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Silver Coins Dating to Maccabean Revolt Found in Judean Desert

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A cache of silver coins hidden some 2,200 years ago in the Judean Desert and discovered in May 2022. Photo: Shai Halevi/Israel Antiquities Authority

A wooden box containing 15 silver coins minted some 2,200 years ago was excavated in the Judean Desert this May, in what Israeli archeologists have described as “evidence for a dramatic moment in the history of the Jewish people.”

The lathe-turned box was found in a crack in the Murabba’at Cave, during excavations that took place this past spring as part of the Judean Desert Excavation and Survey Project. The coins were found at the bottom of the box along with pieces of wool, beneath a swath of purple wool cloth that was covered with dirt and stones.

The coins were identified as tetradrachma variety, minted by Ptolemy VI of Egypt, whose reign coincided with that of his uncle Antiochos IV Epiphanes in the Seleucid Kingdom, which included Judea. One was secondarily incised with the name “Shalmai” in Aramaic.

The oldest coins in the pack were dated to 176/5 BCE, and the latest to 171/0 BCE.

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Based on the date of the most recent coin, “the year when the hoard was hidden can be fixed to the beginning of the Maccabean Revolt … or to the events that led up to the Revolt,” according to the Israel Antiquities Authority, which helped carry out the excavation.

The Maccabean Revolt, chronicled in the Books of the Maccabees, was led by Jewish rebels who rose up against the Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE following its repression of Jewish life, ultimately gaining their independence and rededicating the Second Temple.

The coins will be displayed to the public in the central Israeli city of Modi’in over Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday celebrating the rededication of the Temple.

Dr. Eitan Klein of the Israel Antiquities Authority described the coin hoard as “an absolutely unique find” that presents “the first clear archaeological evidence that the Judean Desert caves played an active role as the stage of the activities of the Jewish rebels or the fugitives in the early days of the Maccabean Revolt, or the events that led up to them.”

“It is interesting to try to visualize the person who fled to the cave and hid his personal property here intending to return to collect it,” Klein said. He pointed to events chronicles in the Books of Maccabees that would have forced people to leave their belongings in the Judean Desert for safekeeping, including the plundering of the Second Temple, religious decrees repressing Jewish life, and the destruction of Jerusalem’s city wall.

“The person was probably killed in the battles,” he added, “and he did not return to collect his possessions that awaited almost 2,200 years until we retrieved it.”

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