Medieval Coin Stashes by the Black Sea Hint at Prosperity Between Invasions

Archaeologists excavating Phanagoria, an old capital near the Crimean Peninsula, find sixth-century hoards shoved into hiding places that may attest to high living – and frequent wars

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Stash of coins hidden in a jar in Phanagoria
Stash of coins hidden in a jar in PhanagoriaCredit: Vitaly Timkiv / Volnoe Delo Foundation
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

How well-off were the people of medieval Phanagoria, betwixt and between invasions? Inquiring minds want to know.

Actually the people may have been quite well-off for the times, the fifth and sixth centuries, judging in part by stashes of coins found by Prof. Mikhail Abramzon, a numismatist and senior researcher at the Phanagoria archaeological expedition, and colleagues while excavating this regal city on the Black Sea.

Just today, Tuesday, the expedition found yet another stash, with 25 coins, expedition representative Ruben Bunyatyan shares.

Aerial view of the Phanagoria excavation, summer 2022Credit: Vitaly Timkiv / Volnoe Delo Foundation

Phanagoria was established by the Greeks in 356 B.C.E. on the coast of the Taman Peninsula – just across from Crimea – in what is now southern Russia. Archaeological exploration of the city began in the 19th century and is now being funded by the Volnoe Delo Foundation founded by the industrialist Oleg Deripaska, who is currently subject to U.S. and European sanctions.

Earlier this summer the team found a cache of 30 copper staters (Greek coins minted in the Bosporan Kingdom) in a layer dating to the sixth century.

That stash was found between two burned-out houses, which, taken with other evidence, suggests that the coins were lost or hidden during one of the sudden attacks on Phanagoria, the researchers say.

Medieval Phanagoria was often invaded by various nearby tribes including the Huns and the Turks, Bunyatyan points out.

Copper Bosporan coins found at PhanagoriaCredit: Vitaly Timkiv / Volnoe Delo Foundation

“There is plenty of evidence suggesting that the inhabitants were parting with their ‘wallets’ in haste and/or involuntarily,” says Bunyatyan. “Many such wallets were found next to skeletons pierced with arrows or buried under burnt logs or roofs.”

Altogether, nearly 20 caches of a thousand coins or more each, which the researchers believe represent savings, have been found in Phanagoria, as well as about two dozen wallets – pouches typically containing a few dozen coins. In the 2021 season the archaeologists found one “fat” wallet with 80 coins shoved into an amphora, an ancient Greek jar.

Inscribed stone found at PhanagoriaCredit: Vitaly Timkiv / Volnoe Delo Foundation

The archaeologists posit that “wallet” pouches served for day-to-day expenses while the larger stashes were savings: money set aside for a rainy or invader-plagued day. If this hypothesis about the wallets’ content covering a day’s costs is accurate, then the caches dubbed “savings” could have sufficed for a few weeks, the archaeologists say.

Based on this latest find and similar discoveries around the Taman Peninsula, Abramzon and his colleagues believe they can roughly paint a picture of living standards on the Black Sea coast in early medieval times.

Fat cats fly too

To be clear, the city evidently also had its elites, whether merchants, leading craftsmen, or usurers. One cache dating to fourth-century Phanagoria contained around 4,000 copper and silver coins; some stashes contained gold coins too. Another had about 8,000 and one monster had 21,000, but the researchers suspect that this wasn’t a personal fortune but the budget for a garrison. It was intended to pay soldiers.

In any case, if the coins weren't recovered and enjoyed, one may surmise that their owners fled forever more or died.

Discoveries at Phanagoria excavation by the Black Sea, summer 2022Credit: Vitaly Timkiv / Volnoe Delo Foundation

Bunyatyan notes that while Bosporan currency was only minted until 341 C.E., it remained in use for hundreds of years. Following the rise of the Byzantine Empire, Byzantine gold coins also circulated in Phanagoria – among the rich. Ordinary folks continued to use Bosporan coins.

Where did the Phanagorians and other peoples of the Taman Peninsula hide their money, thieves and raiders not being a modern phenomenon?

The bigger hoards were found in all sorts of locations – in stoves, holes in the floor or basements, or jammed under porches and sometimes even in what is believed to have been outhouses, the researchers say. Thus, along the Taman Peninsula coast, roughly 100 coin stashes have come to light, most dating to the city’s later period: the fifth and sixth centuries, the team says.

Amphora at Phanagoria, vessels used for wine, oil, liquid and secret stashesCredit: Vitaly Timkiv / Volnoe Delo Foundation

That rainy day

Phanagoria had been the eastern capital of the Greco-Scythian Bosporan Kingdom, but serial invasions changed control over the city from time to time.

To be clear, the researchers have no idea how much the money in the wallets – typically between 30 to 80 coins – could buy. Prices and the value of money in medieval Phanagoria remain unknown, and there are scant written sources to suggest how much meat or a new cooking pot or shoes might have cost.

The team's thesis that a typical “savings” cache of about 1,000 coins could support a family for about a month is simply based on the assumption that the wallets contain a day’s spending, Bunyatyan explains.

That sounds terrible. Today a family with savings sufficing for mere weeks would be considered in serious trouble, but in those days it may have been pretty good.

Gold artifacts found at PhanagoriaCredit: Vitaly Timkiv / Volnoe Delo Foundation

“Given that in most parts of medieval Europe, most people were typically working to earn their keep, the fact that the inhabitants of Phanagoria had some ‘savings’ may actually hint at a rather high standard of living,” Bunyatyan explains.

That fits with the knowledge that Phanagoria was a prosperous seaport and had one of the first Christian diocese (run by a bishop) in the region. In other words, today a month’s savings and no more could spell catastrophe, but in sixth-century Phanagoria it “wouldn’t have been too bad,” Bunyatyan says.

Phanagoria also had a Jewish community, proved by the discovery of dozens of gravestones embossed with menorahs – and two rare inscriptions.

Menorah carving on Jewish gravestone in medieval PhanagoriaCredit: Vitaly Timkiv / Volnoe Delo Foundation
Greek inscription found in Phanagoria, related to the Jewish communityCredit: Vitaly Timkiv / Volnoe Delo Foundation

One, dating to 16 C.E. (the date was carved in) has the word “prayerhouse” in Greek, which the archaeologists believe refers to a synagogue. The other bears the date 51 C.E. and the legend “synagogue.” “These are the oldest mentions of synagogues on the territory of modern day Russia,” the team says in the email.

The bottom line is that the numismatic discoveries add to the wealth of finds in Phanagoria and paint a picture of relative prosperity in the sixth century despite the serial upheavals in the region.

Christian artifacts, Phanagoria excavation, summer 2022Credit: Vitaly Timkiv / Volnoe Delo Foundation

In another Bosporan Kingdom town, Hermonassa, a bundle of coins was found on the threshold of an ancient temple, and several dozen more were found on the temple floor. In Kitey, also a Bosporan city, a pouch was found in the stove of a house.

Since none of these stashes were retrieved back in the day, one may surmise that their owners had to flee and did not return, or were killed. But they may have lived quite well before that evil day.

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