A Byzantine Gold Hoard from Bet She’an

by Gabriela Bijovsky

In October 1998, a hoard of Byzantine gold coins was discovered in Bet She’an, Israel, during salvage excavations carried out by Ofer Syon, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The ancient city of Bet She’an—​Nysa-Scythopolis—​is located in the Jordan Valley, which extends from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. This hot but very fertile region, located about 180 meters below sea level, was strategically situated on a number of routes connecting the Levantine coast and Jerusalem with Syria and Mesopotamia.

From the Early Bronze Age, Bet She’an was an important city in the region. By the Early Roman period, the town was the leading member of a league of ten Hellenized cities known as the Decapolis. At the beginning of the fifth century CE, Bet She’an-Scythopolis became the capital of the province Palaestina Secunda. After the Arab conquest around 635 CE, the region became the province Jund al-Urdunn, and its capital was no longer Bet She’an-Scythopolis but Tiberias, approximately 30 kilometers to the north. The city was completely destroyed by an earthquake on January 18, 749 CE, and never recovered its former magnificence.

Bet She’an has been the subject of several archaeological programs since the 1920s. Comprehensive excavations recommenced in Bet She’an in 1986, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. These excavations were concentrated in the area just south of the tell, where the civic center of the Roman and Byzantine periods was found. Additional archaeological evidence comes from other parts of the city, though, mostly from the southern neighborhoods, such as the location where our gold hoard was found. The site is located on the eastern side of the Tiberias-Jericho road, at the top of the slope descending toward the Jordan river. At the end of the Byzantine period this area was outside the city walls. Under the rule of the Umayyad caliphs—the Arab dynasty that ruled in the second half of the seventh and first half of the eighth centuries—this southeastern neighborhood continued to grow but remained unfortified.

An overview of the excavation of the southern area of Bet She-an where the hoard was found

The hoard was found in a housing area of Bet She-an. This photograph shows the hoard in its pot during excavation

Reconstructed view of the house. The arrow points to the findspot of the hoard

A complex of residential dwellings was built on the site during the Byzantine and Umayyad periods. The complex was apparently destroyed by the earthquake in 749 CE. The gold hoard was found in the corner of a courtyard in one of the buildings, beneath a floor upon which a group of jars stood. Hidden within a small cooking pot were 751 gold coins. Even though the pot itself is characteristic of the Umayyad period, no Islamic coins were included in the hoard. All the coins are Byzantine solidi, the standard gold coin of the early Byzantine empire, minted in Constantinople during the seventh century CE. The dates of the coins cover a period of seventy years, ranging from 610 to 681 CE. Four emperors who ruled during that time are represented: Phocas (602-610 CE, 95 coins), Heraclius (610-641 CE, 382 coins), Constans II (641-668 CE, 219 coins) and Constantine IV (668-685 CE, 55 coins). It was near the end of the reign of Heraclius, circa 635 CE, when the Arab conquest took place, suggesting that at least some of the coins in the hoard arrived in the region before this event, and that a significant number arrived afterwards. The Bet She’an hoard is apparently representative of the currency of the transitional period known as Arab-Byzantine, indicating that, monetarily at least, the conversion from one culture to the other was in fact gradual.

Solidus of Phocas (602-610 CE)

The hoard shows an uninterrupted chronological sequence. The latest issues of Constantine IV in the hoard, dated to the period 674-681 CE, help us to date its deposition. The hoard was probably buried after the early 80’s of the seventh century—namely, during the unstable decade preceding the monetary reform of caliph ‘Abd al-Malik in 696/697 CE, when the use of Byzantine money was finally prohibited.

Solidus of Heraclius (610-641 CE)

Our find is the largest gold hoard from the seventh CE century found in an archaeological excavation, with an approximate weight of 3,400 grams of gold. As in most hoards dated to the seventh century, the bulk of the coins were minted under Heraclius. This is quite comprehensible, since the Arab conquest would have reduced the influx of later Byzantine gold coinage into the region. As a result, solidi of Heraclius remained in circulation for much longer in Syria and Palestine than in other parts of the Byzantine empire, where old coins were regularly withdrawn from circulation and reminted with the image of the current emperor. Coins of Constans II are the second largest group in the Bet She’an hoard. Their numbers increase in the second half of his reign. The fifty-five coins of Constantine IV discovered in the hoard constitute the greatest number of gold coins of this ruler ever published from hoards in the region. Only his first two issues were found in the hoard. The latest coins in the hoard therefore date to 681 CE.

Solidus of Constans II (641-668 CE)

The iconography of Byzantine solidi of the seventh century is quite consistent. The obverse (front side) is dedicated to the image of the emperor and includes his name. The emperor is depicted with or without his sons, as associated successors. Until the reign of Phocas a standing angel appears on the reverse (rear side), with the inscription VICTORIA AVG (“Victory of the Emperor”). This is followed by a final letter, called the officina, probably indicating the workshop or serial issue. Below, a short abbreviation appears: CONOB, a combination of the mint-name “Constantinople”, and the term obrizum, which means “refined gold”. From the time of Heraclius on, a new reverse type was introduced: a cross on three steps. This remained the most common type during the rest of the seventh century. More types of reverse compositions are known from the reigns of Constans II and Constantine IV. Solidi bear no dates, but the physical changes in the portraiture of the royal family allow numismatists to arrange the whole series of solidi in chronological order.

Solidus of Constantine IV

A metrological study of the coins in the hoard enables us to learn about the monetary standards in use in the region. The average weight of the solidi in the hoard is 4.37 grams. This is the predominant standard in other hoards from the region, which is lower than the official Byzantine solidus of 24 carats (4.55 grams). The weight reduction is actually a consequence of the historical circumstances: the older solidi that remained in circulation after the Arab conquest gradually lost part of their weight as result of prolonged use. In 696/697 CE, the monetary reform of caliph ‘Abd al-Malik established the weight of the new gold coin, the dinar, at 4.25 grams. It seems likely that the weight of the new Arab dinar did not follow the theoretical weight of the Byzantine solidus, which was much heavier. Rather, it followed the reduced average weight of those Byzantine solidi circulating locally, such as those from the Bet She’an hoard.

The “Standing Caliph” dinar, issued by the Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik in 694/5. It weighs 4.461g. The standing Caliph echoes the standing figures of the imperial family shown on the Byzantine solidus, and the modified cross is a clear adaptation of the Byzantine symbol (ANS Collection specimen)

Dinar of Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik on the new weight standard of 4.25g and with Arabic inscriptions but excluding any graven images and thus following this Islamic tradition (ANS Collection specimen)

A most striking phenomenon in coins from the hoard is the prevalence of graffiti. Many of these marks are random incisions, yet others represent symbols, monograms, and letters that sometimes form short words. Graffiti occur more frequently in hoards deposited during the second half of the seventh century, although they are hardly ever noticed. Apparently it was a local or provincial practice. An outstanding 35 percent of the solidi in the Bet She’an hoard bear graffiti. They appear over the whole range of coin types, but a higher concentration appear on coins of Phocas—the earliest in the hoard. Only five solidi of the latest emperor, Constantine IV, bear graffiti. The decrease in frequency possibly indicates that this practice was more popular during the reigns of Phocas and Heraclius. Graffiti could, on the other hand, be a result of prolonged circulation: many solidi of Phocas and Heraclius bear graffiti over worn inscriptions, suggesting that they were incised much later than their date of issue. Therefore, older solidi that remained in circulation after the Arab conquest, were most probably preferred for graffiti, rather than the contemporary coins. The placement of the graffiti on the solidi depends on the coin type. The majority appear on the reverse side. Most interesting is a group of solidi that bear graffiti with still-undeciphered Arabic inscriptions. This phenomenon constitutes important evidence for the use of Byzantine gold by the Arab population, and emphasizes the local character of this practice. Graffiti were most probably personal marks of individual owners or of money-changers and merchants. Alternatively, they may be considered to have been aids to counting and reckoning.

Many of the coins in this hoards bear graffiti such as this example

The importance of a hoard depends on understanding the circumstances and date of its deposition. When and why was the hoard deposited? No doubt this hoard was buried intentionally, but the specific circumstances of deposition remain a mystery. It seems most likely that the hoard was buried for fear of official confiscation. We suggest that the hoard was deposited during the first decade of ‘Abd al-Malik’s rule, or possibly as an immediate reaction to his monetary reform. During the whole period preceding ‘Abd al-Malik’s reform, the Arabs were compelled to pay an annual tribute to the Byzantines (365,000 solidi), demanded in bonafide Byzantine gold. The coins could easily have been confiscated from the considerable numbers of Byzantine gold coins that were still in hands of the local population in Syria and Palestine, such as the Bet She’an hoard. This is in fact a good reason for the concealment of our hoard, as well as other similar hoards. Interestingly, the number of contemporary hoards of solidi discovered in Syria, Israel and Jordan increases towards the end of the seventh century. The Bet She’an hoard could have been deposited either before or immediately after 696/697 CE, when the monetary reform by ‘Abd al-Malik took place. The use of Byzantine currency was then prohibited, and its official retrieval by the central treasury was ordered for re-melting.

In sum, hoards such as Bet She’an clearly show that even after the Arab conquest, Byzantine gold continued to circulate until the days of ‘Abd al-Malik’s reform. They give testimony to the extensive use of Byzantine money by the local population during this transitional period.

Sixth To Seventh Century Juglet, Bowl, And Oil-Lamps From Bet She’an