Israeli archaeologists have discovered a secret stash of Byzantine-era coins inside a stone wall—where someone may have once tried to hide them.
Made of pure gold, the 44 coins are decorated with portraits of Emperors Phocas and Heraclius, who ruled in the first half of the seventh century. Experts believe the treasure, which is dated to 635 C.E., was hidden during the Muslim conquest of the area around the end of Heraclius’ reign.
The artifacts were unearthed as part of a larger excavation in the ancient city of Banias, now a part of Hermon Stream Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights, an area Israel captured from Syria during the Six-Day War.
“The discovery reflects a specific moment in time, when we can imagine the owner concealing his fortune in the threat of war, hoping to return one day to retrieve his property,” says Yoav Lerer, the excavation’s director, in a statement from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). “In retrospect, we know that he was less fortunate.”
In 330 C.E. Constantine I established Constantinople, or modern-day Istanbul, as his capital. While the new resulting Byzantine Empire would continue to thrive for more than 1,000 years, it lost several of its provinces to Muslim conquests.
“The discovery of the coin hoard may also shed light on the economy of the city of Banias during the last 40 years of Byzantine rule,” Lerer says.
The researchers also note the differences between the portraits displayed on each coin. In the early years of Heraclius’ reign, “only his portrait was depicted on the coin, whereas after a short time, the images of his sons also appear,” Gabriela Bijovsky, a coin expert at the IAA, says in the statement. “One can actually follow his sons growing up—from childhood until their image appears the same size as their father, who is depicted with a long beard.”
Banias holds significance for several religions, including Christianity. In the New Testament, it is the site where Saint Peter declared Jesus to be the son of God, and Jesus gave him the keys to heaven.
During the excavation, researchers at the site also unearthed the remains of buildings, a pottery kiln, bronze coins and fragments of pottery and glass, among other things. The objects date from the end of the Byzantine period in the early 7th century through the 11th–13th centuries.
While the coins were among the older items discovered, they were in remarkably good condition.
“One of the most exciting things about finding gold is the coins’ quality. The gold isn’t damaged by the soil chemical processes,” says Lerer. “It almost looks as if it just came out of the mint, maybe in Constantinople.”
Editor’s Note, October 13, 2022: This story has been updated to correct the timeline of the Byzantine Empire.