Even as the Jewish people on Lag B’Omer Thursday celebrate the heroism of Simon Bar Kochba in rebelling against the pagan ruling Roman Empire in 132 CE, a tangible symbol of the revolt — a single bronze coin — was recently discovered in a limestone cave outside of the central Israeli city of Modiin.
The discovery of a single bronze coin from the Bar Kochba Revolt so far from the Jerusalem area, until recently considered the center of the rebel’s efforts, is important evidence for historians in corroborating the broad geographical spread of the revolt and its supporters, who presumably took refuge in the new Modiin cave.
Historians have traditionally held that the revolt had little support among residents who lived north of Jerusalem. This coin, along with recent discoveries of other refugee caves, points to rebel activity in the area.
The coin is etched on one side with a seven-branched date tree bearing two bunches of dates, and the inscription “Shin-mem-ayin” for Shimon, the leader of the revolt. On the other is a grape leaf and the abbreviated inscription, “Leherut Yerushalayim” or “For the Freedom of Jerusalem.”
The coin was unearthed during continuing excavations in the West Bank in an archaeological project launched in 2014 to survey southern Samaria. It is a joint excavation between COGAT — the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Bar-Ilan University, and Ariel University.
“We assume there are many archaeological artifacts that have not yet been discovered in the Judea and Samaria region,” said Hananiya Hizmi, head of the COGAT archaeology unit. “We are working in cooperation with many bodies, with the goal of uncovering and discovering historical pieces from the Jewish people in the area.”
The unit is already meeting this goal with the discovery of the bronze coin and other artifacts. Also found in the cave, located near the Arab village of Qibya, were potsherds and glass shards which have been dated to the revolt as well.
The Bar Kochba Revolt, which lasted three and a half years, was the last and arguably greatest of several Jewish uprisings against foreign rulers in ancient times. The rebels prepared well ahead of time and according to the 3rd century historian Dio Cassius, Roman legions were brought from other Empire outposts to quell it.
Dio Cassius writes that some 50 Jewish fortresses and over 1,000 settlements were destroyed, along with hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives lost. Rabbinical leaders who supported Bar Kochba were executed, including the scholar Rabbi Akiva, who had anointed Shimon as Bar Kochba (Son of the Star), a messiah for the Jews.
One of Akiva’s most revered students was Shimon Bar Yohai, who hid with his son, Rabbi Eleazar, in a cave for 13 years after criticizing Roman rule. He is said to have died on the 33rd day of the Omer, known as Lag B’Omer, which was celebrated throughout the Jewish world on Wednesday night with bonfires. Today, the bonfires are also considered a symbol of the Bar Kochba revolt.
Stamping out a foreign power
The Bar Kochba coinage is unique in its widespread systematic recycling of old coins, which were re-stamped, or overstruck, with the Jews’ diecasts. According to leading numismatist Yaakov Meshorer in his 1997 “A Treasury of Jewish Coins,” the reason was political — for revenge.
Findings in the Herodian Fortress, the administrative base of the revolt, he writes, indicate that a full-fledged mint could have been set up. Instead, the rebels physically stamped out the Roman symbols, replacing them with Jewish ones. The faces of some coins, including the bronze, were slightly filed to smooth the surface before stamping the Bar Kochba die.
There is debate over the highly symbolic hypothesis given by Meshorer, who died in 2004, for the overstuck coins. In a brief conversation with Donald T. Ariel, head of the Coin Department at the Israel Antiquities Authority, he said the conflict conditions could have meant the rebels “didn’t have time or wherewithal” to make unstruck blanks, but gives each reason a 50-50 chance of accuracy.
The coins from the third year onwards were not inscribed with a specific year. Instead, they are categorized officially as “undated,” but are identified by their common inscription: “Leherut Yerushalayyim” or “For the Freedom of Jerusalem.”
The rebels never made it to Jerusalem, said Ariel. Rather, they used the slogan as a rallying cry.
Interestingly, according to Meshorer, one way of further dating the coins developed upon observation that the coins’ diecast was increasingly cracked through use. Therefore a fissure appears clearly on coins minted in the later years.
The cracks themselves could be a window into the wartime conditions. The IAA’s Ariel said they are not surprising when “you’re having this mint in the middle of nowhere.” For Ariel, the cracks are “a sign that they’re striking them way beyond the normal lifetime of the die, or don’t know how to make them not crack.”
According to Meshorer, the “undated” coins make up the majority of the Bar Kochba Revolt coin finds — more than the first two years’ mintings combined. They were also better preserved, which he writes is “testimony to the fact that their period of use was shorter than their predecessors.”
Following the failed revolt, Jews were not autonomous in the Holy Land and there is very little indication that they minted their own currency. Therefore, writes Meshorer, the Bar Kochba coinage with its rich Jewish symbolism, is the highlight of ancient Jewish minting.
While there are several hundred Bar Kochba coins in the vaults of the Israel Antiquity Authority, each provenanced in situ find is exciting, said Ariel.