Archeologists shouldn’t disdain coin collectors, former curator of the American Numismatic Association Lawrence J. Lee says.
With his new 68-page book, The Coins of Fort Atkinson: a study in numismatic archeology, Lee says numismatists can make a solid contribution to cross-disciplinary academia. He uses the coins recovered from Fort Atkinson as a model for doing so.
He writes, “Although called both ‘a very exacting science’ and ‘an academic discipline,’ the field of numismatics as practiced in America has little recognized scholastic standing. While much of the rest of the world has national numismatic museums and coin cabinets curated by recognized academic scholars, America apparently only has hobbyists and charlatans on late night TV.
“The lack of perceived value for numismatics is particularly apparent in the archeology of the Great Plains, where the indigenous economy was not based on bullion value, where coin hoards like those found on the eastern seaboard are basically non-existent and where coins and other numismatic items are considered to be ‘historic’ and thus intrusive to the prehistory of the region. In such a setting, any numismatic finds are often casually and inexactly described, poorly photographed and left uninterpreted as to cultural meaning or context.
“After reviewing the inexact manner in which coin finds have been handled at several Plains archeology sites, this paper reexamines a published, excavated historic site in Nebraska in order to demonstrate the depth and insight a careful re-analysis of numismatic material can add to a site’s cultural as well as historic interpretation.
“Fort Atkinson was at the time of its service (1819-1827) the westernmost fort in America and the earliest settlement in what is now Nebraska. It had a complex, interconnected economy that included fur trade, barter, bullion specie (including coins from many countries and mints as well as U.S. coinage), credit, lay-away plans, soldier certificates, Treasury warrants, Treasury notes, bank drafts, checks and bonds.
Over 120 coins and coin ‘bits’ were recovered from Fort Atkinson during 10 seasons of excavation. This book for the first time described all of the individual coins from a numismatic perspective that adds significantly to the understanding of life on the military frontier and will hopefully serve as a reference tool for future archeological discoveries of numismatic items in the Great Plains region.
“This is a special archeological site,” Lee writes. “This is a U.S. Army post on U.S. Territory staffed by U.S. soldiers being paid mostly in uncirculated silver American half dollars.
“Some of these half dollars were then chopped into ‘bits’ by the Army paymaster, which is possibly one of the first times the U.S. government cut up its own money to make small change. These coins and coin bits then circulated around the fort before being lost on site, only to be archeologically recovered almost 200 years after the fort’s abandonment. One would expect that the majority of coins from the site would thus be American coinage.”
In fact, Lee writes that he found 90 percent of the coins, including those lost within the fort barracks, were Spanish colonial silver pieces.
Lee said that as an extension of his 2006 doctoral dissertation on numismatic education in the United States, his research is significant for several reasons. Not only is it an analysis of the coins and coin bits from an important early American historic site with multiple economies, but the book also serves as an example of the methodological structure that all standardized numismatic research needs to follow to be academically relevant: statement of the problem; review of the literature; data collection; data analysis and conclusions and recommendations.
One doesn’t need to agree with the conclusions, Lee says, as long as the data behind the conclusions is available for others to replicate and evaluate on their own. He says numismatists have developed a literature and terminology that modern archeologists would profit greatly from understanding and using. Lee also challenges archeologists to question some of their own assumptions about the use of wampum on the Great Plains, how and why coins are holed and whether holed coins necessarily mean they were used as decoration by Native peoples as is the default assumption.
Carl Wolf, secretary of the Chicago Coin Club was a reader of an advance copy of the manuscript and also listened to a presentation Lee gave on Fort Atkinson to the CCC back in October. Wolf wrote “Coin stories with an archeological perspective are always fascinating. However, most are based on coin hoards discovered in Europe or Asia. This story springs from the American frontier, today’s Midwest. Lee’s research into the history of Fort Atkinson and the coins uncovered among its ruins has set a high bar on numismatic archaeology. I was one of the fortunate few who read a draft of the work. I admire Lee’s talented writing style; his storytelling is concise and complete.”
The Central States Numismatic Society provided the grant that funded Lee’s research.
The Coins of Fort Atkinson is priced at $24.95 plus $2.95 postage ($27.90 total) and is available exclusively from Deibus Noe Publishing, P.O. Box 6171, Lincoln, NE 68506. Nebraska residents must add an additional 7 percent sales tax on each book.
Payment can be made by check or money order, no credit cards will be accepted. PayPal may be an option. There is a publisher’s discount for orders of 10 or more copies. Lee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.