Tag Archives: isis

Images of Egyptian Gods on Coins

With its range of hawk-headed and half-mummified deities, the Egyptian pantheon has inspired devotion and intrigue for millennia. Egyptians were drawing, painting, and carving images of their gods well before the first pharaohs, over five thousand years ago. While coined money was not a regular part of the Egyptian economy until the third century BCE, Egyptian religious symbols featured on even the earliest coins. The gods of Egypt and their associated iconographies continued to be seen on the coins of Hellenistic kingdoms and throughout the Roman empire, until as late as the fourth century CE.

The Egyptian god Khepri, for instance, features on some of the earliest coinage, albeit in an indirect way. Khepri is represented as a scarab, or dung beetle. The ancients projected the image of this dung-rolling insect onto the heavens and imagined Khepri as a divine beetle pushing the orb of the sun across the daytime sky. Amulets, seals, and signet rings were therefore often made in the shape of scarabs, sanctified by this holy conveyor of the sun (fig. 1).

Figure 1

The significance and popularity of scarab amulets across the Mediterranean were such that the Lydians and Ionian Greeks in the archaic period (7th–5th centuries BCE) were familiar with both genuine Egyptian scarabs and Egyptianizing “imitations” (Hogarth, p. 205-207). The scarab form translated naturally to the novel medium of coinage and scarabs are found on the obverses of several types of early electrum coins. These include a 1/48 stater in the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (fig. 2) and a larger denomination now at the British Museum (fig. 3).

Figure 2
Figure 3

With the spread of Alexander the Great’s empire into Egypt and subsequent Ptolemic rulership, Egyptian religious symbols began to appear on Hellenistic royal coin issues. A ram’s head wearing a headdress is featured on gold staters and silver tetradrachms minted at Memphis, Price type numbers 3963 and 3964, respectively. A beautiful example of one of these staters in the collection of the ANS was discovered in a hoard outside of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, far from its origins in Egypt (fig. 4). 

Figure 4

The ram symbol is either Amun-Re, a principal sun god, or Khnum, a ram-headed creator and protector god, seen here in objects now at the Brooklyn Museum (fig. 5) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 6).

Figure 5
Figure 6

The headdress with corkscrew ram’s horns, a double feather, and central sun disk are common attributes of several gods, including the composite god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, who had an important cult at Memphis (fig. 7). The headdress evoked divine kingship and pharaonic authority and Hellenistic kings sought to imbue themselves with this kind of power. Much later, an image of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris holding a scepter is shown on Roman Hadrianic coinage, perhaps invoking a similar claim to a divine right to rule (fig. 8).

Figure 7
Figure 8

Religious practices around the Mediterranean were dynamic. They reacted to and reflected shifting political realities. Different gods worshipped in different polities were occasionally equated and then worshiped as a unit. This process of merging—called syncretism—gave Egyptian gods new, multivalent qualities.

The gods Isis and Osiris are prime examples of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman religious syncretism. Egyptian mythology had it that Osiris was a primordial pharaoh who had been murdered and dismembered by his jealous brother. His wife, Isis, reassembled his body parts, which had been strewn along the Nile, and revived him. Thereafter, Osiris ruled over the underworld as king, further informing why Ptah-Sokar-Osiris is shown partially mummified on the coin above (fig. 8). After Isis resurrected Osiris, they had a son called Horus. After challenging his fratricidal uncle, Horus became the god of the living pharaoh and a sky god, usually shown as a hawk-headed man. These stories tied Osiris to kingship and death, and Isis to magic and motherhood.

When merged with Greco-Roman deities, Osiris and Isis became stock representatives of a host of “Egyptian” concepts: healing, mystical language, the afterlife, astrology, and the Nile, among others. The god Sarapis—a unique amalgam of Osiris, Greek Zeus and Hades, and a number of Egyptian solar deities—was consistently depicted on Roman coins (fig. 9). A bust of Serapis features on the reverse of a bronze AE2 of Constantine (fig. 10), a continuation of the same reverse type issued under Maximinus Daia at Alexandria (fig. 11). The related cults of Isis and Serapis became so popular that temples were dedicated to them on the Campus Martius in Rome.

Figure 9
Figure 10
Figure 11

Instead of his avian iteration, Horus is often shown on Roman coins in his incarnation as a human child, a figure called Harpocrates. Harpocrates, as a god of children and secrecy, is shown making a shushing gesture on the reverse of a coin of Antoninus Pius (fig. 12). Isis holds Harpocrates on denarii of Septimius Severus (fig. 13) and they stand flanking two busts of other Egyptian divinities in bronze drachms of Trajan (fig 14).

Figure 12
Figure 13
Figure 14

Another Egyptian god of death showcased on Roman coins was the psychopomp Anubis. Anubis, who was shown in Egyptian art as a jackal-headed god, led the souls of the dead through the underworld and was invoked during the ritual preparation of physical bodies for burial. He is shown on a bronze AE4 of Constantine (fig. 15).

Figure 15

He is holding a caduceus—a symbol of Hermes, a psychopomp from the Greek tradition—and a sacred rattle from Egyptian rituals, called a sistrum. While the instrument was originally tied to the Egyptian fertility goddess Hathor, Hathor was frequently assimilated to Isis, even in Egypt (fig. 16). Ultimately, sistra became catch-all visual cues for the land of Egypt itself and a symbol of the personification of Egypt, Aegyptos. Aegyptos is shown resembling Isis on a denarius of Hadrian, reclined and shaking a sistrum (fig. 17).

Figure 16
Figure 17

The thousand years of Egyptian religious imagery on coins continued an already thousands-of-years old artistic tradition. Over the centuries, these symbols bore various meanings for different communities at different times. They were used by issuing authorities to display piety and power, as well as to simply reflect popular forms. From Khepri to Isis to Aegyptos herself, there is a lot more to learn about Egypt’s myths and symbols and how they were engaged with at different points in antiquity. The gods of Egypt, on these coins and elsewhere, continue to raise interesting and important questions about how symbolism and syncretism function in religion and in art.

Wealth and Warfare: The Archaeology of Money in Ancient Syria


The American Numismatic Society is proud to announce the publication of Wealth and Warfare: The Archaeology of Money in Ancient Syria, by Frédérique Duyrat. Syria has been the theater of one of the most barbarous wars of the last centuries, characterized by war crimes and persecution of civilians. Beyond the human aspect of this conflict, one of the distinctive features of the war in Syria has been the treatment of cultural heritage. It takes two different forms. The most obvious is the systematic destruction of historical artifacts and remains by ISIS, dubbed “cultural cleansing” by UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova. There is a second aspect to the “cultural strategy” of ISIS. This group is completely different from all the preceding forms of international terrorist organizations since it is only marginally dependent on foreign funding and has accumulated an impressive war chest. The traffic of antiquities has, among other activities, become an essential resource for the group. The income represented by looting and illegal traffic of antiquities has been estimated at around $200 million per year, and may represent the second largest source of income for ISIS. Moreover, the chaos caused by this multiparty war is beneficial to different groups of looters, whatever the cause they defend.

It is extremely difficult to identify objects that come from looting. If they have never been catalogued by a museum or in archaeological records, they have no established provenance. The sand or earth remaining on those artifacts is often the only sign of a recent archaeological discovery. Coins are even more difficult to trace to their source. Mass-produced in large numbers and often circulating over wide areas, they have an intrinsic value when struck in precious metal, as well as an artistic and historical interest. Moreover, they can be easily found with basic metal detectors. Official alerts regarding the looting of coins are extremely rare, although coins are often found in illegal commerce, or in military raids. If the recently publicized documents photographed by the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology are authentic, it is noticeable that the licenses for looting granted by ISIS to individuals cover “collecting antiquities and buried money.” Moreover, the looters’ interest in numismatics has been emphasized by the discovery, in June 2015, of an ISIS cache containing weapons and a book with articles on numismatics. As noted by Ute Wartenberg, it is an academic book probably stolen from a museum library, and it contains useful numismatic overviews on coinage issued in Syria from the fifth century BCE to Byzantine times.

In such a context, the role of the historian of antiquity is particularly crucial: to gather all that can allow us to reconstitute this endangered past, to interpret the artifacts, to make them available for future generations in a future time of peace when people will be able to rediscover their roots. But how can numismatics be involved in such an important mission? Coins are tiny, scattered, and they require highly specialized skills to be interpreted. Even studied with care, they remain difficult to understand as a whole. One of the reasons why coins are such a difficult source is their number: issued in the millions, lost or hoarded in the tens of thousands, they form an ocean in which the non-specialist feels lost. To study the coinages of an entire region is a way to approach coins as a single source. Moreover, to study ancient Syria through this particular source sheds light on new aspects of the past of a region currently devastated by war. This is what author Frédérique Duyrat has done in Wealth and Warfare. The Archaeology of Money in Ancient Syria.

This book assembles for the first time the evidence for coin finds in the region of ancient Syria from the 5th to the 1st century BCE. A full catalogue of all known coin hoards and published excavation finds serves as the basis for an explanation of monetary behavior in an area extending over parts of modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, and Turkey. In seven chapters of analysis, Duyrat establishes the limits of what we can learn from coin circulation, to compare the data from commerce to the data from legal excavations, to try to understand the chronological evolution of coin circulation and how much political events or warfare affect it, and to evaluate what coin finds tell us of the wealth and poverty of the people who assembled them. One chapter is devoted to how the contemporary history of the countries within the scope of this study has influenced the documentation. This book determines more precisely than ever what circulated in the ancient Near East and can provide the patterns by which to evaluate the loss suffered by the cultural heritage of this region.

About the author: Frédérique Duyrat is director of the Department of Coins, Medals, and Antiques of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and is associated to the research team Orient et Méditerranée—Mondes sémitiques (University Paris–Sorbonne) and the Ecole doctorale Archéologie of the University Paris I–Panthéon Sorbonne. She has written and edited more than 50 books and articles on the coinage, history and archaeology of ancient Syria and Phoenicia.

Wealth and Warfare: The Archaeology of Money in Ancient Syria

Numismatic Studies 34, ISSN 0517-404-x

ISBN 978-0-89722-346-1

Hardcover, 600 pages, b/w figures, tables

Wealth and Warfare is available for purchase through the ANS’s book distribution partner Casemate Academic/Oxbow Books. ANS Members qualify for a member discount and should write to Andrew Reinhard, ANS Director of Publications,  for the online discount code.

ISIS, Numismatics, and Conflict Antiquities

In preparing a session on cultural property issues for the Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar, I was reading more of the news about the systematical looting of Syria. The debate about how the sale of antiquities, including coins, helps to fund ISIS has been hotly contested, but images such as the aerial views of the ancient site of Dura-Europos are just too depressing for words.

Palmyra Gate, Wikipedia
Palmyra Gate of Dura-Europos via Wikipedia

What I had missed until I read Sam Hardy’s blog on conflict antiquities is the discovery of a numismatic book among an unlikely assortment of weapons and somehow academic-looking publications. The photograph below was one taken of materials confiscated by the Kurdish People’s Defence Unit after a battle with Turkish Islamic State fighters.

‘New documents unravel ISIS-Turkish state cooperation’ (c) Mehmet Nuri Ekinci, Ajansa Nûçeyan a Firatê (ANF), 3rd June 2015
‘New documents unravel ISIS-Turkish state cooperation’
(c) Mehmet Nuri Ekinci, Ajansa Nûçeyan a Firatê (ANF), 3rd June 2015

An open page shows what numismatists and archaeologists identified immediately as a group of various Persian and Phoenician coins, with some text below. I knew right away that I had seen this page some time in the past, and after a few minutes I was able to decipher the title of the article, ”La Syrie sous la domination achéménide” by Maurice Sartre. A Google search quickly confirmed that this was published in the volume Archéologie et Histoire de la Syrie II, edited by Winfried Orthmann and Jean-Marie Dentzer and published in 1989. Here is the entry for the book in the ANS Library Catalogue, and upon arriving at the ANS this morning, I was able to confirm the identification:

American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Towards the end of the book, there is a map of archaeological sites of Hawran, an area in southwestern Syria:

American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

The confiscated book is missing the first pages, its dark-green hard cover, and very last page (p. 591). The page with the text and images of coins in the Syrian photograph is page 17. Incidentally, the first volume of Archéologie et Histoire de la Syrie was published in 2013.

There is indeed a personal connection of mine to the book. Winfried Orthmann was professor of Near Eastern Archaeology at Saarbrücken University, where I attended his lectures as an undergraduate. And the book was published and printed in my hometown Saarbrücken.

IMG_116018Now how this very scholarly book on archaeology of Syria ends up in the hands of ISIS fighters is an interesting question. I, for one, have never underestimated the often erudite knowledge people who are involved in looting ancient sites in the Mediterranean. For people interested in a general overview of coins from Syria, this book is indeed helpful. Articles by Christian Augé on “La monnaie en Syrie à l’époque hellénistique et romaine” (pp. 149–190, with four plates illustrating 71 coins) and by Cécile Morrisson (who won the ANS Huntington Medal in 1995) on “La monnaie en Syrie byzantine” provide excellent and well-illustrated introductions to the coins of this region. Her article gives a considerable amount of detailed scholarly information on site finds of coins in Syria.

So this is an extremely unlikely find—a scholarly, not exactly inexpensive, and heavy—book on the archaeology of Syria in the hands of ISIS fighters. If anyone doubts the multifaceted connections between looted antiquities and war in Syria, this discovery has to make one wonder.

Ute Wartenberg


Ar-Raqqah Museum

After my last post identifying the Archéologie et Histoire de la Syrie (1989) as the volume confiscated from ISIS fighters, Professor Winfried Orthmann, one of the editors of this German collection of essays on the archaeology of Syria, sent me an email. He informed me that he had sent a copy of the book to the director of antiquities at the Ar-Raqqah Museum. It is also possible that the had an additional copy of the book. Raqqa, a city in the Euphrates River in the northern region of Syria, has been a stronghold of ISIS for a while, and the looting of its museum has been widely online (see, for example, this and this). In any event, it is certainly possible that this relatively rare academic volume seen in the photos was one of the copies from the Ar-Raqqah Museum.