Why would a lobbyist characterise cooperation between archaeologists and tradespeople as a frenzy among archaeologists?

While antiquities trade lobbyist Peter Tompa believes that claims of significant connections between paramilitary violence and antiquities trafficking are ‘hyped‘, ‘dubious’, ‘wild’propoganda [propaganda]’, he finds the news that Islamic State fighters carried heavy weapons, identification material, communication equipment and a book on ancient coins so unsurprising that he finds it literally ridiculous.


Deploying the tactics that have been neatly characterised by numismatist Nathan Elkins, Tompa shared the news that “ISIS HAD A BOOK WITH PICTURES OF COINS IN IT!” He riled at the ‘implication… that this image is somehow hard “proof” that the Islamic State is funding itself with conflict antiquities’, even though he previously conceded that ‘ISIS probably derives some income from [antiquities] looting’.

What I said was that it ‘it might help us to identify which ancient coins the Islamic State is handling (or expecting to handle)’. It is difficult to understand Tompa’s attitude towards the investigation of possible evidence for an activity that he himself believes is probably happening.

Tompa sighed that, “of course”, ‘it does not seem much to matter that the coins depicted appear[ed]’ to have been made in places that are now ‘outside of ISIS’ control’. Of course, the possibility of making such judgements is dependent upon first identifying the coins. And of course, the information from the identifications has mattered very much in interpreting the evidence.

As Paul Barford noted, the books might indicate that ‘a local coin collector has been topped, his artefacts seized and his library destroyed (the numismatic book can be seen in the picture to have stab marks or bullet holes and the middle ripped out)’. In a follow-up post, I considered other possibilities, including that the fighters were studying history or strategy.

Since two of the three books were about the Pyramids, I suspect that they had been stolen by fighters who could not read them, who were keeping them for someone else to check. It still seems unlikely that the French-language book on Phoenician numismatics (and other as-yet-unknown subjects) and German-language books on Egyptian pyramids were the property of the displaced villagers.

Certainly, Tompa did not offer a blindingly obvious explanation that the archaeologists, historians, dealers and collectors in the conversation had overlooked in their frenzied search for the name of the first book. Thus, they still appear to be materials that Islamic State fighters valued enough to take and keep along with heavy weapons, identification material and communication equipment.


Tompa characterised an attempt to work out the name of a book as a ‘minor frenzy’, which he quarantined in the ‘archaeological blogosphere and Twitterdom’, despite the explicitly recognised fact that an antiquities auctioneer, a coin trader and an ancient coin forum moderator were part of the conversation – and, as was visible, were key contributors. (More tradespeople, including numismatists, shared the appeal for information.)

Why didn’t Tompa recognise the contribution of people in the trade and the cooperation of cultural heritage workers and cultural property tradespeople – the perfectly everyday cooperation of people with shared interests?

Why did coin dealer Dave Welsh make a point of not contributing, because ‘if the identity of that book could somehow be established, the archaeological blogosphere and twitterdom would then find reasons to advocate more restrictive regulations affecting importation of ancient coins into the USA’, when other people who work within such regulations had no such problem in contributing?

Even the smallest points were misconstrued. In a footnote, I acknowledged the fact that the coins had been minted in at least four different cities, but that ‘they were used and may have been deposited elsewhere’ than those four cities. Tompa directed Elkins to ‘take note‘, because Elkins has published peer-reviewed research that – partly with data from the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) of which Tompa is president and Welsh is international affairs committee chairman – empirically demonstrates that certain ancient coins did not often circulate more widely than their locality or region and that import restrictions on those coins can be justified when there is no evidence that they have been legally exported. The non-sequitur appears to be an attempt to query either that research or the sincerity of that argument.

Whether as a lobbyist or a collector (in Tompa’s case) or as a dealer (in Welsh’s case), how do they advance the trade’s interests (which it demonstrably shares with cultural heritage workers)?


13 Responses to “Why would a lobbyist characterise cooperation between archaeologists and tradespeople as a frenzy among archaeologists?”

  1. Note I placed my post under the category “humor/satire/irony.” And given the implication in your original post (as duly quoted) that this somehow “proved” ISIS was funding itself with looted ancient coins, enough said.

    • Can we reverse the argument? Is ISIS not funding itself with looted antiquities? Not at all?

    • I didn’t say or otherwise imply that this proved IS was funding itself with looted antiquities. Why are you trying to imply that I did?

      Other evidence – including eyewitnesses to looting, confiscation, sale, licensing, taxation… – demonstrates that IS is profiting from the trade in illicit antiquities (which is therefore a trade in conflict antiquities). That is why it is reasonable to try to identify books in their possession.

      That justification, though, is a bit wrong-headed, as it implies that it would not otherwise be reasonable to try to identify books in the possession of a terrorist group. Isn’t it quite sensible to know what your enemy is reading (or carrying)?

  2. It’s certainly likely, but the extent has probably been greatly exaggerated for political purposes. Antiquities are nowhere near as “liquid” as hot oil or as lucrative as things like extortion. Also, such material does not appear to be coming here (to the US) in any quantity. As for coins, you can’t find them without a metal detectors. Unless ISIS has access to metal detectors, and can afford to use them for coin searches as opposed to using them to uncover mines it’s not likely to find many at all. In any event, the modest amounts ISIS would make from selling such coins would likely not make them much money. Indeed, in my view, ISIS is as just as likely to melt down old coins with “graven images,” perhaps for use for a proposed “Caliphate coinage” that harkens back to the dinars of the early Islamic period. Over all, I think this blog and other archaeological blogs should avoid rank speculation and be more open to honest critiques by others who, after all, share the desire to protect and preserve the past, if not the belief that the state and their chosen archaeologists are always the best stewards of everything old.

    • IS has access to tanks. I rather suspect it has access to metal detectors.

      And it is absurd to suggest that you cannot find coins without a metal detector. I have found metal without a metal detector.

      They are turning over sites, in which they will be able to find coins and other antiquities, as will the looters from whom the rebels and regime profit.

  3. The IAPN lobbyist asserts: “such material does not appear to be coming here (to the US) in any quantity” but this follows on from the statement in the Washington Post just today that “brokers” have mistakenly contacted the “Antiquities Coalition” (Deborah Lehr) the other side of the city in which the lobbyist has his office offering to sell her some. http://paul-barford.blogspot.com/2015/06/brokers-of-smuggled-artefacts-contact.html

    So, what is the truth?

  4. In his attempt to deflect I find it curious he makes the point that the coins on the book weren’t made in ISIS-controlled territories. [So these coins couldn’t possibly be encountered by ISIS?] In other situation, he’s always going on about how coins circulated and moved in spite of the fact some classes of coins had limited circulation ranges, like the Egyptian coinage that primarily circulated in Egypt. Did anyone else catch that? Interesting how the perspective changes and coins DO have limited circulation ranges when he wants them to…

    • Even if none of those coins have been found in IS-controlled territory, the fighters came over from Turkey, which is a transit point for material from Lebanon as well as Syria. And we still don’t know what’s in the other chapters.

  5. 1. As for finding coins, yes you need metal detectors. One certainly cannot find them by digging random holes in the sand. Archaeologists do sometimes find coins without them in the process of excavating, but that is based on a laborious process and even then coins are lost if the earth that is sieved is not checked. I suppose ISIS could have captured some or the Syrian Army may be prospecting for coins with its own, but as I previously noted one would think they would need them for their intended purpose of finding mines.

    2. Dr. Elkins should read what I actually wrote. I’ve always said ancient coins travel and was agreeing with Dr. Hardy on that point. Since he still refuses to disclose his comments to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (others post their own on the regulations.gov website), I’m still unclear exactly where he stands on that point, but I hope we can all agree that most ancient coins traveled at least to some extent based on intrinsic value.

    3. Having said that, once again the point of my original post was that a book with a few pictures of Phoenician coins really provides no proof whatsoever that ISIS is funding itself with sales of coins. Mr. Barford previously appeared to be in agreement on that point.

    3. For Mr. Barford, the Post article was sourced to the Antiquities Coalition (which has its own agenda) and Prof. Danti, a State Department contractor whose work has been questioned by Jason Felch. No real support is given for their assertions other than the import data. While it would be interesting to look further into that, one right away sees a huge disparity between the values imported and the wild claims of the value of material ISIS supposedly has looted.

  6. “As for finding coins, yes you need metal detectors. One certainly cannot find them by digging random holes in the sand” Absolute tosh, Mr Tompa. I have in my time found hundreds of coins and have never in my life used a metal detector on an archaeological site. I suspect I am not alone in this. Find out what the facts are before attempting to lecture archaeologists on where archaeological finds are found (duh)… . Your statement is inherently ridiculous. In any case why do you think a Moslem, even a brown skinned one, cannot twiddle the knobs on a detector control panel? Have you ever tried to use one and failed, perchance? Ask John Howland on your blog how to do it.

    Ad. 3 первый) Nobody was saying categorically the book was “proof” of anything. Those of us (including academics like Dr Hardy and Prof Elkins) who are trying to find out (rather than simply deny like the dealers and their paid lobbyists) what is happening would like to explore the various pieces of information which may or may not shed light on what is going on. Coin collectors were invited to help, I see coin dealers oppose that action (Welsh on your blog).

    As for point three (bis), Mr Tompa, are you suggesting that Deborah Lehr (to whom the WaPo information was directly credited) is lying? Lies in Washington, Mr Tompa? Whatever next?


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