Review: Small Change in Ancient Beirut

Kevin Butcher. “Small Change in Ancient Beirut.” Berytus 45-46 (2001-2002). Sb. 304 pp., 23 b/w pls. US $30.00.

Although it is not usual practice to review individual issues of academic journals, we make an exception here for the American University of Beirut’s latest double volume of Berytus, which is really a numismatic and archaeological monograph disguised as a journal. In its pages, Kevin Butcher describes and discusses some 7,000 Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine period coins (almost exclusively bronze) found during rescue excavations in two areas (BEY 006 and BEY 045) of the Souks section of ancient Beirut (Berytus). The coins and other materials found during excavation are especially important, because, as Dominic Perring relates in his brief introduction to the history of the excavations (pp. 11-19), they represent a store of material for study snatched from almost certain destruction at the hands of overzealous developers. Faced with sudden plans to build an underground parking garage in the Souks area as part of the ongoing redevelopment of the Beirut Central District, which was heavily damaged during the civil war of 1975-1991, in 1993, an international archaeological team was formed to conduct rescue excavations in the area. The dig went forward between 1994 and 1996, with the noise and debris of demolition work going on only meters away from the site. Adding an almost surreal quality to the sense of urgency already provided by the steady encroachment of trucks and construction workers was the occasional Israeli air strike. It is our hope that recent political changes in the region will make it possible for those involved in the next major archaeological project undertaken by the American University of Beirut to give their full attention to the ground and its treasures without the burden of having to watch the sky as well. The present monograph represents the important first fruits of the Souks excavations, and will be followed in short order by a study of vessel glass finds by Sarah Jennings in Berytus 48 (2004) (forthcoming). Other reports on a variety of topics, including ceramic lamps and finds of Islamic, Crusader, and modern coins, are projected for future volumes of Berytus.

The introduction (pp. 21-41), which largely focuses on the problems of interpreting coin finds, is extremely sobering, almost bordering on the Socratic in its relentless revelation of our inability to know what has long been the received wisdom of find analysis. The challenge put to the ubiquitous belief that stray coin finds are the result of accidental loss in antiquity and therefore accurately represent circulation patterns seems particularly well founded. The author points out that there is really no way for us to know the face values of the coins and if their values were too low for people to expend energy looking for them when dropped, as is commonly supposed. Instead, it is just as likely that some bronze coins (essentially token coinages) were purposely discarded as a result of devaluation, demonetization, or loss of public trust. To this list of reasons for purposeful discard we might also add the same potential motivation of low face value (if they were indeed low) used to underpin the theory of unretrieved loss. In the modern United States and Canada, the small cent denomination is not infrequently discarded by its owners because of its low value, and one suspects that the accumulations of these coins that appear on sidewalks and in parking lots from time to time will eventually become the subject of a similar loss/discard controversy for archaeologists of the very distant future. Of course, it is possible that this sort of discard may be a feature peculiar to affluent and often wasteful North American culture in the twenty-first century and therefore may be less applicable to coin deposits of the ancient world, which had much greater affinities to the modern Third World and whose people may have taken somewhat greater care of personal wealth even in the form of bronze coins. Nevertheless, our additional modern example further underlines the validity of the author’s important argument that largely unknowable social factors probably have a much greater impact on patterns of coin deposition than is usually acknowledged. Butcher here is a true gadfly for sometimes complacent archaeological numismatic thought, and the discipline should be grateful to be so well bitten.

Having introduced the methodology and problems of interpreting site finds, the author offers individual commentaries on the coin finds of each of the five major chronological periods covered by the catalogue (Persian, Hellenistic, Early Roman, Late Roman, and Byzantine). An additional brief commentary (p. 101) also deals with a small number of largely imitative issues that may have been produced within the borders of the Roman and Byzantine empires or under Vandal or Ostrogothic authorities.

The Persian period (p. 43) is represented in BEY 006 and BEY 045 by only four Sidonian bronze issues, tentatively attributed to the reigns of Ba’alshillem II or ‘Abd’Ashtart I. Butcher also includes five Sidetan issues in this period, while admitting that they may in fact be of Hellenistic date. As he points out, the odd presence of these Pamphylian bronzes in Near Eastern sites like Jerusalem, Sebaste, and Caesarea continues to be a source of perplexity. However, it seems more likely that these coins should be dated to the late third or early second century BC than to the period of Persian rule, based on the finds in a short-lived site at Korazim, containing datable coins no later than Antiochus III (See D. T. Ariel, “Coins from the Synagogue at Korazim,” in Z. Yeivin, ed., The Synagogue at Korazim: The 1962-1964, 1980-1987 Excavations, IAA Reports 10 [Jerusalem, 2000], pp. 33-49). It may be no accident that this is also roughly the same period that Sidetan tetradrachms appear in Syrian hoards. Such a date would coincide with and perhaps solidify the proposed ceramic phase date of 200-150 BC for pit fill context 10138 of BEY 006, where the only securely stratified Sidetan specimen was recovered.

Finds of the Hellenistic period (pp. 44-58) are largely dominated by the royal coinages of the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties. The bulk of the Ptolemaic material is made up of almost equal quantities of coins of Ptolemy II (285-246 BC) from the mints of Alexandria and Tyre. However, Butcher notes that the Alexandrian finds were mainly of two of the smaller denominations while a broader range of Tyrian issues were found, suggesting that Tyre was the main supplier of Ptolemaic coinage to Berytus. He also uses several site contexts dated by ceramic phase to the third and early second centuries BC to further support the generally accepted view that Phoenicia was disconnected from the Ptolemaic currency system almost immediately after the Seleucid conquest (202-198 BC). However, Butcher’s argument for an early aggressive policy to create a Seleucid identity for the conquered territory in part through the large-scale import of small denomination Apollo/Apollo standing bronzes (nos. 74-163) of Antiochus III from Antioch and perhaps Ake-Ptolemaïs seems a little less solid. While this is a reasonable enough impression to take from the coin finds in isolation, it does not take into account the larger numismatic picture of Phoenicia under Antiochus III, which saw an almost complete failure to impose Seleucid-style Attic-weight silver coinage on the region and the introduction of a new bronze coinage at Tyre featuring strictly local reverse types, both of which tend to undercut the idea of a serious “Seleucidizing” policy. The important role later played by Seleucid quasi-municipal coinages at Berytus and other Phoenician cities, as well as the resurrection of a Ptolemaic-style silver coinage with the portrait and name of the Seleucid king, both point to a somewhat more cautious policy of dealing with Phoenicia in primarily regional rather than imperial terms (see G. Le Rider, “La politique monétaire des Séleucides en Coelé Syrie et Phénice après 200”, BCH 119 [1995], pp. 391-404 and O. Hoover, “Ceci n’est pas l’autonomie: The Coinage of Seleucid Phoenicia as Royal and Civic Power Discourse,” Topoi Supplement 6 [2004], pp. 485-507). The new Seleucid coinage of Tyre may not have circulated at Berytus because it was really a nascent form of the later quasi-municipal coinages, which, as Butcher shows, rarely circulated far from their cities of issue. In light of the larger picture, it seems somewhat more likely that the many Apollo coins were injected into the circulation pool at Berytus during the course of campaigning in the region. Several coins of Antiochus III attributed to a military mint traveling with the Seleucid army (nos. 164-168) are also known from the excavations. For the later Seleucid period at Berytus, the author compares the Souks finds with other sites, coming to the important conclusion that a two-tiered system of coinage circulation developed, involving issues intended for local circulation (i.e. quasi-municipal coins of Berytus, Tyre, Sidon, etc.) and the widely circulating issues of major centers like Antioch and Ake-Ptolemaïs. It may be worth adding that this propensity for circulation dualism in the coinage of Seleucid Phoenicia can also be seen at work in the local silver mints as well, which produced coins on a Phoenician (Ptolemaic) standard mainly for regional use as well as regular Attic-weight issues.

With the collapse of Seleucid power in the first century BC, the number of coin finds decreases, but the material that is known is dominated by civic issues of Berytus, as one might expect, with a few specimens struck by the rulers of Chalcis and Judaea as well as nearby Phoenician and Coele Syrian cities. Although the Berytus coins are classified and arranged by Rouvier number in the catalogue, the author suggests that the order of issue should be rearranged so that coins marked ΛΑ-ΦΟ (a carryover from the Seleucid period) precede those bearing the ethnic ΒΗ or ΒΗΡΥΤΙΩΝ. This rearrangement has also been endorsed recently by Z. Sawaya, “Le monnayage municipal séleucide de Bérytos (169/8-114/3? av. J.-C.),” NC (2004), pp. 130-131 with n. 132. Several isolated issues of Asia Minor (Pergamum, Ephesus[?], Miletus, Cnidus, Cos, Rhodes, Perge, Etenna) and even Italian Rhegium are also present, but Butcher rightly cautions against using them as evidence for international trade relations. Indeed, because these coins are so far out of their usual areas of circulation they seem to be prime candidates for the theory of purposeful discard.

The commentary on Early Roman finds (pp. 59-80) is divided into two sections, the first of which is devoted to the provincial bronze issues and the second to imperial issues, primarily the radiate coinages of the third century AD. In the first and second centuries, the pattern of provincial finds essentially reproduces that of the Seleucid period, with the bulk of the circulating medium composed of local Berytus issues and the much wider ranging SC coinage of Antioch; however, by the third century the coinage of Berytus completely dominates the material and the SC series appears no more important than the ephemeral site finds of other Near Eastern city coins. Comparison with other sites in the region shows that Berytus was somewhat unusual in the numbers of SC coins and Judaean issues found in its environs, prompting Butcher to suggest that for some reason, these coins were deliberately injected into local circulation.

In addition to the more well-known provincial series discussed in this section, several unusual pieces are worthy of special note. An interesting find is a small anepigraphic Tyche/caduceus between crossed cornucopiae type (no. 630) that has been attributed at different times to Palmyra or Commagene, neither of which seem very satisfactory as the originating mints. The attention of readers should be drawn to nos. 632 and 634, two provincial bronzes that continue to defy full attribution, despite the reasonable preservation of their types. Also of uncertain date and mintage is a group of so-called minute coins (nos. 635-654) of 9-12mm diameter and bearing various types including a griffin (nos. 636-637), a serpent entwined on a staff (no. 635), a palm tree (nos. 650-651), and a crude star (no. 654). The latter may not be a true “minute” issue, but rather a coin of the Hasmonaean priest-king Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC), whose star/anchor coinage at times could reach truly spectacular levels of crudity. See Y. Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins (Jerusalem/Nyack, 2001), nos. L8-L11, for examples of Jannaeus coins of comparable size and style to that of no. 654. Likewise, it is not entirely clear why the special “minute” classification has been given to no. 648, a 12mm bronze that seems most likely to be a less than perfectly preserved civic issue of Ascalon like the one known from excavations in BEY 006 (no. 284).

Butcher compares the remaining “minute” coins with a collection of similar pieces, including griffin and palm tree types, reportedly from the environs of Caesarea Maritima and now in the Ashmolean Museum. Leaving all chronological possibilities open, he points out that the palm tree type “minute” coins have been variously identified as imitations of civic issues of Tyre (second-first century BC) as well as Byzantine or Vandalic (fifth-sixth century AD). We would argue that the Ashmolean palm tree type AM6, which has very close stylistic similarities to the smaller BEY 006 coin no. 651, is most likely an imitation of Tyre. Under magnification it is possible to just make out the head of Tyche as the obverse type. For what it’s worth, in 2002, a coin possibly struck from the same reverse die as AM6 was seen in American trade as part of a group from northern Israel that included many regular Tyrian small bronzes. Frustratingly, a cross in wreath issue of the Vandal king Hunneric (AD 477-484) and a few nummi of the emperors Leo I (AD 457-474) and Zeno (AD 474-491) were also present, thereby muddying the potential chronological implication. (See also A. Houghton and A. Spaer, Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum Israel I: The Arnold Spaer Collection of Seleucid Coins [London, 1998], no. 1551 for a Tyrian palm tree imitation apparently produced under the Seleucid king Alexander I Balas.) The palm tree type no. 650 is of a very different style.

Based on the use of pagan types, Butcher reasonably suggests that the “minute” coins probably date no later than the third century AD, yet their production on cast flans and their apparent circulation alongside similar unstruck blanks (nos. 642-647) makes the fifth century seem like a very good possibility (see G. Bijovsky, “The Currency of the Fifth Century C.E. in Palestine-Some Reflections in Light of the Numismatic Evidence,” INJ 14 [2000-2002], pp. 202-204). We note that the portrait obverses of the griffin issue AM2 and the Hermes coin AM4 appear to wear late Roman-style diadems (rather than laurel wreaths) with the usual short tie ends fluttering behind the heads. The portrait bust on the latter coin also seems to be draped and cuirassed in the late Roman fashion.

Outside of two sestertii of Philip I and Trajan Decius, respectively, all imperial coinages found on the site up to the reforms of Diocletian are radiate issues which came to replace the provincial bronze coinages at Berytus in the 250s. Comparison of the Souks finds with those of radiates at other sites in the Near East, Anatolia, and mainland Greece confirms the pattern of regional variation in deposition and mint supply originally outlined by D. MacDonald, “Aphrodisias and Currency in the East, AD 259-305,” AJA 78 (1974), pp. 279-286. However, Berytus and other Near Eastern sites seem to have a much more even distribution of radiates on either side of Aurelian’s reform of c. AD 274 than in Anatolia and Greece, where pre-reform radiates are generally more common as single finds. Notable are the finds of five TR mint aurelianiani (nos. 756, 767-768, 772, and 777) variously attributed to Tripolis or Tyre. Similar finds of these coins at other north Phoenician and Syrian sites and in the Nahr Ibrahim hoard leads Butcher to tentatively suggest that Tripolis may be the more likely of the two cities as the mint of origin.

An important issue raised with respect to these provincial and imperial finds is that of continued circulation of these coins in later contexts, well after they would have been expected to disappear from circulation as a result of demonetization. Several sequences from the site seem to place quantities of provincial and radiate issues of the first to third centuries in contexts datable by ceramic phase and other numismatic material to the mid-fourth century, suggesting that the early coins were still in use in this period. Supporting this possibility is the well-known reuse of old small denomination coinage of appropriate size in the fifth and sixth centuries (p. 97). Of course, accepting the continued circulation of such coinage tends to leave us in limbo regarding the proper quantitative interpretation of the Early Roman material, since some of it may potentially reflect patterns of circulation much later than the original period of issue.

Despite the generally chaotic nature of the coinage, with its frequent demonetization and reissue, the Late Roman coin finds (pp. 81-100) follow a relatively easily understandable pattern of deposition at Berytus. For most issues of the later fourth and fifth centuries the nearby mint of Antioch was the major source of the coinage found on the site, with the exception of the Tetrarchic post-reform radiates, the emperor on horseback GLORIA ROMANORVM type of AD 393-395, and the two emperor GLORIA ROMANORVM types of AD 408-423, which appear to have been largely supplied by Cyzicus, Alexandria, and Constantinople, respectively. Both Antioch and Cyzicus seem to share the duty of supplying Berytus in the later fifth century. As we might expect, when more than one emperor was in power, those most commonly found on the site are those of eastern rulers like Licinius I, Licinius II, Valens, and Honorius. Several good site contexts are used to illustrate the continued importance of the issues of the later fourth century as late as the early sixth century at Berytus.

For the Byzantine period (pp. 102-112), Butcher again finds a two-tiered system of circulation at work, in which large denominations were regulated, but small denominations were not carefully controlled, thereby allowing older (sometimes very much older) coins of the proper diameter to circulate alongside the official small coins of the Byzantine state. The Souks finds are remarkable for their domination by issues of Anastasius (AD 491-518), which account for 71 percent of the material, and for the relative scarcity of coins of coins of Justinian (AD 527-565) and Justin II (AD 565-578). The Anastasius pieces are also notable in that they were extensively supplied by the mint of Constantinople, rather than a regional mint like Antioch. In the second half of the reign of Maurice Tiberius (AD 582-602) the issues of more distant mints disappear, leaving Antioch as sole supplier to Berytus. A wider sampling of mints from Antioch to Constantinople returns under Phocas (AD 602-610), but the issues of Heraclius (AD 610-641) come from Constantinople, Thessalonica, and Nicomedia as we would expect, considering the closure of the Antioch mint after its capture by the Sasanian Persians in 611. Byzantine coinage in the Souks excavations ceases with a follis of AD 629/30, roughly coinciding with the conclusion of the Byzantine reconquest of the region. Imported Byzantine coinage generally fell into sharp decline throughout the region after much of the Near East was lost to the Islamic Arabs in 636. It would be interesting to know what the site finds look like for the pseudo-Byzantine and Umayyad imperial image coinages that filled the coinage vacuum of the early Islamic period, and whether the somewhat early end of Byzantine coinage at Berytus may have meant an early replacement with pseudo-Byzantine issues copying the types of Heraclius, currently dated to the 650s (see S. Album and T. Goodwin, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean I: The Pre-Reform Coinage of the Early Islamic Period [Oxford, 2002], pp. 104-106).

The text concludes with two appendices by Penelope Walton Rogers and Paul Reynolds, respectively. The first (pp. 291-292) looks at what can be learned about textile and basket manufacture in Romano-Byzantine Beirut from the mineralised remains of linen and plaited grass/rush fused to four of the excavation coins, while the second (pp. 293-296) discusses the methodology of and difficulties in the development of ceramic phase dates for the Souks site. A provisional list of the ceramic phasing sequence is also given.

The catalogue (pp. 119-290) lists and identifies all of the finds from BEY 006 and BEY 045 by site code, context number, and small find number. Details of diameter, typological descriptions, numismatic references, and indication of whether the coin is whole or broken are provided in the find tables. Seven of the “minute” coins from the Ashmolean Museum are also included. The eleven hoard assemblages of Late Roman and Byzantine coins found in the course of excavation are listed separately.

Many of the coins discussed in the text and listed in the catalogue are illustrated in twenty-three black and white plates. These are generally of good quality, although a few pieces are a little darker than we might like. However, any minor photographic imperfections must be easily forgiven considering the legion of lighting difficulties posed by excavation coins, each with its own peculiarities of patina, wear, and corrosion. In addition to the individual finds that make up the bulk of the illustrated material, four hoards (three late Roman and one Byzantine) from BEY 006 and one late Roman hoard from BEY 045 also appear in the plates, as well as the Ashmolean “minute” pieces.

Kevin Butcher’s important and exhaustive study of the coin finds from the Beirut Souks excavations will obviously be of very great interest to students of numismatics and archaeology at Near Eastern sites, but its reassessment of what can be learned from numismatic site finds and to some degree how it should be learned also make it required reading for anyone working with excavation coins, even those from more westerly sites. It is a necessary volume for the library of every dig house, and thanks to the extremely modest selling price, none but the most poorly funded of excavations has any excuse not to own a copy.

—Oliver D. Hoover