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Archaeology'A deliberate attempt to give the metal the color of silver'

Ancient forgers? Israeli researchers ID ‘dirty currency’ from 3,000 years ago

Joint Hebrew University and Haifa University research finds materials such as arsenic added to mainly copper primitive ‘cash,’ apparently to make it look like silver

  • Silver cuts from ingots used for trade prior to currency minting. (Clara Amit/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Silver cuts from ingots used for trade prior to currency minting. (Clara Amit/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • A silver hoard of pieces used for currency prior to coin minting. (Clara Amit/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    A silver hoard of pieces used for currency prior to coin minting. (Clara Amit/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Silver cuts used for trade prior to currency minting. (Clara Amit/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Silver cuts used for trade prior to currency minting. (Clara Amit/Israel Antiquities Authority)

When the Israelites arrived from Egypt in the Land of Israel some 3,000 years ago, according to the biblical account, they may have been exposed to — or even been at the forefront of — one of the earliest examples of financial fraud in the form of forged primitive currency, new combined research from the University of Haifa and Hebrew University has found.

According to a paper set to be published in the highly regarded Journal of Archaeological Science, several caches of primitive currency found in the southern Levant from 1200 to 950 BCE — the period in which some believe the Israelites arrived in the area — exhibit small quantities of silver, high quantities of copper, and significant amounts of other materials that may have been specifically added to make them look like silver.

“Despite the small percentage of silver in the silverware, they were mixed with other substances such as arsenic that made them look silver, which reinforces the hypothesis that in at least part of the period it was a deliberate forgery,” said the researchers in a University of Haifa press release. The study was based on the doctoral work of student Tzilla Eshel.

Minted coinage came to the Levant in circa the end of the 7th century BCE. Before there were coins there were proto-coins, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority Dr. Donald T. Ariel recently told The Times of Israel in a Behind the Headlines video interview. People would take pieces of silver and weigh them on a balance — usually from broken jewelry.

“This is the way Abraham paid for the Tomb of the Patriarchs. He weighed 400 shekels. There were no coins at the time. He weighed pieces of silver,” said Ariel.

The new research looked at such silver currency fragments — which predated coins by hundreds of years —  from eight caches from the period found at different locations around Israel including Beit She’an, Megiddo and Ashkelon.

According to the researchers, the currency fragments from the period were not uniform. Pieces of silver were cut to weight specifications, based on the value of a commodity. With the decline of Egypt and the collapse of the Hittite empire and Mycenaean culture, however, instability in the region and the disruption of naval trade routes resulted in a shortage of raw materials, including the silver used to conduct commerce.

Copper mixed with silver (top) forms a greenish cast in this pre-coin currency. (Yael Yelovitz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

While currency fragments dated to before 1900 BCE were found to be 100% silver, the Israeli research team said, a chemical analysis of those from the beginning of the Iron Age found many to be made of an alloy with a high percentage of copper. Some were found to be up to 80% copper, with arsenic added to make them shiny like real silver.

Although there is no definitive proof that it was intended to be a forgery, the effort to make the primitive currency shiny points in the direction of “dirty money,” the paper said.

“In addition to the fact that there was a deliberate attempt to give the metal the color of silver, we found in earlier caches dating to the late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age (1150-1200 BCE), the percentage of copper was higher and the amounts of arsenic were very similar from piece to another. That seems like an organized activity — which reinforces the assumption that it is a forgery,” the researchers said.

Silver cuts used for trade prior to currency minting. (Clara Amit/Israel Antiquities Authority)

They estimated broken trade routes from Turkey, Greece, Iran, Sardinia, and Spain likely led to a lack of silver in the area from 1200 to 950 BCE and suggested that the copper in the alloy comes from mines in the Timna area.

“It is likely that they used silver that already existed in the area from previous periods, to which they added the copper from Timna,” the paper said.

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