Evidence of a dramatic moment in the history of the Jewish people was uncovered in the Judean Desert earlier this year: a rare wooden box containing a small hoard of 15 silver coins from the days leading up to the Maccabean Revolt of 167 BCE.
The box was hidden about 2,200 years ago in the Muraba‘at Cave in today’s Darageh Stream Nature Reserve. It was discovered in an excavation there last May. The coins have since been studied it will be shown to the public over Channukah in the Hasmonean Museum in Modi‘in.
The excavation was carried out in Muraba‘at Cave from March through May 2022, as part of the Judean Desert Excavation and Survey Project of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Archaeological Office for the Military Administration of Judea and Samaria, in cooperation with the Ministry for Jerusalem and Heritage.
When the lid was removed from the ancient box, the upper part was full of packed earth and small stones. Below, there was a large piece of purple woolen cloth that covered the 15 silver coins with pieces of sheep’s wool.
The coin hoard was cleaned by the IAA’s metals lab and revealed to comprise a homogeneous group of silver tetradrachma coins, minted by Ptolemy VI, King of Egypt, who ruled at the same time as his uncle Antiochos IV Epiphanes, whose kingdom included Judea. The three earliest coins in the hoard were minted in 176/5 BCE, and the latest in 171/0 BCE. The name “Shalmai” in Aramaic script was notched on one of the coins.
Based on the latest dated coin in the hoard, 170 BCE, the year when the hoard was hidden can be fixed to the beginning of the Maccabean Revolt against King Antiochos over his decrees against the Jewish religion.
According to Dr. Eitan Klein, who studied the coins together with IAA numismatic expert Dr. Gabriela Bijovsky, “It’s interesting to try to visualize the person who fled to the cave and hid his personal property here, intending to return to collect it. This person was probably killed in the battles, and he did not return to collect his possessions which waited almost 2,200 years until we retrieved them.”
“This is an absolutely unique find, presenting 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,” Dr. Klein noted.
According to Dr. Klein, the two Books of Maccabees describe dramatic events which would have led people to hide their possessions in the Desert. One event was the plundering of the Jerusalem Temple treasures by Antiochos, and the destruction of the Jerusalem city wall in the years that led up to the Hasmonean Revolt.
Another reason could be the religious decrees imposed on the Jews in 167 BCE. The First Book of Maccabees records that groups of Jews fled to hiding places in the desert due to those decrees:
“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. And it was reported to the king’s officers, and the troops in Jerusalem in the city of David, that men who had rejected the king’s command had gone down to hiding places in the wilderness. Many pursued them and overtook them; they encamped opposite them and prepared for battle against them on the sabbath day…. and they died, with their wives and children and cattle, about a thousand persons.” (I Maccabees 2:29–37).
Amir Ganor, Director of the excavation on behalf of the IAA, said: “The Survey and Excavation Project carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Judean Desert over the past six years has led to saving thousands of archaeological artifacts from destruction and plundering, including parts of biblical scrolls, arrowheads from the Bar Kochva Revolt, and a 10,500-year-old basket.”