Pennies from heaven, or elsewhere (Ha'aretz)
By Danny Rubinstein
How did hundreds of thousands of bronze coins from the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (Yannai) end up on the bottom of the Dead Sea?
Archaeologist and antiquities dealer Lenny Wolf of Jerusalem says that until just a few years ago, coins of the sort found at the Dead Sea were valued at between $10-20, depending on the mint condition and the coin's state of preservation (their value dropped to as low as $5 per coin in the past few years because the market was flooded; it has lately rebounded). A few years ago, Wolf also heard about the big hoard found at the Dead Sea. An Arab merchant told him he had purchased many coins from that hoard, and after lengthy negotiations Wolf took tens of thousands of coins off his hands.
What's special about the Dead Sea hoard is the sheer number of coins. Wolf estimates, and several scholars concur, that there are 300,000 coins. That is an unprecedented number by Israeli and perhaps worldwide standards. Another interesting aspect of this hoard is that all of the coins, with a few exceptions, are from a single series: Pruta coins minted in the reign of the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus (Yannai), who ruled from 104-76 BCE.
The average weight of each coin in the hoard is less than a gram. There are larger coins weighing over 3 grams and tiny ones weighing a tenth of a gram. Most are relatively well preserved because they rested for over 2000 years on the floor of the Dead Sea, with its low-oxygen waters.
One side of the coin displays a ship's anchor surrounded by the Greek inscription "King Alexander." The anchor is a royal symbol of the Seleucid rulers (heirs of Alexander the Great), and Ariel believes that Jannaeus adopted it to give his coinage standard value. In his book "A Treasury of Jewish Coins," numismatist Yaakov Meshorer maintains that Alexander Jannaeus may also have wanted the anchor symbol to highlight the fact that he conquered the coastal towns in the Land of Israel, from Acre in the north to Gaza and Rafah in the south.
The flip side of the coin displays an eight-pointed star, surrounded by a crown; in the spaces between the star points appears the Hebrew inscription "Yehonatan the king" (the Hebrew name of Alexander Jannaeus).
Most of the coins, alas, seem to have been sold by American antiquities dealers to private individuals. They were marketed as examples of Jesus' "widow's mite."
UPDATE: Stephen Goranson notes in an e-mail that in the sentence, "Tiny silver coins of the "yahad" type go for thousands of dollars on the antiquities market (the inscription yahad appears on today's shekel in a form copied from the ancient coin)" the word "yahad" should be "Yehud," i.e., "Judah." Wouldn't it be something if there were coins with "yahad" on them!