Ancient coins unearthed in desert caves may indicate signs of Maccabian rebellion

An ancient treasure trove of 2,200-year-old silver coins found in a desert cave in Israel could add crucial new evidence supporting a story of Jewish rebellion, archaeologists said Tuesday.

The Israel Antiquities Authority announced that earlier this year a team of experts found 15 silver coins they say were hidden by a refugee fleeing the turmoil of the Maccabean Revolt of 167-160 BC, When Jewish warriors revolted against the Seleucid Empire.

The small wooden box, found in Muraba’at Cave during an excavation in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea in May, dates to between 10 and 15 years before the revolt.

The find represents the “first evidence in the Judean desert for the Maccabian revolt against the Greek Seleucid kingdom,” the authority said in a press release Tuesday.

The Muraba'at Cave where the coins were discovered.  (Israeli Antiquities Authority)

The Muraba’at Cave where the coins were discovered. (Israeli Antiquities Authority)

The Maccabees rebelled against the Seleucid king – Antiochus IV Epiphanes, referred to in Jewish sources as “The Wicked” – and his prohibition of Jewish practices.

The Seleucid Empire, which covered large parts of the Middle East and Central Asia, was one of many powers that succeeded Alexander the Great’s empire after his death in 323 BC.

Eitan Klein, part of the team that studied the coins, said the discovery confirms the story that many fled the fighting and may have hidden their valuables.

“It is interesting to try to visualize the person who fled to the cave and hid his personal belongings here with the intention of returning to retrieve it. The person was probably killed in the battles and he has not returned to retrieve his belongings that have waited almost 2,200 years for us to retrieve it,” he said in a statement.

Klein described the find as “absolutely unique” and said it was the first archaeological evidence that the Judean Desert Caves played an active role in the early days of the Rebellion, or the time immediately before it.

Excavation teams examine a wooden box containing the coins upon discovery.  (Israeli Antiquities Authority)

Excavation teams examine a wooden box containing the coins upon discovery. (Israeli Antiquities Authority)

Historians disagree on several details of the revolt, including its cause; the reconquest of Jerusalem by the Maccabees and the rededication of the Second Temple are the origins of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which begins on Sunday.

According to tradition, a priest named Mattathias caused the revolt in 167 by refusing to worship Greek gods, killing a Jew who tried to take his place, and then destroying an altar. He and his five sons then fled and went into hiding.

The Books of the Maccabees—which are not part of the Hebrew Bible but are considered canonical by Catholic and Orthodox Christians—describe Jews hiding in caves to escape repression.

“Then many who sought righteousness and righteousness went into the wilderness to dwell there: they, their sons, their wives, and their cattle, because evil was heavy upon them,” says the first Maccabees book.

The box was made with a lathe and was packed with earth and stone, including a purple woolen cloth that covered the coins. The immaculately preserved tetradrachm coins – large silver coins widely used in the ancient Greek world – date from the reign of Ptolemy VI, who ruled Egypt at the same time that Epiphanes, his uncle, ruled the Seleucid Empire, including Judea.

The three earliest coins were minted in 176 or 175 BC, while the last was made in 171 or 170 BC

Amir Ganor, head of the Murba'at excavation team, inspects the coins in an old wooden box.  (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Amir Ganor, head of the Murba’at excavation team, inspects the coins in an old wooden box. (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

However, not all scholars agree on the meaning of the coins.

While agreeing that the new find was an important discovery for understanding the period, Benedikt Eckhardt, a senior lecturer in ancient history at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, said the Israeli interpretation that they belonged to a refugee who took the Maccabee rebellion fled, was common. a possibility.

“What we have here are Ptolymaian coins that are clearly a treasure trove of refugees. I agree, I think they ran from somewhere, otherwise there’s no reason to leave the box there,” he told NBC News by phone.

“But it doesn’t indicate to me that these are people fleeing persecution. Rather, it would suggest to me that these may be people connected to the earlier Ptolymaian structure and were deposed or otherwise fell out of favor with the Seleucids. And that might have been before the rebellion.

Eckhardt added that this was a huge amount of money found in one place – the equivalent of two months’ wages – which, along with the sparse purple fabric, suggests the items may have belonged to a high-ranking official.

“There is a very short time span between these coins and the uprising, so it is not absurd to think there is a connection. It’s just that there are already similar coin deposits east of Jerusalem unrelated to the uprising.”

The coins are inspected before cleaning.  (Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority)

The coins are inspected before cleaning. (Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Eckhardt was nevertheless excited to learn more about the treasure.

“Other treasures that have been found are reconstructed by specialists based on what hit the antiquities market at a given time, so it is subject to some speculation. So in that sense it is very interesting and I will definitely read more about it,” he said.

The coins will be on public display during Hannukkah at the Hasmonean Heritage Museum in Modiin, central Israel, as part of Israel Heritage Week, the authority said.

The authority has announced a series of major discoveries this year, including a 1,500-year-old winery capable of making 2.5 million bottles a year.

Palestinian authorities also announced a series of finds in Gaza, such as an ornate Byzantine-era mosaic found under a garden.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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