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2242NEWS: Israel Museum obtains worl d’s ‘first Jewish coin’

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  • Carl Sandler Berkowitz
    Dec 21, 2013
      Apologies for cross-posting.

      Sent: Friday, December 20, 2013 4:17 PM
      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
      of Judea

      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
      Jewish coin.”

      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,
      and lions.

      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
      shown above.

      “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.