Is This the Oldest-Ever Coin Collection?

June 18th, 2016 by

Archaeologists digging in Israel during this past April may have found the world’s oldest coin collection ever. The year-dates and arrangement of the ancient silver coins hints at a conscious collecting effort.

Intriguing Discovery

An ancient coin similar to those found

An ancient coin similar to those found

The coins, which include silver pieces known as shekels and half-shekels, were discovered during exploratory excavation near a site involved in the revolt against Hellenistic rule in Judea during antiquity. These coins all date to the second century BCE, with dates ranging from 135 BCE to 126 BCE.

The interesting thing that leads some to propose that it could represent the earliest known form of coin collecting is the fact that the cache of coins included examples from nine consecutive year-dates.

CoinWeek reports that “Dr. Donald Tzvi Ariel, head of the IAA’s coin department, suggested that some thought may have gone into the assembly of these specific pieces, since one or two coins had been set aside from each of nine consecutive years between 135 and 126 BCE—possibly making the find a 2,140-year-old date set and an early example of coin collecting.”

History Told Through Coins

The dig was conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) near the city of Modi’in. The coins are from Israel’s Hasmonean period. Since it included shekels (equivalent to the Greek tetradrachm) and half-shekels (equivalent to the didrachm), they amounted to about a month’s pay for the farming estate where they were buried. This makes it highly unlikely that the coins were left with no intention of recovering them later.

Because they were issued prior to the Jewish revolt led by the famous Maccabees, the coins bear the images of a pair of kings from the Seleucid dynasty who ruled over Judea in the period following the occupation of the region by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Seleucus I Nicator. The coins come from the reigns of Demetrius II Nicator (r. 147 BCE to 139 BCE, again 129 BCE to 126 BCE) and Antiochus VII Euergetes (r. 138 BCE to 129 BCE). Notably, these coins date to around the time when the story behind Hanukkah took place.

Beyond the sixteen silver coins that appear to have been consciously collected, the same farming estate also yielded many bronze coins from later dates. According to CoinWeek,

“A number of bronze coins were also found on the site that feature various later rulers of the area. This is evidence that the estate continued to function into the early Roman period. Further evidence suggests that the inhabitants of the estate may have actually participated in the First Jewish Revolt revolt against Roman rule in 66 CE. Some of the bronze coins themselves bear the inscription “Year Two” (as in the second year of the revolt) and the revolutionary slogan “Freedom of Zion”. Additionally, underground shelters and tunnels connecting them were discovered and some walls of the house were reinforced with heavy stones at some point right before the revolt.

The farming estate appears to have been operating even after the 70 CE destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Roman general and future emperor Titus.”

Clearly the historical importance of the coins found at this site makes it an exciting find for the IAA. The Times of Israel also uploaded a video of the discovery that you can watch here.


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2 thoughts on “Is This the Oldest-Ever Coin Collection?

  1. Joseph Dantona

    The coin pictured is of Koson, from the mid-1st century B.C., struck in Thessaly, not 2nd century B.C. Judea. To be even more specific, it is from a silver denarius, the type only relatively recently coming to light in the numismatic community (many think it a forgery, in part, since all known examples come from one die set); usually, this type is seen in gold (as an aureus). There is a link with Brutus: the designs on the coin reflecting Republican themes (the reverse is that which is shown,… and it should be oriented with the scepter at a c.45 degree angle). — Joseph Dantona, 7 July 2016

    1. Everett Millman Post author

      Very informative background! Thanks for the comment. I suppose the caption’s claim that it was “similar to the coins found” merely meant that they were both silver coins from antiquity, but clearly that was an over-generalization.

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