Review: The Coinage of Philistia of the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC

Haim Gitler and Oren Tal. The Coinage of Philistia of the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC. A Study of the Earliest Coins of Palestine. Milan and New York: Edizione Ennere and Amphora Books / B & H Kreindler, 2006. Hb, 411 pp., plates, charts, drawings, and maps. ISBN 88-87235-38-4, €120.

Although studied intensively by Sir George Francis Hill, Ernest Babelon, and, more recently, the late Leo Mildenberg, the coinage of the Philistines has remained somewhat of an uncharted region on the historical map. The Philistines are much better known as one of the savage Sea Peoples who battled the pharaoh Ramses III and the Judaean kings Saul and David than for their role as intermediaries at the ports serving the incense trade. The book reviewed here will surely change that. The coinage of the Philistines (or the Philistians, as Gitler and Tal prefer to call this Persian-era people) is revealed to be one of the most original branches of the field of ancient numismatics. It affords an insight into a magical world far from the rationalism to which we are accustomed with Greek coins. Along with other products typical of the Philistines, such as their Iron Age pottery and sarcophagi, the images of their coins might be one of the most vivid expressions of their culture. This coinage also provides valuable insight into the history of a remote area of the Persian Empire.

The Philistian coins belong to a stratum of autonomous municipal coinages that enabled daily trade without being noticed by the Persian administration. The Persian Empire did not care about the fiscal policy of its subjects so long as the taxes were paid. Obviously, the provincials were free to choose their own coin types. Like their Northern neighbors in Samaria and Jerusalem, the Philistians adopted the Attic coin standard, and a great many of their coins are imitations of the Attic coins circulating in the Levant. Along with these eastern owls, local types were developed. The Philistian coinage offers a plethora of charming and fanciful images, mostly of animals and peculiar composite figures. Unlike the Samarians, the Philistians were disdainful of Phoenician and Persian iconography. Persian imagery is confined to some depictions of bull-protome capitals, and a certain Eastern influence can be felt in the preference for composite figures (the so-called grylloi). It is true there are some images of a prince’s head wearing a jagged crown (i.e., the Great King), but there are no pictures of Persian dignitaries and soldiers and no legends of Persian governors, much less of a satrap, as are seen on Samarian coinage. Thus the Philistian coinage differs considerably from other local coinages of Palestine. However, there are intersections, mostly with the coins of Samaria; the two coinages share some cardinal features, such as the preference for dotted square frames and of the omission of helpful legends. Both coinages interfere with each other in hoards (Nablus IGCH 1504) and stray finds (Abu Shusheh IGCH 1507). Furthermore, one should reckon with similar local coinages from southern Jordan. Thus the term “Philisto-Arabian” coined by Sir George Hill in order to avoid jumping to conclusions may still be valid, although Gitler and Tal are absolutely right in asserting that the lion’s share of the coin types they deal with in this volume was minted by Philistian cities.

Following good numismatic tradition, the authors put the catalogue in the center of their study. At the time being, it would be difficult if not hazardous to arrange the issues in any chronological order, for as a rule the Philistian coins do not form chains of interlinked dies and there is no dense sequence of hoards that could give clues as to the relative chronology of the issues. Making a virtue of necessity, Gitler and Tal master the chaos by providing a well-reasoned typology. At first sight, their nomenclature looks rather abstract and hermetic, but after some time spent perusing the volume it proves to be easy to handle. The catalogue is divided into three main sections: (1) coins bearing the legend of the cities Ashdod, Ashkelon, or Gaza (123 types); (2) Athenian-style coins without a legend referring to a known mint (148 types); and (3) Philistian-style coins without a legend referring to a known mint (141 types). The main sections have several subdivisions, which help the reader quickly find the type he or she is seeking. Of course, one has to familiarize oneself with Gitler and Tal’s hierarchy. For example, coins with just a shade of an Athenian type are always in the second section (as they do not bear a city’s legend), and one has to know that the god Bes is to be found among the animals. However, the reader does not have to learn by heart 412 types, as he or she is compelled to do with the more than two hundred types of Samarian coinage. This alone is a great achievement.

The illustrations are lavish and magnificent. The authors provide not only images of each coin cited in the catalogue, but also enlargements and, in many cases, beautiful drawings to help elucidate the more puzzling coin types. At the end of the catalogue, plates displaying all of the 1:1 images allow for swift orientation.

The majority of the specimens drawn up in the catalogue was found in private collections by the authors. Perhaps only a third of these specimens were already known from auction-sale catalogues. Thus many types were unpublished until now, and a look into my records only produced a few types not recognized or acknowledged by Gitler and Tal. Among the public collections utilized for this volume, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, are the most important. However, it should be noted that not all the known Philistian coins in London, Paris, and New York are found within the catalogue. Furthermore, one may wonder why the coins published in SNG Copenhagen and SNG Fitzwilliam are omitted. Third, not a single catalogue of the auction-sale literature is cited, although many specimens are derived from public sales, among them several coins now kept by the Israel Museum. In some cases, missing weight and die-axis data could have easily been found just by browsing the Leu and Sternberg sales of the past twenty years. In other cases, the specimens figured by Gitler and Tal are much more worn than those published elsewhere—for one example, the obverse of the drachm of Ashkelon (III2D) is totally blurred. So why not cite the better preserved specimens in London (Kraay, Archaic and Classical Greek Coins, 293, fig. 1062), New York (SNG ANS 6, 32), or the Casden Collection (Wallack et al., The Numismatic Legacy of the Jews, no. 17)? No doubt Gitler and Tal are aware of these coins, since regarding the Gaza drachm (VI1D) they mention “dozens of exemplars of this specific coin type” (65), though they list but three specimens. After an intensive survey, I know of only sixteen, so I truly admire the authors’ records. Among these dozens omitted there is the specimen in Oxford allegedly derived from the Jordan Hoard IGCH 1482 (Kraay and Moorey, Revue Numismatique (1968), 191, no. 89). This coin provides a most important chronological clue, and Gitler and Tal duly discuss that (65, fig. 3.22). But then why does their catalogue conceal that piece of evidence?

The catalogue also fails to note that all the coins published by Lambert in 1933 were found at Abu Shusheh, a site near Gezer in the southern Judaean mountains. After Colin Kraay’s prudent reassessment of the evidence (Israel Exploration Journal 28 [1978], 190-192), no one can argue any longer that the coins from Abu Shusheh can be regarded as a hoard (IGCH 1507, cf. Robinson, Numismatic Chronicle [1937], 254-255). On the other hand, findspots provide valuable information for coins whose minting site is still a matter of debate. Gitler and Tal point out that according to Sir Stanley Robinson, several specimens not known to Lambert might come from that “hoard.” In the light of Kraay’s article, however, such presumptions are hard to maintain today. If there were no hoard, it might be risky to trace back single specimens found in the market during the early 1930s to the very same source as the parcel of stray finds studied by Lambert. Briefly, the catalogue lists specimens as coming from Abu Shusheh whose origin should be doubted, or, at any rate, should be doubted more than specimens whose origin from Abu Shusheh is attested by Lambert but not explicitly pointed out by the catalogue text.

However, let us turn from the odds and ends of the catalogue to the merits of the study: Although less than a third of the coin types dealt with in the book can be attributed to a Philistian mint by epigraphic means, it cannot be doubted that almost all these coins must have been minted within the Philistian region. Style and fabric are quite homogenous; only a few coins look irregular (XXV1DD, XXVII5D, and the incerta XXIX, while V10Db-c, VI1Db-c, and XIII16Da-b are contemporary forgeries). Despite considerable fluctuations, the standard may always be the same, slightly lowered Attic standard. It should be noted that the fractions (obols and hemiobols) are carefully made, while the drachms are often minted sloppily and badly centered. Gitler and Tal argue that a single officina (most probably situated at Gaza) could have been responsible for the whole coinage, i.e., operating under changing employers (318). A similar idea was already suggested by Leo Mildenberg, who divided the coinage into genuine Philistian issues and “desert issues” ordered by the chiefs of Arab tribes migrating in the Negev and Sinai. Mildenberg thought that Gaza served as a central mint for both the cities and the tribes, but he never explained how he would distinguish between urban and desert issues. Gitler and Tal are certainly right in dropping his hypothesis, but the problem remains: to whom to attribute all the anepigraphic issues. Even the old attribution to Gaza of the coins marked with a mem (the mem being an abbreviation of Marnas, a prominent deity of the city) cannot be corroborated yet. Gitler and Tal are cautious enough to separate an anepigraphic issue from a die-linked one that was minted by the Ashdod authorities (XVII2D and II10D, respectively). Obstinacy as to the typology is indeed the best way to arrive at firm conclusions here.

The area where Philistian currency was valid can probably be defined by the authors’ records. Single specimens found in Syrian, Jordanian, and Egyptian hoards would have come from merchants dealing with Philistians, but the specimens found in Samaria, Jerusalem, and the adjacent areas pose the question of whether Philistian coins were accepted there alongside the local coinages. The coin finds from controlled excavations corroborate the assumption that the area of circulation was confined to the Philistine plain and southern Judaea (the findings are meticulously listed on 49-61). Beth-Zur, a district capital in Persian times a few kilometers north of Hebron, might have been the northernmost outpost of that area. Had not the Palestinian conflicts of the past fifty years prevented comprehensive archaeological research in the Gaza Strip, the overall picture would be even clearer. It is worth mentioning the rumors that many of the specimens sold in auctions were brought from Raphia to the Jerusalem market.

One of the most refreshing novelties of the book is its approach to the chronological problems. It has become something of a common opinion that all the Palestinian small-change coinages date to the fourth century BC. Only Babelon and Mildenberg would put a few pieces into the last quarter of the fifth century. A sudden lack of Athenian money after Athens collapsed in 406/4 BC is said to be the reason for the striking of local imitations of Athenian coinage in Egypt and the Levant. Gitler and Tal, however, would like to date the first eastern owls to the middle of the fifth century. They believe Byblos and other Phoenician cities did not first mint local types (the oldest ones of which are now dated c. 450 BC), but rather imitations of Athenian money. The authors argue that the impact of those Phoenician owls prompted the Philistians to issue a supplementary series. Second, the authors rely upon hoard evidence. While the drachm of Gaza found within the Jordan Hoard IGCH 1482 was suspected to be intrusive right from the beginning, Gitler and Tal try to rule that out (65), and they could be right. Two Egyptian hoards from the early fourth century (IGCH 1649-1650) corroborate their view. Seyrig’s lost Syrian hoard (IGCH 1485 = Elayi no. LVII; not considered by the authors) would confirm this, if it is recovered some day. Third, Gitler and Tal draw the attention onto the bulk of Philistian imitations of the Athenian dekadrachms. Of course, this leads to a terminus post only, but it is true that according to hoard evidence the Athenian dekadrachms did not circulate for more than a few decades.

In general terms, I agree with the new chronological framework, and I would like to modify a minor point only. I am not familiar with the Athenian imitations from Phoenicia that the authors talk about, for they do not give references. According to Athenian chronology, those early eastern owls should imitate coins of the series studied by Starr in 1970. Among the eastern owls known to me, there is just one pre-450 issue that is considered here (Leu 83, 2002, 243; Gorny and Mosch 130, 2004, 1193). Although it has a weird legend (retrograde sigma instead of the alpha = Semitic shin?), it was originally interpreted as a “Western imitation” or even a genuine Athenian issue; today, it is called an imitation from Asia Minor or the Levant, particularly since one specimen was found in a Syrian hoard. However, the dumpy flans of this issue differ considerably from those of early Phoenician coinages. What kind of eastern owls Gitler and Tal are thinking of?

I do not understand, at any rate, why a Phoenician coinage must have prompted a related Philistian one. It is true the Philistian plain and its harbors were given to Sidon and Tyre in c. 500, but there is no Sidonian or Tyrian influence in the Philistian coinage. From my point of view, Gitler and Tal are right in rejecting the theory that the eastern owls were minted only to replacing the Athenian money from 406/4 onward. Among the eastern owls imitating the fifth-century coinage of Athens there are certainly some issues that were minted before Athens lost her empire. The Philistian imitations, however, cannot be regarded as typical eastern owls like those found in Egyptian and Syrian hoards. Among the Philistian owls, small denominations predominate; tetradrachms are quite rare. The small change cannot have replaced the Athenian money circulating in the Levant, for Athens and her trade exported the large denominations, not the small. I suppose the Philistian owls were struck to supplement the arriving Athenian tetradrachms. So I agree that the Philistians had reason enough to strike coins long before 406/4 BC.

Since Gitler and Tal do not single out the fifth-century coinage, I will try to give just a few hints. Beside the non-Athenian type (VI1D), one specimen of which was found in the Jordan hoard and therefore must be minted before c. 445, II10D might well have been struck during the fifth century. Turning to the pseudo-Athenian types, one will consider the imitations of the dekadrachms. First, III2D, III3D, and XIV33D are surely candidates for an early date. The tetradrachm III1T, however, has the dekadrachm owl in all its splendor, but it is an obverse copied from an owl belonging to Starr’s group IV (or an even later issue): it cannot have been minted before c. 440/30. There are still other coins connecting models of different ages, for instance, XV1T and V15D. Furthermore, we should keep in mind that Athenian coins of the old style were copied in the Sabaean and Qatabanian kingdoms for over two centuries. Even just copies of the dekadrachms could be tricky, for their valuable models might have been stored here and there for a long time. At any rate, XII23O is one of the latest coins in the book, because its reverse type (an owl standing beside a Panathenaic amphora) takes the pattern of early Hellenistic Athenian coins (cf. Kroll, The Greek Coins, Agora 26 [Princeton, 1993], 22, no. 28).

A real enigma in both geographical and chronological respects is XVI25Da, the famous British Museum drachm depicting a bearded deity in a wheeled chair. Gitler and Tal come back to Six and Hill’s Philistian attribution, although they cannot offer a definitive reading of the puzzling legend (70, 230, 305). Obviously the coin does not fit the yehud coinage, to which it has been attributed by Sukenik and Mildenberg, but it does not match the Philistian series either. Unlike Philistian coin images, both its types are Greek through and through, the syncretistic character of the reverse notwithstanding. The obverse is reminiscent of the so-called commander portraits of the late fifth century (such as the Perikles portrait). The three-quarters view is not as sophisticated as that of XXV3O; the eye and eyebrow look like they were added after the first cut. The reverse in particular has stylistic and iconographic features borrowed from Greek coins. Not even the coinage of Samaria has comparable types (cf. Y. Meshorer and Sh. Qedar, Samarian Coinage [Jerusalem, 1999], nos. 40, 71, 83). Among the Philistian coins, there are only a few adaptations of non-Athenian coin types: the janiform heads taken from the coins of Tenedos and XIII2D, a copy from a coin of the Lykian ruler Kuprrli (cf. Mørkholm and Zahle, Acta Archaeologica 43 [1972]: 66, no. 141) or even its Cyrenaican model. The British Museum drachm, however, does not copy specific coinages but puts together several elements of the Greek iconographic repertoire, thus producing an entirely new image. The Philistian way of transforming models and composing grylloi is different. Therefore I am not yet convinced that attributing the drachm to Philistia is the last word.

Gitler and Tal’s book is full of intriguing material and thought-provoking results. It will stand for many years to come as the main reference for the Philistian coinage, and it surely will stimulate further research. Hopefully the authors will continue their successful work in this field.

—Wolfgang Fischer-Bossert