A hoard of rare bronze Jewish Revolt coins has been discovered at the recently renewed Ophel excavations. The trove of dozens of bronze coins minted during the last years of the ill-fated four-year rebellion of the Jews against Roman rule was uncovered in a cave just south of the Temple Mount by Hebrew University archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar.
The Ophel excavations, located below the Temple Mount’s southern wall, were relaunched in early 2018 after a four-year hiatus. They garnered international headlines after the publication of the recent “Prophet Isaiah” seal impression, which was discovered in the lead-up to the current dig season.
Some 50 years ago, another hoard of Year Four coins was discovered by Prof. Benjamin Mazar, Eilat Mazar’s grandfather, who conducted the Temple Mount excavations near Robinson’s Arch abutting the Western Wall following the 1967 Six Day War.
The recently discovered bronze coins are remnants left by hidden Jewish residents of besieged Second Temple Jerusalem, who sought refuge in the 7×14 meter cave in 66-70 CE, according to a press release from the Hebrew University.
The majority of the bronze coin hoard dates to the revolt’s final year, or Year Four (69-70 CE). They are decorated with Jewish symbols, including the four plant species associated with the holiday of Sukkot — palm, myrtle, citron and willow — and a chalice that may have been used by priests in the Temple.
The coins display a paleo-Hebrew inscription, which shifted — arguably reflecting the mood of the rebels — during the revolt from earlier years’ “For the Freedom of Zion,” to Year Four’s “For the Redemption of Zion.”
“A discovery like this — ancient coins bearing the words “Freedom” and “Redemption” — found right before the Jewish Festival of Freedom — Passover — begins is incredibly moving,” said Mazar in the press release.
The coins were found alongside broken pottery vessels, including jars and cooking pots. A Hasmonean Period layer is found at the base of the cave and these finds were uncovered directly above.
The cave, said Mazar, was undisturbed since the Second Temple period, creating a “time capsule” of Jewish life during the revolt.
Mazar stated in a promotional film about the renewed excavation that the cave was most likely used in the last days of the rebellion, just ahead of the destruction of the temple. Part of the current excavation’s goal is to further understand the use of the cave, which shows habitation from the First Temple period and perhaps before.
The Ophel excavations are located within the Walls Around Jerusalem National Park, which is managed by the National Parks and Gardens Authority and the Eastern Jerusalem Development Company. They are funded by the Herbert W. Armstrong College of Edmond, Oklahoma, whose students volunteer there.
“This is an opportunity that doesn’t occur every day, to investigate a completely untouched cave at that important area of Jerusalem, just to the south of the Temple Mount in the area of the Ophel. It’s not going to be dull,” said Mazar.
A rare find of Year Four bronze coins
The Ophel bronze coin find is remarkable in that until today, most of the Jewish Revolt coin finds have dated to Year Two, when the Romans made great strides against the Jewish rebels. In fact, “the small amount of coins minted in the third year, and almost a complete lack of coins from the fourth year, indicates that most of the country was re-conquered by the Roman army fairly soon after the beginning of the revolt,” writes Robert Deutsch in his 2017 “The Coinage of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, 66-73 C.E.”
According to Deutsch, the bronze coins of the second and third years “are abundant and negligently manufactured.” The fourth year coins, however, “are of a slightly higher quality.”
A recently published essay in the journal Israel Numismatic Research, “The Coin Finds from the 1968–1969 Excavations at Herodium,” points out that the Year Four bronze coins also bear different letter forms in that the letters bet and tsade “have some varieties and the shin is sometimes rounded and sometimes angular,” whereas the silver shekels have only an angular shin.
Interestingly, there are no known mixed silver and bronze coin hoards from the first Jewish revolt, according to the INR essay: Silver coin hoards have only been found in Jerusalem and Masada, whereas bronze hoards dating to “year four” were found in Jerusalem, the site of the rebels’ mint, Herodium, and ‘Ein Mazruq.
The essay refers to different studies which have hypothesized that the Year Four bronzes were minted by Simon Bar Giora, the leader of one of the major Judean rebel factions, “but that these coins were part of the wartime economy and were used by all the rebels and not only by Bar Giora’s followers.”
According to the scholars, “the hoarded bronze coins dating to ‘year four’ were found around and quite close to Jerusalem. This accords with the historic situation whereby at that time much of the country was captured by the Romans and only Jerusalem was still under rebel control.”
Rebels, such as those who may have hid in Mazar’s Second Temple cave, would have had access to the coins, and perhaps hid them for a brighter future.