Sunday, January 3, 2016

Herod I’s Tangled Family Tree

Herod the Great’s family tree is long and winding, frequently doubling back into itself. Through his own marriages and the marriages (and intermarriages) of his descendants, Herod’s family was linked to many families of other near Eastern client kings of Rome. These connections supplement our view of the Herodian family, and explain how families of these client kings of Rome were often inter-connected.

Coin of Herod I, probably struck 37 BC

            Herod I himself (40 BC – 4 BC) had at least ten wives who bore him 14 children, 9 sons and 5 daughters. I certainly don’t have the time to introduce you to each of them and their descendants, but just to catch a glimpse of some of the “A list” members of the Herodian Dynasty. The Roman numerals used to identify many of the people involved often vary from reference to reference. For continuity, therefore, I am using the excellent book HEROD: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans by Peter Richardson as our primary source.
            First among royal connections was Herod’s own marriage to Mariamne the Hasmonean in 37 BC. Mariamne was the granddaughter of both Hasmonean (Maccabean) Kings John Hyrcanus II (d. 31 BC) and Judah Aristobulus II (d.49 BC). (Her parents were first cousins—Alexandra was daughter of John Hyrcanus II and Alexander II was son of Hyrcanus’ brother Aristobulus II.)
            Herod no doubt believed that this marriage would solidify his position as King of the Jews, since the Hasmonean dynasty that ruled before him was, for the most part, quite popular. By all accounts, Herod deeply loved Mariamne. Sadly, however, his paranoia (possibly somewhat justified) caused him to murder not only Mariamne (in 29 BC), but eventually also (in 7 BC) the two sons they had together, Herod Alexander II (born 36 [?] BC) and Herod Aristobulus I (born 35 [?] BC).
            Even though they died before their 30th birthdays, both of these sons of Herod and Mariamne had quite interesting of descendants.
            Herod Alexander II married Glaphyra, daughter of Archelaus, King of Cappadocia. (After Alexander’s death, and a second marriage to Juba II, King of Mauretania (25 BC – 23 AD), Glaphyra later married her first husband’s half brother Herod Archelaus (4 BC – 6 AD), ethnarch of Judaea, after he was banished to Gaul by Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD).

Juba II, King of Mauretania (photo
The son of Alexander and Glaphyra became Tigranes V, king of Armenia, who ruled for a very short time around 6 AD. According to Y.T. Nercessian, “Augustus sent Tigranes V to Armenia. He was distantly related to the Armenian Artaxiads. He was the grandson of Herod the Great of Judaea, son of Alexander and Glaphyra… His reign was short-lived and Queen Erato was placed on the throne.”  Tigranes V died in 36 AD.

Tigranes V of Armenia (photo:

            Tigranes V and Erato marked the end of the line for Artaxiad royal line, and shortly the Parthians moved into power. Nero, however, was having a difficult time controlling the Parthians. By around 60 C.E. the military/political situation with Parthia was not tenable for Rome, and Nero installed a new ruler, a pro-Roman, anti-Parthian puppet, supported by Roman troops. He was another Tigranes (VI), a usurper who was barely (if at all) related to the original Armenian royal family. As nephew of the above-mentioned Tigranes V, and a great-grandson of Herod I and Mariamne, he kept things in the family for his brief reign.

Tigranes VI of Armenia (photo:

            A son of Tigranes the usurper, Alexander VI, became King of Cetis in Cilicia, and married Iotape III, daughter of Antiochus, King of Commagene (38 – 72 AD). 

Antiochus IV King of Commagene, his daughter Iotape married a son of the Herodian Tigranes VI (photo:

            Tracing the lineage of Aristobulus I, Herod’s other son with Mariamne, is equally confusing and just as interesting. In 17 B.C.E. Aristobulus I married his first cousin Berenike I, the daughter of Herod I’s sister Salome I. This union resulted in three sons and two daughters. Here we will follow the sons.
One became Herod IV King of Chalcis (d. 48 C.E.), who first married Mariamne V, his first cousin, and later married Berenike III, his niece and the sister of Agrippa II. The son of Herod IV of Chalcis and Mariamne V was another Aristobulus, King of Armenia Minor. He was the second husband of Salome III, who exotic dance had previously enhanced her brother-in-law Herod Antipas. As Matthew reports (14:8-9), Herod was so entranced he offered Salome the reward of her choice. Then,

                Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the 
            Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he 
            ordered that her request be granted.

Aristobulus King of Armenia Minor, and his wife Salome III (photo:

A second son was Aristobulus II, who married another Iotape, daughter of Sampisgeramos, King of Emisa.
            The third son of Aristobulus I and Berenike I was Agrippa I (37-44 AD), who incorporated Judaea into his territory for the second half of his reign. Agrippa I followed family tradition and married his first cousin Kypros III, another grand-daughter of Herod the Great.

Agrippa I portrait, on the reverse is his wife Kypros III

            Among the children of Agrippa I were Drusilla, Berenike III, and Agrippa II.

Drusilla, shown on a coin struck Agrippa I, however this Drusilla is NOT the daughter of Agrippa I, but the "daughter of Augustus" who at this time was Caligula. (photo:

Coin of Agrippa II with the portrait of Vespasian.
Drusilla first married King Aziz of Emisa and later married Marcus Antoninus Felix, procurator of Judaea (54 – 59 AD) under Claudius.

Coin of Antoninus Felix, Procurator of Judaea under Claudius.

Agrippa II became the last Herodian King in the ancient land of Israel and ruled from 56 to around 95 AD. Although he never actually ruled over Jerusalem, he maintained a palace there, and wielded quite some influence with many Jews. Claudius assigned him guardianship of the High Priest’s robes in Jerusalem. Agrippa II made impassioned pleas to the Jews to give in to Roman rule instead of fighting the Jewish War (66 – 70 AD). During much of this time his sister, Berenike III, stood by his side.
It was often speculated that Berenike III stayed by her brother not only by day, but also by night, in an incestuous relationship. Aside from that it is mentioned above that Berenike’s second husband was her uncle Herod King of Chalkis.
Herod King of Chalkis, second husband to Berenike (photo:

Her third husband was Polemo II, King of Pontus (38 – 63/4 AD). And finally she nearly became the wife of the Roman Emperor Titus (79 -81 AD), with whom she had a long, well publicized relationship as his mistress. Titus went so far as to bring Berenike III to Rome and install her in his palace, in anticipation of a royal marriage. But the Roman Senate, still wary of women of the East after their experience with Mark Antony’s Cleopatra III, prevailed, and Titus ended his relationship with her.

Polemo II drachm showing Nero on its reverse (photo:

Titus Judaea Capta sestertius

Coin of Agrippa II struck in 78/79 AD said to celebrate his voyage to Rome with sister Berenice, who anticipated marriage to Titus

We can round out this summary of Herod’s descendants with a quick look at the three sons who actually inherited his kingdom after fierce contestations of their father’s will. Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee (4 BC – 40 AD), first married a daughter of Aretas IV (her name is not known to history). His second wife was Herodias, daughter of his half-brother Aristobulus I. This was also Herodias’s second marriage, since she had previously been married to another of her uncles.
 Antipas (above) married a daughter of Aretas IV of Nabataea (below)

Herod Philip II (4 BC – 34 AD), son of Herod the Great and Cleopatra of Jerusalem, became tetrarch of the northeastern section of his father’s kingdom (4 BC – 34 AD). He was the first husband of the notorious Salome III, his niece. When he died (as discussed above), Salome married her second cousin, Aristobulus IV, king of Armenia Minor.

Herod Philip II (a rare portrait coin) was first husband of Salome II, his niece (shown earlier)

Herod Archelaus, ethnarch of Judaea (4 BC – 6 AD), first married one of his niece’s Mariamne IV. After divorcing her he married Glaphyra, the wife of his half-brother Alexander, who had been murdered by his father Herod the Great in 7 BC.

Herod Archelaus’ first wife was his niece Mariamne IV.

© 2016 by David Hendin


Friday, December 18, 2015

The Poor Widow's Mite

Every year at Christmas time, folks have questions about the “poor widow’s mites” made famous by the story in Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4.
And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites (λεπτόν), which make a farthing (κοδράντης). And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had…
            The word “mite” first appears in the books of Mark and Luke in the 1525 first publication of Tyndale’s New Testament, where it was likely intended as a shortened version of the word “minute” (as in very small) and not as the name of a denomination. As the late Fr. A. Spijkerman has noted, the word lepton “implies very small coins…even we may say...the smallest coin being in circulation in Palestine at the time concerned.”
It is not surprising that scholars who did early English translations of the Bible had a tendency to “reinterpret the ancient coin denominations of the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew scriptural sources in terms of contemporary sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English money,” according to Oliver Hoover, who discussed this in detail in the ANS Magazine, 2006, 2, and points out that neither the original Greek text of the New Testament nor the Latin Vulgate Bible, mention the “mite.” Instead the Greek or Latin words used in that version are either lepta or minuta respectively.
            The word “mite” was most widely disbursed by the King James Version, printed in 1611, after work by 47 scholars that lasted nearly seven years. “Not only would this translation become one of the most popular English versions of the Bible ever published, but the artistry of its language ensured that it would also become one of the greatest single influences on the development of English literature well into the twentieth century,” Hoover said.
            The translators wished their work to “speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.” For this reason, the King James Bible and some earlier English translations are of “some interest to numismatists, given their tendency to reinterpret the ancient coin denominations of the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew scriptural sources in terms of contemporary sixteenth and seventeenth-century English money. Thus, in a small way, the King James Version serves as a document for the circulating coinage of early modern Great Britain,” Hoover wrote.
            However, there was no mite coin known to exist in British coinage of this period. “In fact, the mite (meaning “small cut piece” in Old Dutch) was only created as a circulating coin of Flanders in the fourteenth century. Initially, the mite was a small billon [very low quality silver] coin...but by the sixteenth century it had become copper,” he explained.
            One might guess, therefore, that this denomination was imported and used in Britain at the time, but “there is little evidence to support this possibility,” Hoover wrote. Even though the Dutch mite did not circulate in Britain, and no British mites existed, the mite was mentioned in sixteenth-century arithmetic books as a fraction of a farthing, varying from one-third to one-sixteenth.
            It seems quite “likely that the mite has entered into the King James Version…as a result of a translational quandary created by the original…”
            In these early versions, Mark gives the value of two lepta as a kodrantes or quadrans. But Hoover pinpoints the crunch: while “any Latin grammarian would have known that a quadrans was a bronze coin worth one-fourth of a Roman as, making its English translation as farthing (one-fourth of a penny) almost unavoidable. Unfortunately, in the English coinage system there were no denominations smaller than a farthing, creating the problem of how to deal with Mark’s lepta/minuta.”
            Thus there was no British parallel for any coin smaller than a farthing, and there is a good chance that the arithmetic term mite was thus brought into play. Hoover also speculates, however, that possibly William Tyndale’s pre-King James translation might “have been a little influenced by the contemporary Flemish monetary system when he chose his words. After all, Tyndale is known to have had good Flemish connections, and he composed and printed his translation of the New Testament while in the nearby German cities of Hamburg, Cologne, and Worms. In 1534, Antwerp became his home and a base for shipping his contraband translations into Tudor England, until he was finally arrested and executed for heresy in 1536. Thus, Tyndale is likely to have been conversant with the Flemish currency system, in which there were twenty-four mites to the penning.”
Later, during the seventeenth century British money had not been decimalized and was organized according the pound/shilling/pence system. There were 240 pence (pennies) to the pound. There were smaller denominations than the penny, such as the farthing, which was one-quarter of a penny. There was an even smaller coin, worth a half-farthing, and it was called a mite. Hence, the smallest coin in circulation in early first century Jerusalem, became known worldwide and probably for all time as the mite.
            It is logical that people who are interested in the stories of the Bible would want to know more about these coins and exactly which ones could be associated with the stories.
            Frederick Madden, in 1864, wrote that “The mite…was the smallest coin current in Palestine in the time of our Lord.”
            In 1914, Rogers wrote that “it is natural to conclude that the coins being cast into the treasury were strictly Jewish coins….the choice of strictly Jewish copper is accordingly limited to the coins of the Hasmonean or the Herodian families….and with some degree of certainty it may be said that the popular coins for this purpose were the small copper of Alexander Jannaeus and his successors…”
Whatever its origin, the poor widow’s mite has become one of the most frequently referenced and most popular ancient biblical coins.
Here are two things we know about the widow’s mite story, as related by both Mark and Luke:
            -- It is certainly a story about charity and goodwill, rather than a story about money. The poor woman gave all she had to the treasury of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, while, relatively speaking, many rich people gave little of themselves.
            -- The amount of money the widow threw into the Temple treasury was two coins of the smallest size in existence in Jerusalem at that time. There is no doubt that the small prutah (Guide to Biblical Coins (GBC) Nos. 1152, 1153) or half-prutah (GBC Nos. 1134, 1138, 1147, 1185-87), coins of the Maccabean kings and Herod the Great, fit that description. The most common among them, easily by a factor of more than 1000 to 1, is the small prutah that was most likely struck by the Hasmonean successors of King Alexander Jannaeus (103 – 76 BC), which have been documented to range in weight from 0.20 to 1.70 grams, with an average of 0.81 grams.
            The massive issue of these tiny bronze coins in this poor land filled a market need. Some versions of these coins may have been first struck very late in Jannaeus’ reign and likely continued to be minted periodically until as last as 50-45 BC. These coins were all decorated on one side with an anchor and on the other side a crude star.
            Herod I (40 – 37 BC) also minted very similar looking coins but much more scarce coins, possibly quite early in his reign, which technically began on the ground in Judea around 37 BC, these coins range in weight from 0.49 grams to 1.78 grams with an average of 0.94 grams. Herod’s coins are decorated on one side with an anchor and on the other side a crude inscription.
            The similarities of the Herodian to the Hasmonean in both design and method and general appearance coins suggest that the latter were crudely copied from the earlier ones, and archaeological finds suggest that their circulation overlapped.

PHOTO: Similarities between Hasmonean small prutot (GBC 1153, top 2 rows) and the slightly later Herodian small prutot (GBC 1173 – 1177 bottom 2 rows). Photo Copyright © 2010 by David Hendin

Both the Hasmoneans and Herod I also issued relatively small numbers of a few coin types which were clearly meant to be half denomination prutot.
The best current evidence suggests that during the first century, the Judean shekel was made up of 256 prutot. Consider that there are 100 cents to the dollar; hence this was very small change indeed. In those days one pomegranate cost only a prutah and in those days many pomegranates grew wild and could be plucked off trees in many areas (as they can today in Israel) for free.
            Archaeological evidence proves that even though these small coins were struck in the first century BC, they continued to circulate well into the first century AD when Jesus lived, and even for as long as the fourth century AD. This has been shown by archaeological excavations in Israel. At the Joint Sepphoris excavation in 1985, we found the small prutot of Jannaeus in the same areas as fourth-century Roman bronze coins. These were useful pieces of small change, at a time and place that small change was not easy to find (many late Roman and Byzantine small bronze coins were chopped in halves and quarters to accommodate the market need).
            Another aspect of the story of the poor widow’s mite remains relevant today: Many people of great means contribute little to charitable causes, while less wealthy individuals contribute a great deal relative to their ability. This is a topic fit for everyone to ponder.

Copyright © by David Hendin
(Adapted from Guide to Biblical Coins, 5th Edition)

Friday, October 23, 2015

Tributes to Legends

With Shraga Qedar in 1982, photo: Don Simon

Watching the world change as time passes is an interesting process, and I am especially sensitive about it whenever I write an obituary about one of my longtime friends and colleagues. All kinds of stories from the old days are brought to the top of the memory heap. Most recently I wrote a tribute and obituary about Shraga Qedar, my friend of 40 years for CoinsWeekly ( I have previously written obituaries for two other friends and mentors, Prof. Ya’akov Meshorer and Prof. Dan Barag, legendary teachers, authors, archaeologists, and numismatists.
Back in 1993 I wrote about two other friends from Jerusalem who died within a few months of each other. They were especially interesting because of the key roles they played in the Dead Sea Scrolls drama; they brought the scrolls to light in the first place.
In 1946, a 13-year-old boy of the Ta’amira Bedouin tribe was hiking with older friends in the cliffs on the western shore of the Dead Sea. Some say they were shepherds minding goats. Others observe that the Ta’amira Bedouins have dealt in antiquities for 150 years and they simply may have been combing those historically rich hills for artifacts to sell.
While throwing stones into a cave, the boys heard pottery break. They investigated and found several tall pottery jars containing leather and parchment scrolls. They took the scroll pieces to Jerusalem antiquities dealers, who chased the boys out of their shops. One exclaimed: “Those are old pieces of leather, not antiques. Sell them to a shoemaker.”
The boys took his advice. A shoemaker in Bethlehem named Kando also displayed oil lamps and small antiquities in his window. Kando recognized potential in the scroll fragments and bought them, although at that time the oldest known written manuscripts dated back only a few hundred years.
Eventually, Kando sold some of the scrolls to Samuel, the Syrian Metropolitan at the Monastery of St. Mark in Old Jerusalem. Samuel later advertised his scrolls in the Wall Street Journal.
Kando sold other scrolls to Professor E. L. Sukenik, chief archaeologist of Hebrew University. (Sukenik’s son, Yigael Yadin, later also acquired the scrolls the Syrian Metropolitan had advertised in the Journal, for the State of Israel.)
When the 13-year old Bedouin boy who helped find the Dead Sea Scrolls grew up, he adopted a new name, in the Arab custom, after his first son was born. Abu Ali al Taweel was well known by Israeli antiquities enthusiasts. General Moshe Dayan wrote that he often bought antiquities from Abu Ali, who also once saved the famous general’s life.
Here’s how Gen. Dayan told the story in his book Living with the Bible:

With Abu Ali al Taweel and Don Simon about 1984

“I do not think anyone has ever succeeded in duping Abu Ali by trying to sell him a fake antique or a counterfeit coin. Whenever I bought anything from him, I could always be sure that it was authentic.
“One day I received a message from him telling me that he had a beautiful earthenware censer that he was sure would interest me. We arranged to meet in Jerusalem and there I saw it.... I bought it and asked where it had been discovered. Abu Ali said it was found in a cave south of Bethlehem. I asked him to take me there. I wished to see what kind of cave it was, whether a burial cave, a dwelling, or one used for pagan rites.
“He promised to do so and we fixed a date. But shortly before we were due to meet, he informed me that he was very busy and asked for a postponement. He postponed the next meeting too on some pretext or other. I refrained from interrogating too closely one so much smarter than I, and I just went on waiting. The hoped-for day finally arrived and we set out for the cave.
“We passed Bethlehem, and about half way along the road to Hebron we turned off westward along a dirt track in the direction of the foothills.... [I saw what] had once been a burial cave. The remains of skeletons were still there. But in the course of time it had been used as a sheepfold and as shelter for shepherds in heavy rains....
“Now that my curiosity about the cave had been satisfied, I asked Abu Ali why he had kept postponing our visit. ‘Oh, Wazir,’ he replied, ‘this cave was being used at the time by a band of PLO saboteurs. It was they who began digging in their spare time and they who unearthed the ancient vessels and put them on the market. How, then, could I bring you here, you who are minister of defense? I had to wait until they moved elsewhere. Imagine what would have happened if I had brought you while they were still here. Either they would have opened fire on you, in which case your soldiers would have shot me; or you would have shot them, in which case their comrades would have suspected me of betraying them and delivering them into your hands, and then they would have murdered me and my children.’”
Abu Ali died in Bethlehem in 1993 at age 60. He had been ill with cancer for some time. I had often met with Abu Ali over the previous 20 years. For a while he owned a little nut and sweet shop near Manger Square in Bethlehem. Over six-feet tall, with a strong, handsome face always framed by a white kafeyah, the traditional Bedouin headdress, Abu Ali cut a colorful figure. When I visited Abu Ali, he sometimes showed me coins or antiquities. Over the years, via friends as interpreters, he told me many stories, including the one of how he and his friends found and sold the Dead Sea Scrolls to Kando.
(Nevertheless, after an early version of this story was published, another friend, Jerusalem lawyer Arnold Spaer, now deceased, wrote me a letter and said that Abu Ali was NOT one of the boys who discovered the scrolls. However….Abu Ali told me this story at least TWICE translated by Israeli friends fluent in Arabic…and furthermore his son Samir Kando referred to this more than once. I am not sure why Spaer—who was Abu Ali’s lawyer—took this position, but I wanted readers to have all the info.)

Khalil Iskander Kando at his shop in Jerusalem's St. George Hotel

It was only about three weeks before Abu Ali died that Khalil Iskander Kando, age 83, also of Bethlehem, died. Kando had been an officially licensed antiquities dealer for decades and operated a small shop in East Jerusalem, in a room above his gift shop, adjoining the St. George Hotel in East Jerusalem.
Kando, called Abu Anton, wore a burgundy fez and traditional white robes each time I saw him. A tall man with larger-than-life features, he took delight in showing me interesting coins and ancient artifacts. Kando never wanted to talk about the scrolls. Yet in a nook off the stairway to his tiny, second-floor antiquity shop stood one of the very jars in which they were found. No matter how often I asked, he would never pose next to it for a photograph.
Once in the 1970s, I sat across from Abu Anton, looking at ancient coins. He was cleaning one in a jar of dilute sulfuric acid he kept on his desk for that purpose. As we talked, he took a dental bridge out of his mouth and dipped it into the acid. Next he brushed it with the toothbrush he had been using to clean coins. Kando shook off the dental work and returned it to his mouth, resumed talking and never even puckered.
Abu Ali, the finder of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Abu Anton, their first buyer, were both publicity-shy. Both were tarnished during the 1950s when, reportedly, some scrolls were deliberately cut up and sold in pieces to extract higher prices from the market. And stories linger that some pieces of scrolls may still remain in private hands in Bethlehem today.
Yet the two men had honorable reputations. Ya’akov Meshorer, chief curator of archaeology at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, told me that “From 1967, when we had dealings with him, Kando was always generous with the Museum.”
When I telephoned my friend Samir Kando in Bethlehem to express condolences on his father’s death, he said, “Aye, David, we are only guests in this life. But what we touch may live forever.”

Copyright 2015 by David Hendin

Friday, October 16, 2015

Persian Period Yehud Coins

Persian Silver of Judah--And a Movie on Utube!

The earliest coins with Hebrew inscriptions were struck during the Persian period. It seems likely that the earliest of those coins were struck at the early Philistian mint of Gaza. Later, only small denominations were struck in Judah, quite likely in or very near to Jerusalem. These are known as “Yehud” coins because most of them are inscribed with the paleo-Hebrew legend YHD, although some carry the name Hezekiah and one very rare variety has the name of a priest named Yochanan.
               It was quite a technical feat for coins to be minted at all in this area, which was rather out of the way at the time, and did not have great technological capabilities. The mints in ancient Judah probably quite resembled small blacksmith or jewelry shops, which have must have been in the precinct of a fort or a palace because of security matters in the transport of uncoined silver and then actual coins. These first coins struck in Judah were patterned after Athenian coins and were struck some time before 333 BCE.
               The denominations of the coins are uncertain. However this group seems to be related to the known weight of the Judean shekel of 11.4 grams beginning in the Iron Age about 800 BCE. The two denominations of the earliest small silver coins struck in Judah weigh around either half a gram or a quarter of a gram. These weights correspond with approximately 1/24 of the known weight of the shekel. Archaeologists believe that there were 24 gerahs in each shekel at the time, although in Exodus 30:13 we read “the shekel is twenty gerahs.”  This discrepancy may be due to a slightly different division of the shekel in an earlier period.
               Half a gram is very light and small for a coin. Manufacture of such tiny objects caused some challenges, because the dies that were created to strike these coins were very fragile due to their small size. Because of this, the dies were subject to either heavy wear, or absolute breakage. Numismatists today can track that process rather precisely if they can identify a sufficient number of specimens.
               The most common of the early Yehud coins is a type with an obverse portrait of Athena and the reverse portrait of an owl, just like the classic Athenian tetradrachm. But instead of the AΘE ethnic inscription for Athens, the coin carries the paleo-Hebrew script YHD. It is estimated that this type represents a full 15% of the Yehud coins in existence.
               Canadian numismatist JP Fontanille, also a professional musician, has gathered some 225 photos of this coin type in various die stages, and has created a fabulous brief video accompanied by music he composed and plays.
               If you have ANY INTEREST in understanding the “die states” of coins, this is a MUST WATCH video, which can be found at

               Viewing tip: Keep your eyes on the coins! 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

An Exciting Conclusion

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sepphoris 5/21

Sepphoris Wrap Up

So what does an archaeological numismatist do when the excavation he is working with does not find many coins? Sepphoris 2011 found lots of interesting information but only around 8 coins give or take. That was fewer than one a day, and except for one that was so corroded there was no chance to identify it, I was able to put tentative identifications on each of them rather quickly. (One cannot give full attributions until the coins are cleaned. Unlike coins that are found on beaches or on the surface of the ground, coins from excavations are usually heavily encrusted, and often cannot even be easily recognized as coins. Luckily all of our Sepphoris gang had very sharp eyes, and combined with the advance warnings of the metal detector, I do not think we let any escape.)

                With so few coins to examine, I had lots of free time to help out in other areas of the excavation.  Since I am a bit old to remain bent over digging and sweeping for 3 or 4 consecutive hours, I did not do much of that, though I did spend some time cleaning up areas of dirt where the ground was too dirty to excavate or to be seen properly in photos or drawings. But the main jobs I undertook were carrying dirt and sifting dirt. Most of the excavated dirt was sifted, but some of it was simply dumped.

                When we began the excavation our leaders carefully selected a dump site. Did you know that esthetics is an important consideration for good field archaeologists? Not only do they want to make sure that excavations are thorough, well- organized, and properly recorded. They also want to be certain that the selected areas are excavated in such a way as to leave them as pleasing as possible to look at in years to come. Finally, all of the dirt that is removed must be relocated to the most innocuous possible dump site, that is carefully marked on plans so some unsuspecting archaeologist does not spend days or weeks re-excavating it in the future (an unfortunate event I am assured has occurred more than once).

                The dump site chosen on the first day of our excavation was a previously excavated area where nothing of significance had been found; it was right on the edge of the western acropolis where we were digging, so it would not become an eyesore. We began with a square, previously excavated pit that was about 10 by 12 feet and around 6 feet deep. It contained a few stones, and tree branches, but it was mostly empty. When we began dumping our junk and our sifted waste in this spot, it never occurred to me that we might fill it even half way. Day by day, however, the dump pit began to be filled, and by our last day it had not only been filled to the brim, but we had smoothed it over approximately 2 feet ABOVE ground level. I suspect that this will settle considerably in the next rainy season. In the meantime, my limited ability with higher mathematics has allowed me to calculate that our little group moved around 960 cubic feet of dirt and stones (about 36 cubic yards) in just under two weeks of six-hour work days. I learned by way of Google that a cubic yard of gravel/dirt weighs around 2,400 pounds, so our little group has, in order to further the understanding of ancient Sepphoris, moved a bit more than 86,000 pounds (40+ tons!) of dirt and rocks. This is roughly the equivalent of 12-13 small dump truck loads of dirt. Because the site was not a flat surface, we could not use a wheelbarrow except as something over which to sift dirt. So all of the large stones were carried by hand, and smaller rocks and dirt were carried in 10 liter buckets. (In fact our complete group moved considerably more earth, perhaps 50 percent more, because Milton and Byron operated in a lower area, with different dumps, and moved a great deal of dirt as well!)

                Keep in mind that ours was a limited excavation, with modest excavation goals. Imagine how much dirt might be moved over a 4-5 week period with more than a hundred participants.

                This is the last entry in the Sepphoris 2011 blog, although I will continue to use this blogspot to post some regular articles and commentary related to archaeology and ancient coins of the Holy Land.

                Above this post you can see a large contingent of our group at the bima, or prayer platform, at the Talmudic period (4-6 centuries CE) synagogue at Umm el Qanatir. They are: back row, from left Sean Burrus (Duke University grad student, religion), Emanuel Fiano (Duke University grad student, religion), Alan Todd (Duke University grad student, religion). Front row from left, Jessica Vahl (Duke University grad student, classical studies), Elizabeth Baltes (Duke University grad student art history and visual studies), Professor Carol Meyers (Duke University), Professor Eric Meyers (Duke University), Ben Gordon (Duke University grad student, religion), David Hendin (American Numismatic Society). Missing from this photo were Stephen Wilson (Duke University grad student, religion) who was ill, Professor Byron McCane (Wofford College) and Professor Milton Moreland (Rhodes College), both of whom stayed behind to excavate.



Friday, May 20, 2011

Sepphoris 5/19-20

Sepphoris is "the ornament of all the Galilee" – Flavius Josephus, 1st century CE

Although we found plenty at this brief excavation season at Sepphoris, we didn't find the Lost Ark. We were not looking for it of course, but, nevertheless, the first thing that most people ask upon hearing that I have been at an excavation is: "What did you find." We definitely found satisfaction in our experience and, happily for the research, much data to justify it. I think that all 13 of us who participated in Sepphoris 2011 found a certain pleasure in getting to work at 6:15 a.m. and working (playing) in the dirt until 1:30 p.m. (Although nobody who saw any of our group working in the Galilean dust and heat would have considered it play.) Yet the banter and joking between everyone was a great part of the experience. A lot of sweat was expended by those who dug, carried, and sifted the dirt. A number of members of our group were supervisors, but even our most senior archaeologists jumped in and out of trenches and pits and carried buckets of dirt and sifted them literally every day of this brief season of probing the earth, measuring, and sketching structures in preparations for the final excavation report of this remarkable ancient city.

                Yesterday we had another excellent session of pottery reading with all of the important areas showing consistent pottery from appropriate periods. Noteworthy were additional significant late Iron Age fragments including large pieces of a saucer-type oil lamp and a large cooking pot of the period, again underlining our belief that there was significant settlement here during the biblical period even though no trace of actual construction from that time has yet been found.

                Today the sun was bright although much of the haze from previous days remains in the air. Yesterday it was overcast and the air was heavy and still, making for our hottest, sweatiest working conditions. On hindsight, however, I don't think even one of us would have traded the days at Sepphoris for time on a beach.

All good things must come to an end, however, and today was the last day of our excavations. Remarkably, Milton Moreland of Rhodes College in Memphis, is leaving Israel to return home Friday night. By Sunday he will be digging and supervising at his second summer excavation in Western Tennessee, where a group of experts and students from Rhodes will be exploring ancient American Woodlands and Mississippian cultures from as long as 2,000 years ago. What a remarkable experience it must be for Milton to excavate the soil of Sepphoris, Israel, from 2,000 years ago, and within a few days to be excavating 2,000-year-old American civilizations. I hope he will write an article about the fascinating contrasts and I'll look forward to reading it.

                At Sepphoris Milton and Byron McCane of Wofford College in Spartanburg SC worked tirelessly together (see their photos above) to solve some mysteries regarding areas they had excavated and studied during previous seasons at Sepphoris. They dug probe trenches in some incredibly interesting areas, rich with pottery from the late Iron Age (Iron II) up to the Middle Roman Period. One of the objects they pulled from the earth may have been the most fascinating single find from our Sepphoris season. It was a Hellenistic period jar handle (circa 3-2 centuries BCE)…jar handles are generally plentiful, but what was unusual about this jar handle is that it bears a stamp showing that it originated at Rhodes. It is well known that ancient Rhodes was an exporter of both fine wine and olive oil throughout the ancient Mediterranean and it is interesting that even though both of those commodities must have also been manufactured in or near Sepphoris (as they are today), the community was wealthy enough to also import these products. The handle shows a "rose" of Rhodes, along with a Greek inscription that probably refers to the manufacturer or the exporter of the wine or oil contained in the very large amphora once attached to this handle (see handle photo above).

                I would like to take a moment to point out that this type of Rhodian jar handle can frequently be purchased in the legal antiquities market of Israel for a relatively small sum. And the handles themselves are fascinating. But what gives this particular handle inestimable value is the fact that it was excavated at a known location by archaeologists who are able to better understand the place where it was found because of the object itself. When even a minor object such as jar handle is removed from its archaeological context without being properly recorded, an inestimable amount of information about earlier cultures and civilizations may be lost forever.

                Each of us were pleased whenever we found an interesting shard or object, today I also had the pleasure of hearing our excavation supervisor Ben Gordon exclaiming to himself over another discovery: "There is nothing quite so exciting as finding a new wall," said Ben as he surveyed and traced the lines of a wall, probably from an early to middle Roman period, that had been more fully exposed and delineated on our final day of excavations (see photo of Ben doing a measurement).

                To look at the plan of the western acropolis of Sepphoris where we have been working for the past weeks is really remarkable. It is a huge sheet of paper with thousands of tiny, intricate lines, numbers, and other details meticulously added as notations.  By getting all of this information onto a single sheet, it becomes easier for the experts to piece together plans of buildings, streets, and alleys of ancient cities.

                Our section of Sepphoris is a rather complicated site because it was built and rebuilt over a period of hundreds of years. Some of the houses have elements from an original house, and then elements added or modified at later dates. Sometimes water storage cisterns were capped, and new ones opened, at other times the openings to water cisterns were raised significantly to account for the new elevation of a building structure.

                The earth still holds many mysteries of ancient Sepphoris, some of which will never be revealed, but others will come forth in future excavations.

                In the next blog I will tell you the fate of an archaeological numismatist at an excavation during which not many coins are found!