(Coin Week) If a hoard of 264 Byzantine gold solidi suddenly appeared and careful examination showed that every coin in the hoard was struck from the SAME dies–a die set never before identified–experts would be quick to suggest the possibility of forgery. (Photo 1)
Real life, however, can be stranger than fiction.
One of the great numismatic stories of the last 50 years revolves around just such a hoard of coins that was excavated a dozen years ago at the Givati parking lot in Jerusalem. The lot is just outside of the Old City’s Dung Gate, on the north-western side of the City of David excavations. The latest report on this hoard was published in an article by my long-time friend Gabriella Bijovsky, a senior numismatist at the Israel Antiquity Authority. (IAA Reports 66, 2020, Chapter 5, “A Hoard of Solidi of Heraclius.”)
The coins were found in the remains of a large Byzantine building. Their location within the building suggested that they “were originally arranged in rows, and were most likely wrapped in a cloth or in a purse, which was not preserved. The excavators suggest that the coins were stored on a shelf…”
At the time these coins were discovered, they received quite a lot of publicity. But the story behind the story, which is quite remarkable, is summarized by Bijovsky, who was responsible for studying the coins.
There were 264 gold solidi with the portrait of Heraclius in the Givati hoard. Heraclius ruled the East Roman Empire from 610 to 641 CE. None of the coins are clipped, carry graffiti, or have any other significant signs of use. At first look, the coins all appear to be from the early Heraclius solidi series struck from 610 through 613. In fact, however, they are more likely part of an emergency issue struck at a Jerusalem mint, Bijovsky explains. (Photo 2)
The Givati hoard coins are an unpublished variant of the 610-613 series. The obverse legend is dNAERACLI-ЧS. PP AVC• with an A instead of the usual h and a small dot after the “S” of Heraclius.
“The last letter C of the obverse legend is inclined and is followed by a small dot to its right. A short, curved stroke of dots is visible on the upper left side of the emperor’s crown. The reverse inscription ends with the letter Δ, unknown in the original series (Grierson 1959:145), and a tiny star is attached to the exergue inscription: CONOB*.” (Photo 3)
Bijovsky concludes that all of the coins were produced by the same pair of dies. The gold content of 41 of the solidi was studied using X-ray fluorescence (XRF) at the Weitzman Institute of Science. “The results showed a uniform composition deviation, clearly indicating that all the coins were produced from the same load of gold.” Hence, the minting process for this group was “a single event.”
On first glance, Bijovsky explains, “the mintmark, fabric, and style of these coins seem to suggest that this series was issued by the imperial mint of Constantinople. Indeed, the style of the bust die appears standard to this mint and is even better executed than many other official dies of the same general type.”
“On the other hand, the obverse inscription of our solidi showing the name AERACLIVS seems to be a misspelling based on Latin phonetics. Is this an indication about the origin of the die engraver? Still, it seems very improbable that a state official in Constantinople would write incorrectly the name of the emperor on a gold coin,” Bijovsky says. Thus, these coins are more likely a ‘provincial’ issue.
Even though all of the Givati hoard solidi coins appear to be uncirculated, there is an unusual variance of the standard weight (4.55 g for the Byzantine solidus during this period) from as light as 3.97 g to 4.69 g.
“It is hard to believe that the official mint of Constantinople would have tolerated imperial solidi being officially struck without control of an accurate weight standard,” Bijovsky writes. She also asks, “Who would be interested in striking gold coins that contain more precious metal than required by the standard?”
Bijovsky further cites Michael Hendy, and points out that “hoards characterized by heavy concentrations of coins struck from the same pair, or from a limited number of dies, or that contain coins from a single officina, ‘probably tend to have derived at no great distance from bodies of coins dispatched from the mint in purses.’”
The Givati hoard is singularly homogeneous, and Bijovsky concludes that “during this time (608-615 CE), and especially after the capture of Antioch by the Persians in 611 and until 613, the presence of a Byzantine military garrison in Jerusalem could explain the operation of a temporary mint in order to pay the troops and emphasize Byzantine sovereignty over the city… Given the fact that all Antioch surrendered to the Persians in 610, Emesa and Apamea in 611, and Damascus in 613, Jerusalem remained the only major Byzantine stronghold in the region capable of coin production.”
Archaeological remains associated with the Persian conquest are quite sparse in Jerusalem. The archaeologists believe that the Givati hoard is correctly identified as an ‘emergency’ hoard that was “concealed during times of imminent danger, siege, or war. These hoards usually reflect the coinage in current circulation at the time of their deposition.”
This hoard is all the more remarkable because it “proves the need for an emergency coinage, a new series of Heraclian solidi which has been exceptionally struck in Jerusalem under hasty conditions… the combination of both numismatic features and historical circumstances provides solid evidence for the existence of a temporary mint in Jerusalem that functioned during the first years of the reign of Heraclius.”
The Givati parking lot excavations “have shed new light upon Jerusalem at the close of the Byzantine period. The Persian conquest of Palestine in 614 CE, one of the dramatic events that mark the ‘beginning of the end’ of the Byzantine domination in Palestine in the early seventh century seems to be well reflected in the archaeological record at this site,” Bijovsky explains.
Before the discovery of the Givati coin hoard, there were very few coin finds in Jerusalem from during the time of the Persian conquest. Seven mass burials have been discovered around Jerusalem and are generally believed to be from the Persian devastation of the city in 614. According to historic sources, the Persian conquest cost many lives and caused great damage. The conquest and the subsequent 14 Sassanid rulers left few other significant remains. It appears that the large Byzantine building in the Givati parking lot was deliberately destroyed during the Persian invasion of Jerusalem and, unlike the city’s other damaged but surviving buildings, including churches, it was never rebuilt or repaired.
Summing up, Bijovsky notes that “the Givati hoard presents several features that tell us quite explicitly the story of its concealment. The uniform date and the character of the hoard reveal that it was an ‘emergency hoard’ concealed at a time of imminent danger, siege, or war. Such hoards usually reflect the coinage in circulation at the time of their deposition.”