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That new coin hoard from the Sasanid invasion

March 22, 2017

Hello, and welcome to the latest installment of “Ian rambles about the latest archaeology news.” I’ve seen this story shared in various forms on the various Near Eastern archaeology social media thingummies, and I’ve read it with interest each time. This is, in part, because much of the reporting on it has been . . . rather strange. The gist of the story is that archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority found a hoard of nine 6th and early 7th century AD copper folles in salvage excavations at ‘En Hemed, and based on the dating of the latest coins have suggested that they were hidden prior to the Sasanid invasion of 614.

It’s been reported in the Jerusalem Post (use an ad blocker!), which seems mostly to rely on the IAA press release, and a much stranger article has also appeared in the Washington Post. I’m sure there are other versions out there, too, though I can’t imagine any are quite as strange as that one.

First, the less strange one. As I mentioned, the Jerusalem Post story mostly seems to repeat the IAA press release, but with nicer photos. The major contribution seems to be that in the JPost story the hoard is called “rare,” which is probably not the word I would use, as quite a few hoards can be attributed to the Sasanid invasion. In fact, to quote Alan Walmsley (2007: 324), “Quite a few hoards can be attributed to the Sasanid invasion.” Beyond that, it’s a bit weird that both the JPost article and IAA release give dates of birth and death for each emperor, which, when discussing coins, is somewhat less useful than regnal dates. (It would, indeed, be quite rare to find a coin of Phocas dating to 547 AD, as that’s 55 years before he became emperor. . .) This isn’t a huge issue, though, and the rest of the release seems pretty straightforward.

The dating issue is corrected, at least for the reign of Phocas, in the Washington Post version. Sort of. They give the dates as 604-609, which is not quite right for the reign of Phocas, but I suspect the archaeologist, Annette Landes-Nagar, has narrowed this down on numismatic grounds. I’m not a numismatist (and the coins are, as would be expected in a news story like this, not presented in much detail), so I’m not totally sure. I am, however, more sure that it is not accurate to say that Landes-Nagar “estimated that the coins were minted sometime between 604 and 609 because they bear the faces of Byzantine emperors of the time,” considering that the hoard also contained issues of Justinian and Maurice, neither of whom was Byzantine emperor at that time.

I imagine that at this point you’re saying to yourself, “I don’t know. That doesn’t seem that weird.” Agreed. That is just me being nitpicky. What’s weird is that, of the 18 paragraphs that make up the article, only five are about the ‘En Hemed excavations. The rest seems to be about the archaeological evidence for early Christianity in Israel and, uh, the existence of Jesus, for some reason. The first, we’re told, is “a potent point, offering proof of the Christian connection to the Holy Land and the Middle East, alongside that of Judaism and Islam.” This seems fairly obvious, but on the other hand, I don’t think anyone who follows the archaeology of Israel will be surprised to see the phrase “proof of the X connection to the Holy Land” in an article. So, fair enough?

Stranger is the point that archaeologists haven’t found “physical evidence of [Jesus’] existence.” True, but . . . what does that have to do with a hoard of 6th and 7th century coins? I think the idea here is something to do with the development of the Christian community, but it seems like a strange way of introducing this coin hoard, especially since that connection is never made very clear.

None of that is, of course, a critique of the excavations, and I’ll be curious to see the publication when it comes out. Considering that the hoard was found in collapse, I’ll be interested, in particular, to see if they consider the possibility that it might actually have been dropped during the earthquake of 633, as Russell (1985: 46) suggested for three houses at Bet She’an (where the latest coins, it turns out, were also issues of Phocas). That does seem less likely in this case, but still possible.

Works Cited

Russell, Kenneth W. 1985. “The Earthquake Chronology of Palestine and Northwest Arabia from the 2nd through the mid-8th Century A.D.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 260:37-59.

Walmsley, Alan. 2007. “Economic Developments and the Nature of Settlement in the Towns and Countryside of Syria-Palestine, ca. 565-800.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 61:319-352.

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