A treasure trove of 24 gold coins and a gold earring was recently discovered in a well-hidden bronze pot during ongoing excavation and conservation work in the ancient harbor of Caesarea. Found among the hoard of Fatimid dinars are six extremely rare 11th century Byzantine coins, of which less than a handful have been discovered in Israel.
“On the whole they are very, very rare,” said Israel Antiquity Authority coin expert Dr. Robert Kool in conversation with The Times of Israel from the windy coastal city of Caesarea. “These coins usually did not travel beyond the political borders of the Byzantine Empire.”
According to IAA archaeologists, all indications point to a treasure that was hidden during flight from the bloody Crusader battle of 1101 at the seaside stronghold, in which the ruling Fatimid empire was routed and its people massacred or taken as slaves.
“There is a feeling is that the hoard was put away in quite a quick way,” said Kool.
The bronze pot in which the trove was held for the past millennium — itself a valuable item — was secreted between stones in a 1.5 meter-deep subterranean watering hole. Usually, said Kool, a hidden coin hoard is placed in a ceramic vessel. This bronze pot, which shows indications of once having an original metal lid, was given a makeshift ceramic stopper before being placed into the watering hole.
“The people broke a piece of ceramic and put it in as a stop-gap lid so the coins wouldn’t fall out,” said Kool. The valuable pot, plus the hiding place and makeshift lid, all point to flight, he said. “It really seems to add up to the Crusader conquest, which was a pretty dramatic event.”
Baldwin I of Jerusalem was behind the Crusader conquest of Caesarea in 1101. After his coronation in Jerusalem on December 25, 1100, he captured a series of port cities from the Egyptian-based Fatimid empire, from Acre to Sidon, and fought several battles at Ramle, which is strategically placed between landlocked Jerusalem and the Fatimid port city of Ashkelon.
The fleeing Caesarea residents whose treasure was recently discovered would have belonged to a wealthy Fatimid family, said Kool. Because of the extreme rarity of the Byzantine empire coins, he speculated that it may have been a family of international merchants.
“I would even say somebody who had some kind of trade connections with Constantinople due to the exceptional coins from empire of Constantinople. We never, ever find them here. They were not in circulation,” said Kool, who could name off-the-cuff only two others that had been excavated, both in Acre, one of which dates to 100 years after the Caesarea find.
After preliminary identification, the latest Byzantine coin dates to 1079. The team of archaeologists and numismatics experts has yet to clean the Islamic dinars, which will give further dates, since the Islamic Fatimid coinage is all stamped with its mint and date of striking.
“It’s so early in the day [since the find] that we haven’t even been able to date the Fatimid coins,” he said, but looking at the context and the coins themselves, he dates the majority of the find to the end of the 11th century.
Kool identifies five of the six rare “Christian” coins as belonging to the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas (1071–1079). These rare, concave gold coins did not circulate locally, he said, which perhaps gives a hint at contacts or potential trade relations between Caesarea and Constantinople during the period. The sixth, round coin dates even earlier, to the 1028-34 reign of Romanus III, he said.
To put the value of the hoard into perspective, Kool said in a press release that “one or two of these gold coins were the equivalent of the annual salary of a simple farmer, so it seems that whoever deposited the cache was at least well-to-do or involved in commerce.”
He told The Times of Israel that in this hoard, the money was in circulation during the 11th century. “It smells like somebody who had some kind of trade connection with the Byzantine empire,” he said.
That a family or tradesman would hold on to a coin for circa 80 years is not at all surprising, said Kool. The coins represented much more than purchasing power, but rather were a family’s holdings, and had “shelf lives of up to 100 years,” said Kool. In other archaeological finds, such as a familial “saving hoard” discovered in the 1960s, the trove’s coins spanned several hundred years, from the Umayyad period to the late 10th century.
“Coins were not just coins in a nominal way, but appreciated as pieces as gold. People knew how many karats of gold were in a coin,” he said, adding that the dinars were all 24k gold, whereas the Byzantine coins were 22k. “Contemporary people knew these things and valued the coins as pieces of bullion.”
An archaeological ‘miracle’
The continuing excavations at the ancient port of Caesarea are directed by the IAA’s Dr. Peter Gendelman and Mohammed Hatar in cooperation with the Caesarea Development Corporation and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. They are sponsored by the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation, which is investing more than NIS 150 million ($40 million) into the World Heritage site.
According to Guy Swersky, vice chairman of the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation, part of the goal of the project is to make it accessible “to hundreds of thousands of tourists from Israel and around the world.”
The multi-year Caesarea project centers around the Herodian sacred structures which were built some 2,000 years ago. The newly discovered treasure was discovered in a well in this area, in a house within the Fatimid and Abbasid neighborhoods, which were built 1,000 years after Herod’s temples.
The recent coin cache was unearthed in a spot close to where two other treasures of the same period were discovered in earlier excavations: in the 1960s, a pot of gold and silver jewelry, and in the 1990s, a collection of bronze vessels. Both finds are now displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, according to the press release.
Speaking by telephone from Caesarea, Kool told The Times of Israel that he showed some of the coins to a group of appreciative schoolchildren touring the site today. “The coins are so beautiful and they were so happy to see them. That’s what we do it for, to bring it to the public.”
Michael Karsenti, CEO of the Caesarea Development Corporation, elaborated in a comment on the find’s press release. “With its discovery, we immediately mobilized our resources and this rare find is now displayed at the Caesarea Port from today onwards for the duration of the Hanukkah holiday.”
For Kool, however, the Hannukah miracle has already happened. He acknowledged that institutions are always trying to find significant ways to tie holidays to their finds. “But this year, ironically, everything came together,” he said.
“A little vessel — albeit bronze — but full of Islamic and Christian coins found close to the Jewish feast of Hanukkah… I find it significant,” he said. “You can be cynical about it, but on the other hand, for us, in terms of the archaeology it’s a small miracle to find something like that.”
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