For more than 20 years, children visiting the Israel Museum in Jerusalem during the winter festival of Hanukkah have had the opportunity to go home with an “ancient” coin. Struck by the kids on a small mint in the museum’s Youth Wing, the souvenir is an exact, albeit one-faced, replica of an ancient coin.
Perhaps too exact, it turns out.
International media, including this journalist at The Times of Israel, reported last week on the find of a rare 2,000-year-old half-shekel by 8-year-old Halamish girl Hallel Halevy. It turns out that this “coin,” far from being ancient and significant, is one of tens of thousands of these one-faced souvenirs minted at the Israel Museum over the past two decades.
The Times of Israel was alerted to the misidentification on Sunday morning by Dr. Haim Gitler, chief curator of Archaeology and the curator of Numismatics at the Israel Museum.
“There is no chance that it is authentic; it is not an ancient coin. Even to call it a coin is to exaggerate what it is,” Gitler said. He said he is positive that Halevy’s coin was made at the Israel Museum on a recent Hanukkah because all the markings are 100% identical to the mold there.
“Whether it was 2016 or 2015, that’s more the question,” said Gitler. Gitler said the museum considers the piece a souvenir, not a “fake” coin. “You can’t really call it a fake, because it is not intentionally created to misrepresent”; rather the souvenirs are made for educational purposes, with one side purposefully left blank precisely so as to prevent misidentification.
Gitler explained that every Hanukkah, one of the activities the museum offers is for children to mint their own “ancient coin” out of a lead alloy. Chosen as a soft “white metal” material which the kids can easily imprint by striking a small hammer on the museum’s tiny mint, lead can blacken when aged, but would shine when polished.
Hallel Halevy’s coin was found near a 2,000-year-old archaeology site called Chubalta while she was picking up her little sister from kindergarten. It stayed in her small treasure chest over the summer, until an older sister spotted it and advised her to show her father Shimon, a lawyer.
The legible side of the coin is adorned by a three-branched pomegranate plant with the words “Holy Jerusalem” written in ancient First Temple lettering. With a black tarnish which, when Hallel rubbed it, turned shiny, the coin clearly appeared ancient. For more information, father Shimon turned to a neighbor, Bar-Ilan University Prof. Zohar Amar, who is a specialist in the history of nature and daily life in ancient Israel and served as the head of the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology in 2004-5 and 2009.
Amar stressed in an initial article in Israel National News, which broke the story, and to The Times of Israel the need for a more thorough examination. When Shimon Halevy brought him the coin, he made a preliminary examination of the piece. After checking its typography with his home library of archaeology books and weighing the coin, Amar suspected it was a rare half-shekel coin dating from the Great Jewish Revolt against the Romans sometime during the years 66-70 CE.
Amar told The Times of Israel on Sunday that “to the naked eye, the coin appears authentic, but it’s impossible to know what it really is until it’s been checked in the labs.”
“It’s quite possible that Gitler is correct, but until it’s been checked by the labs, we can’t know for sure,” said Amar.
As Halamish is a settlement in the West Bank, the implementation of the Israeli law which requires citizens to hand over all antiquity finds is overseen by the archaeological unit of the Civil Administration, or COGAT. On Wednesday, the coin was handed over to a COGAT archaeologist, who, said Amar, also thought the coin authentic and gave 8-year-old Hallel a certificate of recognition.
According to father Shimon, the archaeologist thanked the family for its service. He examined it and “said we won’t get it back because it is an archaeological item,” said Shimon on Sunday. “He didn’t express any doubt” as to its authenticity.
Shimon said there is a “need to reverify, of course,” and he awaits final results before speaking with his daughter Hallel.
In response to a query from The Times of Israel questioning whether the COGAT archaeologists consider the coin authentic, a spokesperson wrote, “Last week a coin from the Second Temple period was found in Halamish. The coin was transferred to the head of the archaeology office in the Civil Administration today, and after performing the required examinations we will be able to provide more information on the matter.”
For the Israel Museum’s Gitler, however, it’s a closed case.
“I’m a million percent sure, and even that is an understatement,” he said.