By: David Hendin
Readers of Israeli newspapers and archaeology blogs for the last few years have seen a notable uptick in the number of coin finds reported by “good Samaritans” (both Israelis and tourists) and turned into the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), as well as some newsworthy numismatic finds at licensed excavations.
This led The Ancient Near East Today to ask me to look into the finds and their importance, as well as other numismatic discoveries in or related to Israel. I recently returned from Israel, where I talked with numismatic scholars, officials of the Israel Antiquities Authority, licensed antiquity dealers, and collectors. Here is my report.
Important Numismatic Discoveries
I surveyed several colleagues (Donald T. Ariel, head of the IAA coin department; Danny Syon, IAA chief scientific officer; Haim Gitler, chief curator of Archaeology and curator of Numismatics, Israel Museum, and Boaz Zissu,, department head and professor of archaeology in the Land of Israel and Archaeology Studies, Bar Ilan University) for their opinions about the most important numismatic discoveries related to ancient Israel in the past 15 years—the conclusions are mine:
- All agree that the hoard of 264 gold solidi of Heraclius (610-641 CE) discovered in 2008 at excavations in the Giv’ati parking lot, outside the Dung Gate in Jerusalem belongs high on the list. All 264 coins were found in context, and were struck from the same pair of dies. This suggests the coins were struck nearby in Jerusalem, the only time gold coins were likely minted in Jerusalem. Ben-Ami and his colleagues also believe this find provided strong evidence for the Persian destruction of Byzantine Jerusalem in 614 CE.
Running neck-and-neck with the Giv’ati parking lot hoard was the February 2015 discovery of more than 2,800 medieval gold dinars, in the ancient Caesarea harbor. Some 60 coins were found and turned in by a local diving club. IAA divers promptly returned to the site and found the 2,800, likely cargo in a ship. Yaakov Sharvit of the IAA reported that most of the coins were struck under the Fatimid Caliphate, which dominated the Mediterranean coast of the Middle East and Africa from the 10th-12th centuries CE. The oldest coin in the group was a quarter dinar minted at Palermo, Sicily in the 9th century CE. The latest dated to 1036 CE.
- In a 2013 auction at Numismatica Ars Classica (32, May 16, 2013) a Vespasian gold aureus with the unique reverse legend IVDAEA RECEPTA was purchased by David and Jemima Jeselsohn (it is now on display at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem). Gambash al. concluded that the coin is authentic. Based on legend, design, and portrait style, numismatists believe it was issued prior to the standard IVDAEA CAPTA victory series commemorating the Roman victory in the First Revolt (66-70 CE). The RECEPTA legend is “in direct contradiction to a triumphal ceremony and the dedication of arches to Titus for his victory over the Jews…” they write (p. 98), and conclude that this coin “expresses what must have been an earlier and short-lived policy, completely opposed to the one eventually adopted, and for that reason immediately discarded…” (p. 100). It may have been Titus “who impulsively rushed to declare, that Judea was back under the yoke (Iudaea recepta), only to be called to order by his father. In this case our coin is likely to have been minted in Judea, either in Jerusalem or somewhat later in Caesarea Maritima” (pp. 100-101). Donald T. Ariel of the IAA believes that the importance of this coin “has not even begun to be assimilated by historians.”
- In 2011 Ariel reported that 49 limestone flan mold fragments had been found in the southern Levant, mostly unpublished, and another 26 similar fragments were found in Paphos, Cyprus. Flan molds were used to cast blank strips of metal, later struck and chopped apart to create the low-value bronze coins called prutot struck in the ancient Land of Israel. These small mold fragments (often only 2 or 3 inches on a side) are worthless and have no possible use. Thus the presence of mold fragments in any location is a strong indicator that there was an ancient mint nearby. This raises the likelihood that the prutot struck from the time of Hyrcanus I (135-104 BCE) until the end of the Jewish War (70 CE) were not struck at a single mint, but at numerous locations in Judea and the Galilee, and possibly concentrated in and around Jerusalem.
- In 2008, this writer discovered (in a group of legally purchased Jewish prutot) a Hasmonean coin that had been triple struck. Understanding the coin provided closure to a decades-old discussion about the identity of the ruler Yntn, now known to be Alexander Jannaeus (104-76 BCE) rather than one of his successors, whose name appears on tens of thousands of overstruck Hasmonean coins.
- In 2009 Boaz Zissu and colleagues discovered several coin hoards at hidden at the Te’omim Cave in the Judean Hills. One of the hoards of Bar Kokhba silver coins included two sela’im (tetradrachms) struck from previously unknown dies. Another small hoard included Roman, Roman Provincial, Bar Kokhba, and First Revolt silver coins—the first time that First Revolt and Bar Kokhba (132-135 CE) coins have ever been found together in a licensed excavation. This allows a better understanding of the Bar Kokhba coins struck some 63 years after the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. The hoard was also a “treasure” of sorts, besides the then 65-year-old shekel, it also contained a bronze sewing needle, and a worthless Hasmonean prutah struck some 200 earlier, suggesting that hoard owner collected historic coins!
- In 2002 an assemblage of more than 1,700 bronze prutot of Alexander Jannaeus was found during a survey near Khirbet Mazin on the shore of the Dead Sea, near the Ein Fashka Spring. More than 300,000 coins of identical description entered the market beginning a few years earlier and were likely also found near Khirbet Mazin. This area was apparently once a royal dock and Hanan Eshel and Boaz Zissu have theorized these are coins cited in rabbinical literature, brought for a ceremony to “nullify” them according Jewish law, by dropping them into the Dead Sea. Another theory simply posits they were part of a large group of coins being shipped across the Dead Sea, for reasons not yet understood, around the first quarter of the first century BCE.
Recently a number of altruistic Israelis have turned in or reported coin finds to the IAA. The most important was the diving club that retrieved and turned in some 60 gold coins, leading to the discovery of the underwater hoard off the coast of Caesarea, discussed above.
- In June 2015, an elementary school boy found a medieval gold dinar at an as yet undisclosed location;
- In March 2016 a Trajan aureus was found at a site in Galilee (no further information has been released on the identity of the site due to fear of future illicit digging there); <INSERT 12-13>
- In July 2016 a coin of Alexander Jannaeus was found during renovations at the Franciscan compound near the New Gate of Old City, Jerusalem.
These are the most interesting of a dozen or so good Samaritan incidents, quite significant, Ariel points out, because such reporting is a relatively recent phenomenon. Each time a person finds an ancient coin and turns it in to the IAA it enables further research and may provide other historic clues.
The IAA has established a program in which every person who finds and turns in a randomly discovered ancient coin or other ancient object receives a special certificate of recognition from the IAA, and, as always, their names are recorded in permanent IAA records associated with the coin or object.
IAA Rules on Buying and Exporting Ancient Coins and Objects
The antiquities trade is a controversial issue. But the 1978 Israeli antiquities law provides for the legal trade in ancient artifacts, including coins, which is overseen by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Senior members of the IAA’s coin and robbery prevention units were anxious for me to present the guidelines on the legal purchase of coins or ancient objects.
- It is legal to purchase ancient coins and objects only from dealers with current IAA licenses.
- Once a buyer purchases an item and receives a receipt (which must include the dealer’s specific inventory number), the object and receipt must be presented to the IAA for export approval.
- It is highly recommended by the IAA that the dealer should SHIP the object to the buyer after the export license is received. All licensed dealers maintain a numbered photographic database of their inventories, and these records are transmitted via computer to the IAA offices.
- Purchasers who wish to carry their objects out of Israel must make appointments with the IAA numismatic department, which will view the coins and then forward the request for export to the Antiquities Robbery Prevention Unit for final approval. This process can often take several weeks, as well as a time-consuming appointment for the initial examination. For this reason shipping by the dealer is recommended.
David Hendin is first vice president and adjunct curator at the American Numismatic Society and author of Guide to Biblical Coins, 5th Edition and 16 other books.
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