Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Roman tetradrachm and denarius coins restamped by Jewish rebels

A.D. 132-135

Judean Hills, Israel (exact location kept secret to prevent looting)

Silver, bronze, and gold

Approximately 2 inches in diameter

Led by veteran cave expert Amos Frumkin, a group of archaeologists had just rappelled 60 feet down into a dark cavern. What they saw once their eyes adjusted to the dim light amazed them. "There were coins just lying there on the ground," Hebrew University's Boaz Langford says. Eventually, the team uncovered the largest cache of coins--some 120 in all--from the years of the Bar-Kokhba rebellion (A.D. 132-135), the third and final effort to overthrow Roman rule.

Unlike the First Jewish War (A.D. 66-73), which is well documented by the historian Josephus, there is almost no written record of the Bar-Kokhba revolt. Shimon Bar-Kokhba remains a mysterious figure, but references in both Jewish and Roman sources indicate he was a strong military and political leader who inflicted devastating losses on the Romans. The rebels used Roman coins already in circulation, often obliterating the original inscriptions and emperors' faces and overstriking them with Jewish images and slogans calling for the "freedom of Jerusalem."

Until now, most of the coins from this period--close to 6,000--had turned up in the antiquities market as a result of looting. This is the first time such a large cache of rebel coins has been found by archaeologists, providing them with some of the best evidence for determining the borders of the short-lived Jewish state established by Bar-Kokhba and his followers, who controlled an area from about 20 miles north of Jerusalem to the Be'er Sheva Valley, 40 miles to the south. Researchers have known for decades that rebels sought safe haven in caves east of Jerusalem. "But with these coins, we can now prove that they also found refuge further west in the Judean Hills, close to Betar, the hilltop fortress that was their last stronghold," Frumkin says. Delineating the geographic boundaries will also help scholars understand the migration of Jews out of Judea, which was devastated in the rebellion.

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Coins found in the rebels' cache include, clockwise from top: a silver tetra-drachm showing the image of the Temple in Jerusalem surrounded by the name "Shimon"; a locally produced bronze coin with the image of the goddess Astarte; a gold aureus of the emperor Tiberius. (Courtesy Sassam Tiram)