the capable telling of this story–written from the perspective of discovery–where Numismatic Archaeology of North America succeeds as an anthropological narrative about money and its exonumic cousins. An unearthed Lincoln cent of recent mintage found a foot or two off of a nature trail may tell an obvious story of human activity in that given area, but what story does a trove of pre-Qing dynasty coins unearthed at a Colorado dig site have to share? Or, for that matter, a cache of Vietnamese phan, yan and dong coinage from 1740-1883?

No matter how simple or seemingly esoteric the item (the authors include many: pool hall tokens, religious medallions and scales tokens to name a few), great pains are taken to detail the period of its use, the purpose of the item and, if applicable, its metallic composition. The book serves both as a first introduction to a numismatic area of study and a handy reference for those who might have found something with which they are not immediately familiar.

metaldetectOne thing that makes coin collecting and the study of money so enjoyable is that coins are tiny pieces of history. It’s a cliché but it’s true. For the most part, coins are durable and have the ability to persevere social strife, environmental catastrophe and the passage of time. Coins also mean something to the people that use them – so much so that they often travel far beyond the normal perimeters of their utility as facilitators of trade. Having a more scientific grasp of money’s anthropological aspects makes one a much better numismatist.

Beyond the book’s dense chapters on American coins struck by the modern governments of Canada, the United States and Mexico, and coins brought here by immigrants from other countries, the book focuses on tokens, medals, paper money and shipwreck archaeology. All of this should interest numismatists. For archaeologists, there are chapters on the numismatic analysis of archaeological discoveries, materials, corrosion and proper cleaning methods, photography, and why it’s important for archaeologists to collaborate with numismatists going forward.

In our personal conversation with the authors at the Stephen Album Rare Coins booth during the 2016 World’s Fair of Money, this last point was the one they felt was most important.

There has been a long history of polemicism from the archaeological and numismatic worlds condemning one another. The sciences of archaeology and numismatics are born from the same mother. But in their maturation they have turned on one another, reinventing themselves and rewriting their own histories to cast their own present-day practitioners in the best of lights while demonizing the other side. To be honest, numismatists and archaeologists have ample reason to be skeptical of one another; the former viewing the latter as elitists and destroyers not preservers of numismatic objects, and the latter viewing the former as greedy amateurs, smugglers and even grave robbers.

But these are gross generalizations. For the reasonable archaeologist and numismatist there is a great deal of vital information that can be shared to the betterment of both disciplines through collaboration. And it’s only through collaboration that numismatists have any chance of putting a stop to the ongoing onslaught of cultural protection regulations, which threaten not only the viability of the rare coin industry but also the preservation of priceless numismatic objects.

The authors, Dr. Marjorie H. Akin, Dr. James C. Bard and Kevin Akin get that.

They are serious scientists and collectors.

Dr. Akin is an archaeologist who specializes in Asian coins recovered in North America. Dr. Bard is an archaeologist based in Portland, Oregon, whose lifelong passion for coin collecting has given him a deeper appreciation for the archeological value of the numismatic objects that he’s recovered in and around the American Northwest. Mr. Akin is a retired steam engineer by trade, but he has assisted his wife Dr. Akin’s archaeological work for more than 40 years and is himself an avid collector of coins and tokens.

We see this book as a coming together of the disciplines of archaeology, anthropology and numismatics, similar in some respects to other contemporary multidisciplinary approaches to a variety of subjects–most notably for our purposes the origins and history of money. It is for this reason that a book like this offers collectors information about coins and other monetary objects that isn’t obvious in our standard literature.

Having said that, we don’t foresee our interest in a prison token from the city prison of Manhattan ever going beyond the academic. We will (probably) never seek one for ourselves in the wild. Metal detectorists, on the other hand, might. And for that reason, a book like Numismatic Archaeology of North America is really useful. It explains key archaeological concepts in plain English and provides enough visual information to help a hobbyist categorize found objects. It also provides tips on how to conduct further research.

And if nothing else, the contents provided therein–practically a catalog of possibility–would surely pump someone up for that big weekend getaway to their favorite dig site.

* * *

Numismatic Archaeology of North America: A Field Guide
By Dr. Marjorie H. Akin, Dr. James C. Bard, and Kevin Akin
289 Pages, Routledge. Softback. $50; Hardback $150.

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Charles Morgan
Charles Morgan
Charles Morgan is an award-winning numismatic author and the editor and publisher of CoinWeek.com. Along with co-author Hubert Walker, he has written for CoinWeek since 2012, as well as the "Market Whimsy" column for The Numismatist and the book 100 Greatest Modern World Coins (2020) for Whitman Publishing. From 2021-2023, Charles served as Governor of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), where he was bestowed the Glenn Smedley Award. Charles is a member of numerous numismatic organizations, including the American Numismatic Society (ANS) and the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG).

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