Israeli archaeologists recently found an extremely rare silver coin dating from the period of Persian rule in the land (6th–5th centuries BC) at an excavation site in the Judean Hills, Israel’s Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced on Wednesday.
The importance of this special find lies in the way it sheds light on the transition from the use of cut pieces of metals to the very beginnings of the world’s first minted currencies.
The coin itself is of a very rare type, and now joins a limited collection of about one dozen coins of its kind discovered through legal excavations in Israel.
“The coin was minted in a period when the use of coins had just begun,” explained Dr. Robert Kool, Head of the IAA Numismatic Department.
The coin was found intentionally broken or cut in two pieces, indicating a later use in the 4th century BC as a weighed piece of silver rather than a coin.
This phenomenon is rare in numismatics, the science of interpreting ancient coins. It is interpreted as a testimony to the use of precious coins for various purposes of trade and payment. The purpose of cutting coins was to halve their value, for example, or sometimes to use them as tokens, which was often the case with bronze coins.
The halving of this coin, in its specific context and at a time when cut and weighed precious metals just began to be replaced by archaic coins minted and struck out of silver or gold, shows that the practice of cutting and using metal pieces for their weight continued even after coins came into general use.
“The rare find contributes information concerning the way trade was carried out, and the process whereby global commerce moved from payment by weighing silver pieces, to the use of coins.”
The coin belongs to a group of very early coins that were minted outside of Israel, in the regions of ancient Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. “In the 6th–5th centuries BCE, such coins began to appear at sites in the Land of Israel,” Kool added.
Unlike later examples, the coin was minted with a square stamp embedded into one face, while in later centuries, more sophisticated techniques were developed to produce coins with protruding features.
The Greek kings in the 7th and 6th centuries BC, who ruled in the northern Levant and throughout Asia Minor, decided to have their signs minted and struck on the pieces of silver that, until then, were used for commerce.
To strike a royal symbol on a piece of silver was an official way to prove the metal's authenticity and quality for traders and international markets.
This coin is, therefore, a testimony to the transition from the use of simple cut and weighed pieces of silver and gold, like the sheqels used in the times of Abraham (Genesis 23:16) and King David (2 Samuel 24:24) to the minted currencies we have known until today.
It is also proof that the Holy Land has always been an important place of passage for trade since the very first minted coins were found there.
In addition to the rare coin, archaeologists revealed an even earlier building from the First Temple Period and a sheqel weight, again testifying to the presence of trade and commerce.
These kinds of weights and their importance in everyday life are often alluded to in the Bible, for example: "Honest scales and balances belong to the Lord; all the weights in the bag are of his making," according to Proverbs 16:11.
Another example can be found in Proverbs 20:23: "The Lord detests differing weights, and dishonest scales do not please him."
“A characteristic ‘four-room house’ was uncovered from this period, and the sheqel weight, found on the floor of one of the rooms in the house, provides early evidence for trade,” noted excavation directors Michal Mermelstein and Danny Benayoun.
“The dome-shaped stone weight would have been used for weighing metals, spices, and other expensive commodities. The sign on the weight was an ancient Egyptian (hieratic) abbreviation for the word sheqel, and the single incised stroke represents one sheqel,” the archaeologist said.
The excavation site is situated in the rural surroundings of the Judean capital city of Jerusalem. The settlement was first founded in a period of an active settlement policy, during the time of the First Temple in the 7th century BC, as the biblical kings of Judah, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon and Josiah reigned over Judea.
“It is always surprising how important findings are discovered in unexpected places. The tiny coins are a crucial source of information in archaeology,” said Eli Escusido, director of the IAA.
“They provide us with visual details, inscriptions, and dates. Through a tiny object like a coin, it becomes possible to trace human thought processes and observe that our economic habits have remained largely unchanged for thousands of years - only the technology has changed. In this context, it is interesting to consider future archaeological research in a world that has adopted electronic commerce.”
Aaron Goel-Angot is a Belgian-Israeli archaeologist with an expertise in antiquities identification. He is an enthusiastic numismatist and a licensed tour guide. He holds a BA degree in archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He joined the ALL ISRAEL NEWS team as an Archaeology and Tourism correspondent. Aaron is married, father of three young children and lives in Jerusalem.