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The Temple Tax Hoard

A hoard of Tyrian silver discovered in Judaea

Content analysis

by Alexandru Marian and Joseph Sermarini


The scope of this paper is to study a hoard of Tyrian or Judaean coins (official or imitative issues) circulating in the first half of the first century A.D.  The group contains 95 coins, of which only 3 are shekels and 92 are half shekels.  We are certain all the coins are from the same hoard.  We are not certain the hoard is complete but no other groups of the type and few individual shekels or half shekels (no more than usual and none with the same toning) appeared on the market around the time the group was acquired in 2008. 

Click here to go to Forum's catalog and see or purchase coins from the Temple Tax Hoard.

Tyre is one of the most famous cities of antiquity, needing little introduction here.  In 126 B.C. Tyre gained independence from the Seleucid kingdom and began again issuing autonomous coins.  These were the shekels and half shekels well known today as the coins used by the Jews to pay the annual tax at the Jerusalem Temple and as the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas for betraying Jesus.  Both the shekels and the half shekels depict the most important Tyrian god, Melqart (equivalent to Herakles/Hercules for the Greeks and Romans) on the obverse and a traditional Ptolemaic style eagle (which was used before under both Egyptian and Seleucid rule) on the reverse.  After Pompey's conquest (64 B.C.), the autonomous issues continued seamlessly as "quasi-autonomous" coinage under Roman rule.  The bulk of production consisted of shekels, minted almost every year.  Half shekels tend to be scarce and were minted in a noticeably smaller number of years.  Consistently high silver fineness was the quality that made Tyre silver the only currency accepted by the Jerusalem Temple - D. Walker measured a mean of fineness of 94.56% with only a very small deviation.

While this coinage appears to show a very compact and constant evolution, a few more significant alterations have raised questions and disagreement.  Some of the shekels and all the half shekels struck in Tyrian era year 108 (19/18 B.C.) bear the Greek letters KAP.  In the Tyrian years 109 - 111 all the coins bear the KAP ligature.  In all the following years until production ceased all the coins bear the Greek letters KP.  Y. Meshorer argued that the KP series were actually struck at Jerusalem, initially by Herod.  He based his opinion on a sudden stylistic and fabric degradation, find locations indicating the KP coins circulated mainly in Israel, and an end to production coinciding with the First Jewish Rebellion and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70.  Under Augustus the cities in the east such as Kyzikos, Tyre and Sidon lost much of their autonomy.  Perhaps Tyre lost the freedom to strike silver coins.  Under Roman control the other traditional silver coinages of the area did disappear, with the exception of a debased Antioch coinage.  Given Herod's influence with Augustus, it is conceivable that he successfully arranged minting Tyre type shekels in Jerusalem in order to fill the need for the accepted temple coinage.  The letters KAP or KP are almost certainly an abbreviation for Kaicar (Greek for Caesar) and were likely included on the coins to indicate they were struck with approval from Rome or to demonstrate appreciation for the approval from Rome.  The authors of RPC, however, concluded that Meshorer's theory is not sufficiently proven. Brooks Levy agreed that something extraordinary happened with the coinage in the Tyrian year 109, but pointed out large finds of later coins have occurred in Lebanon and Syria too.  She remained uncertain that the dated better style coins were struck at Jerusalem.  Most scholars agree, however, that beginning in the 40's A.D. a "barbarous" variety with blundered legends and dates was minted in Judaea, perhaps in Jerusalem. 

In the modern collector marketplace, the "barbarous" Tyrian shekels and half shekels are seen as frequently as the regular finer style "official" coinage.  During the period they were struck, production of these crude types probably exceeded production of the "official" coinage, a conclusion also supported by the present hoard analysis.  The quantities of surviving "barbarous" coins, both shekels and halves, seems to indicate they were not the product of some small local workshop or individual, but rather the product of a larger scale operation. 

As the coins produced in Tyre for over a century disappeared through circulation losses or hoarding, regular new coin production, either at Tyre or Jerusalem, may have been insufficient to maintain the necessary supply for the temple tax.  It is generally accepted that in the 40's and 50's the output of official coinage declined prompting the appearance of the crude, possibly imitative, issues to supplement the dwindling supply.  Our hoard analysis also supports the possibility that production of "official" coins may have dropped significantly beginning in the 40's.  If the "official" coins with readable dates are in fact all from Tyre, the "barbarous" types may have been struck at Jerusalem when Tyre's output dropped.  If the "official" mint striking coins with readable dates was at Jerusalem, perhaps the "barbarous" coins are from a second mint in Judaea, either official or unofficial.  

Another possibility is that the finer dated coins and the crude blundered coins were both struck at the same mint in Jerusalem.  The style of the "barbarous" coins' obverses is clearly not as crude or deteriorated as the reverses.  Reverse dies wear out more quickly than obverse dies.  These observations support the possibility that the "barbarous" coins were struck with carelessly re-engraved worn official dies.  Perhaps the production at the mint in Jerusalem did not drop greatly in the 40's but rather remained steady or nearly so, using recycled crudely re-engraved dies alongside fewer better newly engraved dies.  This would mean, however, that the mint officials accepted a strange and somewhat unlikely quality double standard.  Since it is more widely accepted that the "barbaric" shekels were struck in Jerusalem, if, in fact, the barbaric shekels were struck with re-engraved dies, this would strengthen Meshorer's theory that the entire KP series was struck at Jerusalem. 

Regardless of where they were struck, the production of this quasi-autonomous fine silver coinage was an anomaly for the period.  The Tyrian type KP shekels and half shekels were almost certainly struck for the unique purpose of supporting payment of the temple tax at Jerusalem.  The crude "barbaric" type also must have been accepted by the Temple because if not, they would have served little purpose and likely would not have been produced.

Dating

The earliest coin of the hoard is from 4/5 A.D. The date is slightly isolated since the next year present is 14/15 A.D. This earlier coin presents a large amount of wear, however this is typical of the entire hoard including much later dated coins.  Wear even on the latest dated coins makes it difficult to determine when accumulation began.  This apparent wear may be due as much or more to corrosion than from circulation. 

The bulk of the hoard is dated from 14/15 to 45/46 A.D.  

The last dated coin is from 56/57 A.D. following a hiatus starting with 46/47 A.D.

It is generally accepted that in the 40's and 50's the output of official coinage declined prompting the appearance of the crude, possibly imitative, issues. Since our hoard contains a significant percentage of coins from the 33 - 45 A.D. interval, it is possible that the crude issues might have gained momentum after 45/46 A.D.

Consequently the terminus post quem date is 56 A.D. and the most likely terminus ante quem coincides with the Jewish War.

One of the most interesting aspects of the hoard is that it contains three previously unpublished half shekel dates, namely Tyrian years 130 (4/5 A.D.), 147 (21/22 A.D.) and 149 (23/24 A.D.)

Metrology and degree of circulation

Tyrian coinage was appreciated for the consistent weight and alloy fineness. In RPC the mean weight is reported at 13.95 g for the shekel (44 specimens) and 6.67 g (16 specimens) for the half shekel.

The mean weight for the 33 specimens in the BMC, covering the entire 126 B.C. - 69 A.D. period is 6.69 g. The lightest coin is 5.72 g and the heaviest is 7.18 g, with weights of near or over 7 g being common.

The shekels in the hoard weight 12.825, 13.039 and 13.142 g which is consistent with their advanced degree of wear.

The mean weight of the 92 half shekels in the hoard is 6.154 g. By removing the lightest and heaviest 10 coins the average weight does still not exceed 6.200 g. The lightest coin is 4.989 g and 23 others weight under 6 grams. The heaviest specimen weights only 6.600 g.

All the coins in the hoard show considerable amounts of wear, most of them being in Fine or about Very Fine grade, and none in a solid good Very Fine. The coins also exhibit a certain amount of corrosion. The amount of circulation wear and the possible weight reduction caused by corrosion explain the low mean weight.

Distribution by year

References list shekels from almost every year from 126 B.C. to 70 A.D., with only a few short gaps. Half shekels are scarcer. Starting with 47 B.C., out of 116 possibilities until 69/70 A.D. RPC lists 92 years for shekels and 51 for halves. Others are periodically seen in trade and our hoard contains two unpublished years (22/23 ad 23/24 A.D.) as well, and there is no reason not to believe coins were minted (often in very small quantities, evidently) each year.

The following graph shows all readable dates and their count within our hoard against the specimens published in RPC and their count, from the opening of the hoard until the closing of the series.


The 3 shekels in the hoard are dated 14/15 A.D. and 34/35 (two), both dates fitting well in the half shekel distribution peaks.

Out of 29 coins which could not be dated, an estimated 65-70% are the crude barbaric imitative type struck with blundered legends and dates; the most representative type in the hoard.  These crude barbaric imitative type most likely fill up the dated coins gap from the late 40's and the 50's.

Click here to go to Forum's catalog and see or purchase coins from the Temple Tax Hoard.