Greek Acquisitions (Winter 2002)

by Peter van Alfen

While Haim Gitler of the Israel Museum was our visiting scholar during the Summer Seminar, Dr. Jay Galst invited the two of us to spend a morning viewing portions of his extensive collection of ancient Judean and Near Eastern coins. As a further token of his hospitality, Dr. Galst presented us both with three Samarian obols each to add to the cabinets of the ANS and Israel Museum. As part of the hoard of Samarian coins that came to light a number of years ago, the coins have been well published, notably in Y. Meshorer and S. Qedar’s Samarian Coinage (Jerusalem 1999), and are an important gift to the collection. These small, crudely produced imitations of the famous Athenian owl are significant not only because they were among the very first coins minted in the Levant, but also for what they can tell us about fourth century B.C. Levantine societies and economies. It has long been argued that the reason the Athenian owl was so widely imitated in the east was because of the reputation the coins had acquired there as “good money.” But as the Samarian coins and many of the related Philisto-Arabian types show, the owl was not always faithfully copied. New indigenous elements and legends were added to the basic design, or the design itself was rearranged and recomposed. In some cases, for example, an Athenian owl reverse might be mated to a Sidonian galley obverse, an Egyptianizing Bes, or the facing head Apollo types (which in turn were imitating those from Tarsus, which were imitating those of Kimon’s Arethusa from Syracuse in Sicily). Is it possible to detect in some of these Samarian and Philisto-Arabian combinations, manipulations, and imitations of imitations a playful response to the overly serious business of monetary design? The Semitic textual evidence that we possess from the Persian period Levant (6-4th c. B.C.), mostly a handful of Old Testament books and ostraca, are almost all quite serious in nature. Perhaps these coins provide the only clues to the more light-hearted side of the cultures in ancient Samaria and Philistia, clues that are lacking in our other sources.

It is also significant, from an economic prospective, that far more small denominations of these types of coins have been found than large denominations. The evidence would seem to suggest that from the outset there was greater concern for providing coinage that was geared more towards small daily transactions than large budget purchases. Generally, this seems to have been the case in Samaria, Judea, and to a lesser extent in Philistia, a situation which stands in stark contrast to that in neighboring Phoenicia and satrapal Egypt, where monetary systems employing a broad range of silver and even bronze denominations were used. An easy explanation for this is not to be found; but it does, nevertheless, signal a degree of administrative and monetary sophistication which the coins themselves, because of their sometimes rough stylistic appearance, do not immediately reveal.