Ancient coins unearthed in desert cave could point to evidence of Maccabean revolt

The find represents the “first evidence in the Judean Desert for the Maccabean revolt against the Greek Seleucid Kingdom,” the Israel Antiquities Authority said Tuesday.

Coins unearthed from the Murba'at cave in Israel are presented after cleaning. Shai Halevi / Israel Antiquities Authority

An ancient treasure trove of silver coins dating back 2,200 years found in a desert cave in Israel could add crucial new evidence to support 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 that they say were hidden by a refugee fleeing the turmoil of the Maccabean revolt from 167-160 B.C., when Jewish warriors rebelled against the Seleucid Empire. 

The small wooden box, found in the Muraba‘at cave during an excavation in the Judean desert near the Dead Sea in May, is dated between 10 and 15 years before the revolt. 

The find represents the “first evidence in the Judean Desert for the Maccabean revolt against the Greek Seleucid Kingdom,” the authority said in a press release Tuesday.

The Muraba’at cave where the coins were discovered. Israel Antiquities Authority

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

The Seleucid Empire, covering large swaths of the Middle East and Central Asia, was one of several powers that succeeded the empire of Alexander the Great after his death in 323 B.C.

Eitan Klein, part of the team who studied the coins, said the discovery confirms the narrative 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 property here intending to return to collect it. The person was probably killed in the battles, and he did not return to collect his possessions that awaited almost 2,200 years until we retrieved 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 revolt, or the time just before it.

Excavation teams examine a wooden box containing the coins upon its discovery. Israel Antiquities Authority

Historians disagree over various details of the revolt, including its root cause; the Maccabees’ recapturing of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Second Temple are the origin of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which begins Sunday.

According to tradition, a priest called Mattathias sparked the revolt in 167 by refusing to worship Greek gods, killing a Jew who tried to take his place 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 — describes Jews hiding in caves to escape repression.

“Then many who were seeking righteousness and justice went down to the wilderness to dwell there: they, their sons, their wives, and their cattle, because evils pressed heavily upon them,” the first Maccabees book says.

The box was made with a lathe and was packed with earth and stone, below which was a purple woolen cloth covering the coins. The impeccably well-preserved tetradrachm coins — large silver coins commonly used in the ancient Greek world — are from the reign of Ptolemy VI, who ruled Egypt at the same time Epiphanes, his uncle, ruled the Seleucid Empire, including Judea.

The three earliest coins were minted in 176 or 175 B.C., while the latest was made in 171 or 170 B.C.

Amir Ganor, head of the Murba'at excavations team, inspects the coins in an ancient wooden box. Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

Not all scholars agree on the coins’ significance, however. 

While he agreed the new find was an important discovery for the understanding of the period, Benedikt Eckhardt, a senior lecturer in ancient history at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, said the Israeli interpretation of them belonging to a refugee fleeing the Maccabee revolt was just one possibility.

 “What we have here is Ptolymaic coins that are obviously a refugee hoard. I agree with that, I think they fled 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 because of persecution. It would rather indicate to me that these might be people who are connected to the earlier Ptolymaic structure and were deposed or otherwise fell out of favor with the Seleucids. And that would have possibly been before the revolt.”

Eckhardt added that this was a vast amount of money to be found in one place — the equivalent to two months’ wages — which along with the scarce purple cloth suggests the items may have belonged to a high-ranking official.

“There is very close proximity in time between these coins and the revolt, so it’s not absurd to think that there is a connection. It’s just that there are already similar coin hoards east of Jerusalem that are not connected to the revolt.”

The coins are inspected before being cleaned. Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority

Eckhardt was nonetheless excited to learn more about the hoard.

“Other hoards that have been found are reconstructed by specialists based on what came onto the antiquities market at a certain time, so it’s subject to some speculation. So in this sense, it’s very interesting and I will certainly read up on it further,” he said. 

The coins are to be shown to the public over Hannukkah in 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 have also announced a string of finds in Gaza, such as an ornate Byzantine-era mosaic found under a garden.