Robert Carson

British Museum curator and leading expert on Roman coins

Monday 03 April 2006 00:00

Robert Andrew Glendinning Carson, museum curator and numismatist: born Kirkcudbright 7 April 1918; Assistant Keeper, Department of Coins and Medals, British Museum 1947-65, Deputy Keeper 1965-78, Keeper 1978-83; FBA 1980; married 1949 Fransisca De Vries (one son, one daughter); died Sydney, New South Wales 24 March 2006.

Robert Carson was the leading British expert of his generation on Roman coins. He joined the staff of the British Museum as Assistant Keeper of Roman Coins in the Department of Coins and Medals in 1947, a few months after his life-long colleague Kenneth Jenkins, an expert in Greek coins.

Their arrival coincided with the start of the slow recovery of the museum from the effects of the Second World War, when most of the staff had left to take part in the war effort and the collections were evacuated from London. The fabric of the museum, including the offices of the Coin Department, was much damaged by bombing and it was not until about 1960 that the department was able to return to permanent accommodation when its bombed offices were finally rebuilt.

In 1951 Carson was joined by Michael Dolley, an expert on British coins, and two years later by John Kent, another expert on Roman coins but whose responsibilities included the collection of medals. Together they formed a very disparate but vibrant group of colleagues, all very different in character and temperament, who collectively rebuilt the pre-war traditions of numismatic scholarship in which the department had been pre-eminent, above all through the publication of monumental catalogues of the collection which are still standard reference works today.

Robert Carson was perhaps the most level-headed and sensible of the group and as a result he gradually took on a heavier administrative burden. Although there were personality clashes between some of his colleagues, Carson was trusted by all sides and often had to act as peace-maker. When, in 1965, Jenkins was appointed Keeper, it was Carson who effectively ran the department, as Deputy Keeper. Jenkins retired at the age of 60 in 1978, five years before he needed to, and it was believed that he did so in order to give Carson the opportunity to hold the Keepership before he retired. Carson was Keeper for five years until 1983.

Carson was much in demand as a lecturer and was also one of the first numismatic scholars to appreciate the need to bring his expertise to a wider audience. During a period of some 10 years from the mid-1950s a series of major works flowed from his pen. His book Coins (1962) was a remarkable conspectus of world coinage from sixth-century BC Greece to the present day. Although this approach has since had many imitators, Carson's book was a pioneering work of its kind and demonstrates a remarkable breadth of knowledge.

However, it was in his prolific contributions on Roman numismatics that Carson has left his most lasting legacy. Some of his most important work was done in collaboration with his brilliant but mercurial colleague John Kent and the slim volume they published, together with a third colleague, Philip Hill, in 1960, Late Roman Bronze Coinage, provided a groundbreaking and elegantly compact classification of the bronze coins of AD324-491, a period neglected by previous scholars because of the sheer volume and complexity of the coinage. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this work, still the bible of Roman numismatists after more than 40 years, has revolutionised our understanding of the extremely common coins of this period.

Two years later, Carson continued the series of catalogues of Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum, initiated by his predecessor Harold Mattingly, with volume VI, covering the period from Severus Alexander to Pupienus (AD222-238). This was the first attempt to classify the coinage of these reigns and it remains the definitive reference. Carson's last major work, published in 1990 after he retired, was a volume in Methuen's "Library of Numismatics" series, Coins of the Roman Empire. Had this book been published 20 years earlier, it would have been the last word on the subject but sadly, by the time it did appear, the scholarship was rather dated.

Born in Kirkcudbright in 1918, Carson graduated with a first-class honours degree in Classics from Glasgow University where one of his teachers was Professor Anne S. Robertson, curator at the Hunterian Museum and a specialist in Roman coins. After war service in the Royal Artillery, Carson joined the staff of the British Museum.

One of the most potentially exciting but also time-consuming responsibilities of curators of Roman coins at the British Museum is to study hoards of coins reported under the common law of Treasure Trove. Carson's career spanned the period when metal detectors started to become widely available and these led to a huge increase in the numbers of hoards being discovered. He quickly became frustrated by the irrationality of the old common law under which only hoards of gold and silver coins received legal protection and, making use of new evidence from the metallurgical analysis of Roman coins, successfully argued that hoards of late Roman coins that contained a silver content as low as one or two per cent should be regarded as Treasure Trove.

In this way, many important hoards which might otherwise have been dispersed were recorded and acquired by museums. But the practice had to stop in 1982 when, as a result of a legal challenge, the Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning no less, decided that only objects with at least 50 per cent of gold or silver could be Treasure Trove. (It took another 14 years before a new law, the Treasure Act, finally brought in an objective definition of treasure.)

Robert Carson was in great demand as a reviewer and also as an editor. It is typical of his generosity and selflessness that he spent so much of his own time bringing other people's work to publication. He was always willing to share his time and expertise, especially with a younger generation of his colleagues, one of whom at least has every cause to be grateful for his endless patience.

He was actively involved in the affairs of the Royal Numismatic Society, editing its journal for 10 years and serving as President from 1975 until 1979. He also, with Hugh Pagan, wrote its history (History of the Royal Numismatic Society, 1986). Carson was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1980 and received an honorary doctorate from his old university, Glasgow, in 1983. He had an international reputation - he was President of the International Numismatic Commission from 1979 to 1986 - and many numismatic societies around the world awarded him their medals, starting with the Royal Numismatic Society in 1972.

After his retirement, Robert Carson and his wife Fransisca moved to Australia to join one of their children who had emigrated there.

Roger Bland

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