2242NEWS: Israel Museum obtains worl d’s ‘first Jewish coin’
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NEWS: Israel Museum obtains world’s ‘first Jewish coin’
The Times of Israel
December 19, 2013, 12:10 pm
Israel & the Region
Israel Museum obtains world’s ‘first Jewish coin’
American donor gives Jerusalem institution collection of 1,200 silver
Persian coins, including 4th century BCE drachm with earliest mention
By Ilan Ben Zion
The Israel Museum has acquired over 1,200 ancient silver Persian
coins, among the earliest known currency from the area, including what
the museum has identified as the world’s oldest Jewish coin.
The coins, dated to the 5th and 4th centuries BCE when the region was
controlled by the Persian Empire, constitute “the largest collection
in the world of Persian-period coins.” The collection includes a
number of previously unknown varieties, the museum said. Chief among
the rare artifacts is a silver drachm, an ancient coin based upon the
Greek drachma, which, in clearly legible Aramaic script, bears the
word yehud, or Judea.
“It’s the earliest coin from the province of Judea,” the museum’s
chief curator of archaeology, Haim Gitler, said in an interview with
The Times of Israel, calling the 5th century silver drachm the “first
The coin collection dates to the period a century or more after the
Achaemenid Persian Empire under Cyrus II (the Great) conquered and
annexed the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE. The Persians ruled the
Levant for the next two centuries, until Alexander of Macedon stormed
through and toppled their empire. Roughly a century before Persia
conquered the Middle East, the earliest known currency was minted from
electrum — a silver-gold alloy — in Lydia, western Asia Minor. The
idea of precious metal coinage spread across the empire. Judea,
Samaria and Philistia, part of the satrapy of Syria and Jerusalem,
began minting their own coins shortly thereafter.
The 3.58 gram yehud coin — a hair or two lighter than today’s one
shekel coin — was reportedly found in the hills southwest of Hebron
and was bought at auction by New York antiquities collector Jonathan
Rosen. Rosen, ”one of the world’s most important private collectors of
Mesopotamian art” according to The New York Times, agreed to donate
his entire collection of Persian-era coins to the museum in March
2013. The acquisition was completed in November. Apollo, an
international art magazine, ranked the collection among the top museum
acquisitions of 2013.
Although there are a handful of other examples of coins bearing the
name Judea, Gitler said the silver drachm was a “unique coin” in its
design, and was likely minted in Philistia, the coastal plain
encompassing the modern cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon and Gaza, for use
in the province of Jerusalem. “Only later did Judea start to mint its
own coins,” he said.
Then, as now, Judea, Samaria and Philistia sat at the crossroads of
civilizations and at the far reaches of the Persian Empire, and local
artisans would imitate styles from coins that arrived from abroad. The
coinage represented in the collection consequently exhibits a stunning
array of artistic influences from Persia, Greece, Anatolia and Egypt.
Many coins feature owls, a symbol closely associated with the goddess
Athena, both of which appeared on Greek drachmas in antiquity. Other
coins bear images of deities, heroes, mythical beasts and animals
familiar to the Middle East — including camels, horses, cows, eagles,
The Judean drachm’s iconography is representative of the local fusion
of artistic designs. Emblazoned on its obverse is a gorgoneion, a
Greek icon of the head of a gorgon which serves as a talisman against
evil, but its hair is stylized like the Egyptian goddess Hathor. On
the reverse side is a lion astride a cow with the Aramaic letters yod,
heh and dalet. The exact meaning of the coin’s iconography remains
Based on the stylization of the gorgon head, which in earlier
incarnations was demonic and bestial and over the centuries became
more anthropomorphic, and the style of the Aramaic script, Gitler
dated the coin to the early 4th century BCE.
“We barely have any information or texts describing the Persian period
in Palestine, so almost all that we know comes from these coins,” he
said. Gitler explained that the tiny images engraved in silver offer a
glimpse into the appearance, manner of dress and language spoken by
inhabitants of the region at the time.
It is clear from the collection that the die-engravers of Persian
Palestine who designed the coins demonstrated a proclivity for
creative expression unseen elsewhere in the empire, creating a “local
flavor” of coinage, Gitler said. Coins from Tyre and Sidon, just up
the coast, have a much smaller variety of styles.
A Philistian drachm from the late 5th century BCE in the collection
employs a clever example of “optical trickery” in its design, he
noted. When turned 90˚ counterclockwise, the lion on the coin’s
reverse becomes the helmet of the bearded man, and its paws becomes
the man’s hair. Gitler said such illusions were fairly common, noting
that a Samarian coin from the same period showed the head of a bearded
man whose face is composed of two faces in profile. Hidden owls also
roost within the designs of other creatures.
“The coins really show us a variety of motifs which is unequaled” in
the Persian Empire, Gitler said. ”It shows that the people who were
designing these coins weren’t just making the coins because they had
to do them, but they enjoyed doing it.”
A selection of coins from collection is now on display in the Israel
Museum’s Archaeology Wing, including the lion optical illusion coin
“Of course in the future we’ll start incorporating more of the
collection,” he said, voicing interest in holding an exhibition of a
selection of the coins in the collection which he said would be “even
more amazing” than the White Gold exhibit in 2012 that showcased the
world’s earliest electrum currency.