Bronze coins dating from the 4th year of the Jewish Revolt
A hoard of bronze coins dating from the 4th year of the Jewish Revolt, found in 'Hirbet Marzouk' near Jerusalem. Photo by Israel Antiquities Authority
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Israel Antiquities Authority
The 114 coins had been minted together in the 4th year of the Jewish Revolt. But they weren't worth much. Photo by Israel Antiquities Authority

A cache of weathered bronze coins dating from the Jewish Revolt against Rome was discovered while excavating a previously unknown ancient village, itself discovered while doing works to expand the highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Israel Antiquities Authority said last week.

The 114 coins, dating from 69/70 C.E., bear a motif associated with the Sukkoth holiday: a bundle of lulavs (palm fronds bound up with a myrtle branch and a willow branch) between two etrogs (citrons). Around the image is the inscription in Hebrew “Year Four”, that is - the fourth year of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans (69/70 CE).

On the reverse side, the coins bear a telling inscription, "For the redemption of Zion." This inscription characterizes coins from the fourth year of the revolt, when Simon Bar Giora took over the leadership. During the second and third years of the revolt, when the rebels were led by John of Giscala, newly minted coins bore a twist on that message: "For the freedom of Zion."

"They are not referring to religious redemption, but to salvation. In other words, the minters of the coins were expressing a hope that the revolt would end well," says Dr. Donald Zvi Ariel, head of the coins division at the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The Jewish Revolt failed, by the way, again, leading to the destruction of the Temple by the vengeful Romans on Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av), around 2,000 years ago.

In fact the village itself was closely tied to the fate of the Jews. The town was founded in the late 1st century BCE; but it wasn't fated to last long. It was razed after the end of the great Jewish Revolt of 70-73 CE. However, it was quickly rebuilt and reinhabited in the late 1st century CE – only to be destroyed, once and for all, after the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

Dig a road, find a village

The remains of the ill-fated village were found thanks to the Israeli habit, under law, of doing archaeological inspection and salvage on sites slated for development. In this case, an Israel Antiquities Authority inspector, Eyal Marco, noticed ancient pottery sherds during infrastructure works by the Netivei Israel highway company.

The previously unknown settlement was dated to the late Second Temple period. Because the village is near Ein el Marzouk, a spring that only dried up a few decades ago, the archaeologists have dubbed it "Hirbet Marzouk."

The hoard itself was concealed in the corner of a room, perhaps inside a wall niche or buried in the floor, the IAA says. Two other rooms and a courtyard belonging to the same building were also exposed during the dig.

“The hoard, which appears to have been buried several months prior to the fall of Jerusalem, provides us with a glimpse into the lives of Jews living on the outskirts of Jerusalem at the end of the rebellion," said Pablo Betzer and Eyal Marco, excavation directors on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, in a statement.

Money to buy arms?

Jewish coins of the era were characterized by images that strictly obeyed the second commandment: "Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth". Apparently lulavs and etrogs don't fall into that category.

The lulav (date palm frond) and etrog (citron) are two of the four species associated with Sukkoth http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/high-holy-days-2013/high-holy-day-news-and-features/.premium-1.547775, the other two being hadas (myrtle) and aravah (willow). The holiday is one of rejoicing and redemption: in fact, back in the time of the first Temple, it was considered the most important of the Jewish holidays.

"All the 114 coins are of the same face value and all were minted the same year," says Betzer. "From that we can conclude that the jug they were found in was not the money box of a farmer or a family that lived in the village, but belonged to someone who received this entire sum at once. He probably received the money from the leaders of the revolt in order to purchase weapons or other provisions that were needed by the rebels. It's possible that he himself was a member of the leadership.”

If so, they wouldn't have bought many arms, though. Ariel says the monetary value of the hoard was not great.

"All 114 bronze coins are perhaps equal in value to one silver coin. That reinforces the theory that this is not the hoard of a synagogue or a community, but of a single person," he says.

Destruction on the route to Jerusalem

The trove and the buildings surrounding it enable a glimpse at Jewish life on the outskirts of Jerusalem at the end of the revolt, says Betzer and Marco. One thing that evidently characterized Jewish life at the time was fear.

The village dubbed Hirbet Marzouk lies along the ancient road to Jerusalem. Because the coins were kept in a single vessel, Betzer and Marco suspect the owner hid it when he heard Roman soldiers arriving in the village.

Going by the evidence at the dig, the fears of the hoard's owners were well based.

"This small settlement was totally destroyed," says Betzer.

When precisely isn't clear: it could have been when the revolt was finally quashed for good, in 73-74 CE. Or it could have happened a bit later.

Despite the destruction, there is some evidence that the town was rebuilt towards the end of the first century. In one room, intact pottery vessels were found that were typical of the period of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, half a century later (it was fought between 132 and 136 CE). That rebuilt settlement was also destroyed, though.

It seems that the inhabitants fought against the Romans with the Bar Kokhba forces, and suffered the same bleak outcome. The town was never to be rebuilt again.