The Tyrian shekels: overview and new unpublished coins
By Tom Buijtendorp
The Tyrian shekels have been minted during almost two centuries and are well known as the coin for the annual temple tax, and the silver pieces paid to Judas. An overview with some new unlisted coins.
The Tyrian (half) shekels in general
Fig 1 Early tetradrachm of Tyre of Ptolemy II Philadelphos (285 - 246 BCE), minted in 277-276 BCE in Tyre. Obverse diademed head of Ptolemy I right wearing aegis; reverse PTOLEMAIOU BASILEWS, eagle standing left on thunderbolt, Z ( year 7; Z takes a form similar to I, or H on its side) over club left; struck with a sculptural high-relief obverse die. Weight 14.11 gram, maximum diameter 28.4 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. GS10715.
Fig 2 Tetradrachm of Demetrius II Nikator (146 - 136 and 129 - 125 BCE), minted in the last year of his reign (126/125 BCE) in the same style as the earlier coins of fig 2 and the later autonomous Tyrian shekels (fig 3). Obverse diademed and draped bust right; reverse BASILEWS DHMHTRIOU, eagle standing left on ship ram, palm frond under wing, A/PE / TYP monogram on club left, AVS monogram / IPR (year 187) right, GHP monogram between leg. Weight 13.811 gram, maximum diameter 27.22 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. GS38159.
Tyre was a minting place of silver tetradrachms for a long time. Early examples are tetradrachms of Ptolemy II Philadelphos (285 - 246 BCE) with his head on the obverse and a eagle standing on the reverse (fig 1). This was still the type about one and half century later. Examples are the last tetradrachms of the Seleukid ruler Demetrius II Nikator (146 - 136 and 129 - 125 BCE) minted in 126-126 BCE, just before he was murdered and Tyre gained autonomy (fig 2).
Fig. 3 Early autonomous shekel minted in year six (111-110 BCE) of the new year count, in the beautiful style of the first autonomous shekels. Obverse laureate head of Melqart right, lion's skin knotted around neck; reverse TYPOY IEPAS KAI ASULOY (of Tyre the holy and inviolable), eagle left, r. foot on ship's ram, palm frond behind, date VI (year 6) over club and palm frond left, ZB r., Phoenician letter nun between legs. Weight 14.211 gram, maximum diameter 27.6 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH15313.
After Demetrius was murdered, the city Tyre became independent and started to mint autonomous shekels in a style, size and weight (c. 14 gram) very comparable to the earlier tetradrachms (fig 3-4). The head of the ruler was replaced by the laureate head of the city god Melqart facing right, continuing the beautiful style. Like the former tetradrachms, there was no obverse legend. The reverse again showed an eagle standing left on a ship ram, symbol for the harbour city Tyre. Also the club at the left side of the eagle was continued. The date shifted from the right side of the eagle to the top of the club, and new year counting started with this first moment of independence. The name of the ruler in the reverse legend was replaced by a general text TYPOY IEPAS KAI ASULOY (of Tyre the holy and inviolable). Also half shekels were minted with the same obverse and reverse, and in some rare occasions quarter shekels were minted as well. The style was beautiful, although minting errors like double strikes occurred (fig 4).
After a few years, the style of the Tyrian shekels deteriorated with a more crude portrait (fig 5). A brief revival in style followed (fig 6), after which the coins become more crude again. In the last stage, from 18 BCE onwards, a very crude series was minted, partly with very worn dies (fig. 7). It has been suggested by Meshorer these coins have been minted in Jerusalem, but this suggestion is not generally supported. Marian and Sermarini remarked in their analysis of the Temple tax Hoard, that obverse dies of these crude coins in many cases were much better and close to the style of the contemporary coins of Tyre. They suggested the crude reverse style was related to periods of high production, knowing reverse dies on average lasted much shorter then obverse dies and apparently were cut in great haste.
The minting of the autonomous Tyrian (half)shekels continued under Roman rule up to the Jewish War. The youngest known coin is a half shekel in the British Museum dated in year 191 (65/66 CE). It has been suggested that another half shekel in the same museum is dated PNE or year 195 (69/70 CE), however this is disputed as it may also be the year PME (19/20 CE).[i]
New minting years
Fig. 8 Half shekel of the Temple Tax Hoard of the unlisted minting year 4-5 CE. The date looks like RA (Tyrian year 101, 26 - 25 B.C.). That date did not, however, fit the rest of the hoard and the presence of KR on the reverse in the right field, used only from year 113 onwards. The date must be RL, year 130, which is unpublished in the primary references. Weight 5.845 gram, maximum diameter 19.6 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. JD40409.
In the early 20th century of the 191 or 195 years of potential production, less then half where registered for full shekels and only about 1/7th for half shekels. In 1998 in the standard work on Roman Provincial Coinage (RPC), the share of listed minting years was increased to about 3/4th (shekels) and 1/3rd (half shekels).[iii] And the list of minting years is still growing. The Temple tax Hoard which came to the market in 2008, offered three so far unlisted years for the half shekels: 4-5 CE, 21-23 CE and 23-24 CE (fig 7-9).[iv]
Fig 11. Two unprovenanced half shekels of year 31 (96/95 BCE, 6.95 gram, top) and 47 (80/79 BCE, 6.92 gram, bottom) sharing the same obverse die as confirmed by David R. Sear. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH10737 and SH10741.
Fig 12. An half shekel of the unlisted year 64/65 CE, showing the appearance of well preserved Tyrian (half)shekels. Weight 6.474 gram, maximum diameter 19.8 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH26439.
And Forum Ancient Coins recently offered two unprovenanced half shekels with new minting years. An early half shekel minted in 96-95 BCE was very special because the same obverse die was reused 16 years later in 80-79 BCE (fig. 11). And Forum Ancient Coins sold a half shekel minted in 64/65 CE, a very late unlisted minting year (fig 12). And a quick scan on internet offered some more unlisted years. This indicates the current list of minting years is not complete yet.[i]
The Tyrian shekels where highly reputed for their silver content of about 97%, much higher then other silver coins in the region. The aimed weight for the full shekel is estimated at around 14.1 gram. For the half shekel the aimed weight would then be half of this or around 7.1 gram. Half shekels are much rarer and in many cases quite worn. Some well preserved examples, however, confirm an original weight of about 7.1 gram (fig.6 and 13). Thus an aimed average weight for freshly minted half shekels of about 7.1 gram is credible.
As said, some shekels were of crude style (fig 7). And double strikes and damaged dies occurred (fig 4 and 14). And in some very rare cases, counterfeits with a bronze core were produced (fig 15).[i] As a result, sometimes small cuts were used to test whether a coins was of pure silver (fig 16).
In low volume years, there would be only one or a few obverse dies needed. Because the obverse die did not show a date, they could be reused next year. Here an interesting example is offered by two unprovenanced half shekels of year 31 (96/95 BCE) and 47 (80/79 BCE) sold by Forum Ancient Coins (fig 11). They share the same obverse die as confirmed by David R. Sear. In this case, the minting years are 16 years apart and shekels are known for all years in between except for year 36 and 43. So in this case it was decided to reuse a very old die still available in the workshop. And Levy identified the example of an obverse die of a Tyrian half shekel being used in the four different minting years between 52/53, 56/57, 58/59 and 65/66 CE. Here again, this period showed very low volumes for half shekels.
Fig 17. Tetradrachm of Nero minted in Antioch in 59-60 CE, competing with the comparable Tyrian shekels. Obverse NERWNOS KAISAROS SEBASTOU, laureate bearded bust right wearing aegis; reverse eagle standing on a thunderbolt, wings spread, palm frond left, V / HP right (regnal year 6 & year 108 of the Caesarian era = 59-60 A.D.). Weight 14.84 gram, maximum diameter 25.4 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH1077.
Fig 18. Tetradrachm of Trajan minted in Tyre in 117 CE. Obverse AUTOKR KAIC NER TRAIANOC ARI CEB GERM DAK PARQ, laureate head of Trajan right; reverse DHMARX EX KA UPAT V (regnal year 21, 6 times Consul), eagle standing facing on a club, wings spread, head left, palm-branch on right. Weight 14.035 gram, maximum diameter 24.5 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RP59596.
Fig 19. Tetradrachm of Caracalla minted in Tyre in 213-217 CE. Obverse AVT KAI AN-TWNINOC CE, laureate head right; reverse •DHMAPX •EX •YPATOCTO•D•, eagle standing facing on club, wings spread, tail and head left, wreath in beak, murex shell between legs. Weight 13.379 gram, maximum diameter 26.4 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RP42686.
During the reign of Nero (54-68 CE) in the year 59-60 CE a large production volume of tetradrachms started. Although the silver content was much lower, these coins formally were of the same value as the shekels, as the comparable look suggested (fig 17). At the same time, the production of Tyrian shekels continued at a much lower volume. And analysis of the silver of the new coinage of Antioch indicated that they were (partly) minted from old Tyrian silver coins. As a result, within a few years the Neronian coins replaced the Tyrian shekels. The new type continued for a long time into the 3rd century CE and was also minted in Tyre (fig 18-19).
Fig 20 Silver shekel minted in Jerusalem in year 2 of the Jewish Revolt (67-68 CE). Obverse "Shekel of Israel" in Hebrew, Omer cup with pearled rim, date above (year 2); reverse stem with three pomegranates, "Jerusalem the Holy" in Hebrew around. Weight 13.496 gram, maximum diameter 21.7 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH28932.
Fig 21 Silver shekel (overstrike) of the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 CE) with a denarius of Nerva (96-98) as undertype. Obverse Shim'on (in Hebrew), bunch of grapes; remains of legend denarius Nerva at the right side: TR P II COS III; reverse For the freedom of Jerusalem (in Hebrew), Lulav (palm-frond). Weight 3.326 gram, maximum diameter 18.3 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH28912.
Much more short lived was the minting of Jewish shekels in Jerusalem during the Jewish war (fig 20). They have been found in some hoards together with Tyrian shekels, indicating they were supposed to continue the role of the Tyrian shekels. The silver content of the Jewish shekels was even a little higher at the same aimed coin weight. Interestingly, the denominations of full, half and quarter shekel were mentioned on the coins. The Jewish revolt was however unsuccessful and made an end to almost two centuries of silver shekels. During the second Jewish War, the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-135 CE, there was once again a series of silver shekels, in this case recoined Roman denarii (fig 21). This second emission was short lived as well. After the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, the shekel lost an important basis. Not only the temple was lost, but also the related coinage.
i. Only a few coins known. See also CNG 18 Sept. 2001 lot 712.
ii. Shekel of 53/54 AD July 2011 offered on internet; unlisted half shekels offered by Noble Numismatics Sydney, auction Nov 2002 lot 4717 (107/106 BCE) and Auction Spring 2004 lot 1886 (84/83 BC); Gemini LLC Auction VI lot 262 (60/61 CE); LHS Numismatik 94, 25 October 2005, lot 722 (74/73 BCE
iii. Burnett cs 1998 (RPC).
iv. Marian and Sermarini 2008; Numiswiki: http://www.forumancientcoins.com/numiswiki/view.asp?key=temple%20tax%20hoard.