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For some years now rumors have been circulating among antiquities afficionados in Israel about a huge coin hoard discovered along the Dead Sea shore. According to Donald Zvi Ariel, head of the coin division at the Israel Antiquities Authority, an acquaintance from Haifa University approached him 15 years ago with an envelope containing 190 ancient coins. The contact recounted visiting the Dead Sea, at a spot somewhere south of Ein Feshkha, sticking his hand down into shallow water and bringing up a handful of coins from the bottom. Since the area where the coins were found is in the West Bank, Ariel refrained from examining them carefully and sent the envelope to the office of archaeological affairs at military government headquarters.

Military officials in charge of archaeological finds looked into the matter, and the story also spread among antiquities thieves, assorted treasure seekers, and the antiquities dealers of East Jerusalem. Word of the discovery of a remarkably large coin hoard even appeared in several scholarly papers, but the affair was not widely publicized. An article by Ariel about the hoard will appear in coming months in a periodical published by the Israel Exploration Society.

Finding ancient coin hoards is something collectors and archaeologists know all about. It's hard to find the hoards because whoever hid them back in the day made sure to bury them and camouflage them well. One of the known coin hoards discovered in Israel is the one found at Mamshit (Kurnub) east of Dimona. There were close to 9,000 silver coins there, worth a bundle. A large hoard of silver Tyrian shekels was discovered 40 years ago in Isfiya on Mount Carmel and most of it wound up in private collections. A long list of other coin hoards come up in stories of antiquities dealers and collectors from Israel and around the world.

Unprecedented numbers

The coin hoard from the Dead Sea didn't inspire great excitement because the bronze coins were very simple; there are plenty like them in Israel and their value is low. For comparison's sake, the market value of ancient silver coins dating from the Second Temple period can reach into the hundreds and thousands of dollars each. Tiny silver coins of the "yahad" type go for thousands of dollars on the antiquities market (the inscription yahad appears on today's shekel in a form copied from the ancient coin). Silver shekels dating from the Great Revolt era and coins minted during the Bar Kochba Revolt also fetch hundreds and thousands of dollars. There have been rare coins sold for tens of thousands of dollars at auctions, and a few coins went for as much as $100,000-200,000.

Archaeologist and antiquities dealer Lenny Wolf of Jerusalem says that until just a few years ago, coins of the sort found at the Dead Sea were valued at between $10-20, depending on the mint condition and the coin's state of preservation (their value dropped to as low as $5 per coin in the past few years because the market was flooded; it has lately rebounded). A few years ago, Wolf also heard about the big hoard found at the Dead Sea. An Arab merchant told him he had purchased many coins from that hoard, and after lengthy negotiations Wolf took tens of thousands of coins off his hands.

What's special about the Dead Sea hoard is the sheer number of coins. Wolf estimates, and several scholars concur, that there are 300,000 coins. That is an unprecedented number by Israeli and perhaps worldwide standards. Another interesting aspect of this hoard is that all of the coins, with a few exceptions, are from a single series: Pruta coins minted in the reign of the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus (Yannai), who ruled from 104-76 BCE.

The average weight of each coin in the hoard is less than a gram. There are larger coins weighing over 3 grams and tiny ones weighing a tenth of a gram. Most are relatively well preserved because they rested for over 2000 years on the floor of the Dead Sea, with its low-oxygen waters.

One side of the coin displays a ship's anchor surrounded by the Greek inscription "King Alexander." The anchor is a royal symbol of the Seleucid rulers (heirs of Alexander the Great), and Ariel believes that Jannaeus adopted it to give his coinage standard value. In his book "A Treasury of Jewish Coins," numismatist Yaakov Meshorer maintains that Alexander Jannaeus may also have wanted the anchor symbol to highlight the fact that he conquered the coastal towns in the Land of Israel, from Acre in the north to Gaza and Rafah in the south.

The flip side of the coin displays an eight-pointed star, surrounded by a crown; in the spaces between the star points appears the Hebrew inscription "Yehonatan the king" (the Hebrew name of Alexander Jannaeus).

The Widow's Mite

In view of the enormous number of coins and their low value, the question that arose was how the hoard ended up there? Who threw away, or hid, so many coins, whose total weight could reach 200 kilograms. And why did they do it?

The hoard's location could help formulate theories. The coins were found several dozen meters from the shore. Their discovery was made possible because the waterline has receded greatly in recent years and anyone bathing in the shallows could have come across them. There is an ancient Israelite fort on the nearby beach, excavated by archaeologist Yizhar Hirschfeld. That beach used to have a pier to which boats were secured, and it is very possible that sacks containing these coins fell overboard from a ship during a storm. For what were the money sacks intended? Perhaps for paying the salaries of Alexander Jannaeus' soldiers serving in the area, and perhaps for soldiers posted at the Macherus fort on the eastern short of the Dead Sea.

Another interesting theory is proposed by archaeologists Hanan Eshel and Boaz Zisso. Eshel is a veteran researcher familiar with the Qumran and Dead Sea sites, who co-published with Zisso an article on the line from the Sages, "Shall lead you to the Dead Sea." Apparently there are several Talmudic teachings concerning the appropriate way to dispose of prutot, the ancient equivalent of pennies given to the Temple, which for various reasons could not be brought there: the money must be "led to the Dead Sea" to be lost there. Eshel and Zisso suggest a link between "the literary-halakhic data and the thousands of coins discovered in recent years along the shore between Ein Feshkha and the Midin ruin."

The beach where the coins were found is near the Kidron estuary, which was flanked by trails leading down from Jerusalem, and the scholars hypothesize that the bronze prutot were brought there by opponents of mainstream Judaism who therefore refrained from bearing offerings to the Temple. Instead of donating the money, they tossed it in the sea.

Where is the hoard now? Most of the coins apparently found their way into the hands of American antiquities dealers. Lenny Wolf says the Americans found they could profitably link these coins to the New Testament story of the Widow's Mite (Mark, 12; Luke, 21) : "As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. `I tell you the truth,' he said, `this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.'"

Some 200,000 prutot from the hoard were sold to devout Christians in the United States, mostly in the Bible Belt region. "They did a good job selling the story about the poor widow's offering," says Wolf, who saw those coins lying in handsome boxes and inlaid like medallions in jewelry. Tens of thousands of coins are spread among merchants, collectors, and jewelers in Israel, and it is possible that many more coins still lie in the shallow waters of the Dead Sea south of Ein Feshkha.