Reminiscent of the treasure hunt movies and video games we are accustomed to in popular culture, archaeologists have found a lost trove of solid gold coins in Israel’s Hermon River National Park. This treasure in question comprises at least 44 gold coins (solidus) – some dating from the remarkable period of the Muslim conquest of the Levant region, which was under Byzantine (Eastern Roman) control during the 7th century.
According to Dr. Gabriela Bijovsky, Israel Antiquities Authority numismatic expert, one batch of pure gold coins dates from the reign of Emperor Phocas (602–610 CE), while another set was minted by none other than Emperor Heraclius (610–641 CE). The latter collection coincides with the Muslim conquest of the Levant.
And incredibly enough, the coins were purposely hidden by a person between the stones of a wall, possibly to escape the travails of war for a better life. According to Dr. Yoav Lerer, Director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority –
The coin hoard, weighing about 170 g, was concealed within the base of an ashlar stone wall at the time of the Muslim conquest. The discovery reflects a specific moment in time when we can imagine the owner concealing his fortune in the threat of war, hoping to return one day to retrieve his property. In retrospect, we know that he was less fortunate. The discovery of the coin hoard may also shed light on the economy of the city of Banias during the last 40 years of Byzantine rule.
Now just to provide a historical context of the value of the hoard, a regular Thema soldier of the Byzantine Empire (circa 9th century CE) was possibly paid one (or one-and-a-half) gold coin, known as the nomismata, per month. Each nomismata weighed around 1/72th of a pound, which equates to 1/6 to 1/4th of a pound of gold for the individual soldier per year.
Simply put, this treasure is worth more than four years of paid salary for a regular Byzantine soldier (considering the high purity of the gold coins from the Heraclian Era). In fact, the total value might have even covered the salary and expense of a Byzantine strategos (general) for an entire year, circa the 9th century CE. And talking of generals, Dr. Bijovsky added –
Most of the coins are of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. And what is particularly interesting is that in his early years as emperor, only his portrait was depicted on the coin, whereas after a short time, the images of his sons also appear. One can actually follow his sons growing up – from childhood until their image appears the same size as their father, who is depicted with a long beard.
As for the location of this hidden treasure hoard, the city of Banias, like many other places in present-day Israel, had an ancient legacy. Possibly settled by the Canaanites who worshiped Baal, the site was later transformed into the cultic sanctuary of the Greek God Pan during the Hellenistic period. During the Roman era, the city rather thrived. In fact, Herod the Great and his son entirely refurbished the settlement and named it Caesarea Philippi – in honor of Augustus, the First Roman Emperor.
In early Christian history, the site became important as the place where Peter the Apostle proclaimed Jesus to be Christ – “the anointed one”. Excavations have also shed light on the early Byzantine period of the 600s – the date of this treasure. In that regard, archaeologists have found remains of buildings, water channels, pipes, a pottery kiln, bronze coins, and fragments of many potteries, glass, and metal artifacts – mostly within the residential section of Banias.
Interestingly, the Crusaders took hold of the city in 1129 CE and used it as a base of operations against the might of Muslim Damascus. But the resurgent Muslim armies finally captured Banias in 1132 CE. According to Eli Escusido, Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority –
The coin hoard is an extremely significant archaeological find as it dates to an important transitional period in the history of the city of Banias and the entire region of the Levant. The Israel Antiquities Authority, together with the National Parks Authority, will work together to exhibit the treasure to the public.
Raya Shurky, Director of the National Parks Authority, further added –
The Banias Nature Reserve, endowed with its unique nature and landscape, does not cease to surprise us from a historical-cultural point of view. The gold coin hoard is on par with the Byzantine Church, possibly the Church of St. Peter, which was recently discovered. The finds include the remains of a mosaic floor and a stone engraved with many crosses, indicating that Banias became a Christian pilgrim site. The church, which was damaged in an earthquake that struck the north of the country, will soon be exhibited to the public visiting the nature reserve.
Images Credit: Dafna Gazit/Israel Antiquities Authority