Horde of Silver Coins Found in Syria
A March 2, 2010 press release by the official Syrian news agency, SANA, and a March 4, 2010 Associated Press article by Albert Aji (with associated photos) provide information about the discovery of 252 silver coins from the time of Alexander the Great. A man in the Manbej area of northern Syria found them while digging the foundation for a new house two weeks earlier. Youssef Kanjo, head of the excavations department at the Aleppo Department of Archaeology and Museums, confirmed there were 115 silver drachmas and 137 silver tetradrachmas found in a bronze container. At least some of the tetradrachmas depict Alexander the Great. Other coins show the Greek god Zeus sitting on a throne with an eagle perched on his extended arm. Some coins had Greek inscriptions of “King Alexander,” “Alexander,” or “King Philip” (most likely Alexander’s father).1
From these initial reports, we have minimal details of the precise situation in which these coins were found. That is the real value of archaeology – to identify and explain all we can know about what happened at that location in the past, not unlike CSI today. Consequently, we can only speculate about the situation for this horde of 252 silver coins.
The report does indicate the inscriptions “King Alexander” and “King Philip” (presumably his father) on a number of the coins, but it is not clear if they all date only from the days of these two kings. While in America today we are familiar with having the image of famous dead people on our coins, not so in the ancient world. In antiquity, coins were minted with the image and inscription of the current ruler, alive and well. So we are confident those coins were minted during their reigns, yet they may have been in circulation for centuries afterwards before being deposited here. That is where excavation of the site should be able to fill in much of the missing information.
The press reports also say that these coins were found in a bronze box, although the accompanying AP photos picture a round metal container. This vessel does not appear to be designed for transport, and was probably meant for storage, to be buried or hidden. While there were “banks” in the ancient world, typically located at religious temples, most people would have had little to “deposit” there. The owner of these coins obviously had something to deposit, but seemingly chose a different sort of savings plan. It is reminiscent of the parable Jesus told about the man who gave three servants some of his money to invest for him and one of them just dug a hole and hid it in the ground for safe keeping (Mt 25:18, 25).
Consequently, we have only minimal information about the circumstances of these particular coins, but we do know there were 115 silver drachmas and 137 silver tetradrachmas. Since one drachma would be the equivalent of an average day’s pay for a typical skilled laborer, this horde represents the equivalent of better than two years of an average family’s annual income. Since most people would seldom make more than they needed week by week, this was an extraordinary amount of money.
The world’s first coinage seems to have been issued in western Turkey, probably in the last part of the seventh century BC. The oldest coins we know come from the western Turkey kingdom of Lydia and were made of electrum (a natural alloy of gold and silver native to that region). Each one was “struck” by hammering between two inscribes die, creating royal symbols on each side. This method of coin manufacture actually continued worldwide until the 16th century AD.
Once introduced, the concept of coinage spread quickly, especially with the sixth century BC rise of the Persian Empire. Persian kings developed a standardized coinage system as a very effective propaganda tool with the king’s face, inscription and symbols of royal power struck on both sides each coin.
At the same time, the numerous Greek city states also began producing their own coins. With Alexander’s conquests in the eastern world, the Greek standard unit of silver coinage, the drachma, was used in major cities throughout his empire. Meaning “handful” (Greek; from the verb “to grab”), the drachma was also the central coin of modern Greece’s monetary system until 2002, when it was replaced by the Euro. The tetradrachma (“four handfuls”) was also widely used very early in the Greek city states (even before Alexander).
While early on, drachmas were minted at different weights by different Greek city states, eventually a standard was developed from the Athenian coin, weighing a little over four grams of silver. By New Testament times, the silver Roman denarius became the drachma’s equivalent of a day’s wage (see Jesus’ parable about the workers in the vineyard; Mt 20:1).
While the Roman denarius is the most frequently mentioned coin in the New Testament, the Greek drachma is mentioned once. Dr. Luke (apparently a Greek, himself, and probably the only Gentile to write a book in the Bible; see Col 4:14) tells the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son.
In the parable of the lost coin (Lu 15:8-10), Jesus suggests that a woman who had ten drachmas and lost one will light a lamp, sweep the house and seek for it until she finds it. She will be so glad to find it, that she will gather her friends to celebrate with her. While she had ten drachmas, she appreciated the value of each one (and who wouldn’t if it was a day’s wage!).
Jesus’ three parables speak of the intrinsic value of the one – among one hundred sheep; among ten drachmas and between two sons. Using these analogies, He suggests (twice; 15:7, 10) that in heaven there is great rejoicing when just one person turns away from their own path and turns to God’s plan for his life. So, while we don’t know all the details about the silver drachmas found recently in Syria, we can understand something about their worth – and I am talking about something way beyond their value on eBay!
1. The March 4 2010 AP article by Albert Aji (with associated photos) is found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/04/AR2010030401944.html