Three extremely rare Jewish-minted coins dating from the 4th century BCE were recently discovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project, doubling the number unearthed in ancient Jerusalem to date. These coins are among the earliest testaments to Jewish minting in the Land of Israel.
But they’re easy to miss: The coins are only 7 millimeters in diameter and of an almost negligible weight. Made of silver, their design is based on the Athenian Obol and utilize its barn owl motif, representing the goddess Athena. However, instead of the Greek letters ΑΘΕ for Athens, they bear an inscription in ancient Hebrew — “yhd” or Judah.
The Sifting Project has uncovered over 6,000 ancient coins during its systematic meticulous study of thousands of tons of Temple Mount earth haphazardly discarded during unauthorized renovations of a subterranean mosque in the late 1990s.
Only three were clearly identified as these silver Yehud coins minted in Jerusalem by Jews during the Persian era, as well as two others which are suspected to be of the same class.
All told, in Israel to date there are 193 archaeologically provenanced coins which were minted locally throughout the Holy Land during the Persian era. Among them are only 51 Yehud coins.
The Yehud coins were minted during a rare period in which Jews semiautonomously ruled under the Persian Achaemenid Empire, from circa 539-332 BCE, in a province called Yehud Medinata. With a capital in Jerusalem, Yehud Medinata existed for some 200 years until the conquest of Alexander the Great.
This period is recorded in several books of the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Nehemiah describes the trials and tribulations of Nehemiah, once an important cup-bearer to king Artaxerxes I of Persia, who requested to be governor of Yehud/Judah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem following the Babylonian conquest.
Additionally, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the second book of Chronicles testify to the building of the Second Temple upon a decree from Cyrus the Great, who ruled from 559 BCE. In the Book of Ezra, it is recorded that Darius the Great completed the construction, circa 516 BCE.
These Yehud coins are a material manifestation of the era, and stem from the end of the brief Jewish rule under the Persian Empire. According to the now deceased preeminent Israeli numismatist Yaakov Meshorer, the Yehud coins would have been minted circa 350 BCE.
But clearly based on foreign coinage, they weren’t so “Jewish” in character.
“The only Jewish symbol on these coins is the lily, characteristic of Jewish art in Jerusalem and a frequent design used in the Temple,” writes Meshorer in a 1978 Biblical Archaeology Review article, “The Holy Land in Coins.”
Likewise, the principle large-denomination coinage used in the region at the time was still minted outside the Holy Land. “Coins of smaller value came from local mints, principally Gaza and Jerusalem. These smaller local coins varied from 1 drachma (4 grams of silver) down to the smallest denomination, the hemiobol (1/3 gram of silver),” writes Meshorer.
Yehud, a ‘new’ class of coin
In the late 1990s, the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement and the Waqf, the Jordanian administrators of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, removed 9,000 tons of antiquities-rich earth from the Temple Mount and dumped it in the nearby Kidron Valley. It was discarded during unauthorized renovations of the Temple Mount’s subterranean “Solomon’s Stables,” to enlarge its contemporary use as an underground mosque, according to the Sifting Project.
In 2004, archaeologists Dr. Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira (Zweig) founded the Sifting Project in an effort to salvage what precious artifacts could be found in the rubble. The pair developed a system of “wet sifting” buckets of earth over mesh screens, and sorting the materials into categories such as glass, mosaic, metal, bone, clay, and stone.
Some 70 percent of the recovered dirt has been wet-sifted to date, primarily at the project’s previous headquarters in Emek HaTsurim, abutting the Mount of Olives.
Today, the project, conducted under the academic auspices of Bar Ilan University’s Institute of Archaeology, is now concentrating on research and the publication of its half a million finds — and growing. A pilot project, taking the wet sifting method on the road, was recently launched in which truckloads of dirt are taken to different localities and scrutinized by school pupils and community members.
According to a Sifting Project press release publicizing the coin finds, “The relatively high number of such coins found by the Sifting Project is a result of the wet-sifting methodology perfected by the project, and the fact that the Temple Mount functioned as an administrative and commercial center during the early days of the Second Temple in addition to being the site of the Temple itself.”
But it was not immediately clear to numismatic researchers that the Yehud coin class originated in Jerusalem.
During the Persian era in the Land of Israel, in addition to the Jerusalem “Yehud” coin mint, there were four other local mints which generated coins, including the Philistian, Edomite, Samarian, and Dor classes.
Interestingly, the Yehud class of coin was first identified only in 1934 by pioneering Israeli archaeologist Eleazar Sukenik. In an article, he included in this new class a drachm, which was known already from the 18th century, as well as a Palestinian collector’s obol, and a hemiobol, which had been excavated in 1931 at Beth Zur, a site of biblical import located south of Jerusalem close to Hebron.
Unlike other locally minted Persian-era coins, which had clear markings to indicate where they were struck, at the time it was still unclear where these Yehud coins were minted. Only 38 years after Sukenik’s article another Yehud coin was uncovered, this time at an excavation in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood, 2 km north of ancient Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, unearthing these coins in situ became increasingly difficult. Following 1967’s Six Day War, “clandestine antiquities theft had produced a growing number of coins [on the market] from within this series,” according to a 2016 article on the subject by Israel Antiquity Authority coin department head Donald Ariel called, “The Circulation of Locally Minted Persian-Period Coins in the Southern Levant.”
Many coins from this period made there way to the market via looting and antiquities dealers. However, while archaeological provenance of these coins was insecure, the coin dealers “spoke of findspots south of Jerusalem,” he writes.
Through archaeological data analysis it was determined that Yehud coins were concentrated in Judea, writes Ariel, although they were also discovered outside the province, including at Mount Gerizim in Samaria.
Only in 1977 was it resolved that Jerusalem was indeed the location of the Yehud class mint. Writes Ariel, “Owing to the paucity of such coins in excavations within the capital, and the fact that the inscriptions on the coins did not read yršlm (Jerusalem) but rather yhd, yhwd or (later) yhdh (Judah), the location of the mint was not immediately clear. In fact, it took some time before a consensus was reached that the mint was Jerusalem, the capital of Judah.”
The Sifting Project is optimistic it will uncover even more Jerusalem-based Yehud coins in the remaining 30% of earth it has yet to investigate.
In a YNet article, co-director Dvira said, “Throughout the 150 years of archeological digs all across the sites of ancient Jerusalem, only five of these coins were ever found. We have now found three whole coins, along with two eroded ones, apparently from the same series, and assume we’ll find more in the future.”