A Fortune in Ancient Gold Coins Found Off Israel

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A Fortune in Ancient Gold Coins Found Off Israel

A massive trove of thousand-year-old gold coins has been unearthed in an ancient harbor off the coast of Israel.

The hoard, which was first discovered by members of an amateur scuba diving club, is the largest haul of gold coins ever unearthed in Israel.

The find raises the possibility that an ancient shipwreck that was once laden with treasure may lurk beneath the waves.

Valuable find

The coins were found off the coast of Caesarea, a harbor city that was built by King Herod the Great about 2,000 years ago. At the time when most of the coins were minted, Caesarea was a bustling port city that was central to the Fatimid Kingdom. At its peak, the wealthy Fatimid Kingdom ruled a region that spanned most of North Africa and much of the Mediterranean, and had 12 million dinars in its central coffers.

The diving club that initially found the coins first thought they were toys; when they took a closer look, they found several gold coins shimmering in the light. The director of the club reported the find, and the Israel Antiquities Authority returned to the site with metal detectors. All told, the team found nearly 2,000 gold coins in mint condition.

“Despite the fact they were at the bottom of the sea for about a thousand years, they did not require any cleaning or conservation intervention from the metallurgical laboratory,” Robert Cole, a numismaticist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement.

That’s because gold, as a noble metal, doesn’t react with water or air, Cole added.

It’s likely that winter storms shifted the sands off the coast, revealing the trove.

The earliest coin in the stash was minted in Italy around the ninth century. Most of the gold coins, which were minted in North Africa and Egypt, were produced during the reigns of the Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥākim and Al-Ẓāhir, who ruled between A.D. 996 and A.D. 1036. The coins were found in dinar, half-dinar and quarter-dinar denominations, and some of these types of coins were still circulating after theCrusaders conquered Israel in A.D. 1099.

Many of the coins were bent or had teeth marks, which were probably left by ancient tradesman who inspected the money to make sure they were not adulterated with inferior metals. (Biting on pure gold leaves teeth impressions in the metal, while biting other metals would likely harm your teeth rather than the coin.)

The value of the trove represents a princely sum in ancient times. For instance, 11th- and 12th-century documents known as the Cairo Geniza, which were found in the geniza, or storeroom, of an ancient synagogue in Cairo describe paying hundreds of dinars to free Jewish captives.

Mysterious source

It’s not clear exactly how the coins wound up at the bottom of the sea.

“There is probably a shipwreck there of an official treasury boat, which was on its way to the central government in Egypt with taxes that had been collected. Perhaps the treasure of coins was meant to pay the salaries of the Fatimid military garrison, which was stationed in Caesarea and protected the city,” Kobi Sharvit, director of the Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in the statement.

Another possibility is that the booty once belonged on a merchant ship that traded throughout the Mediterranean region, but sunk long ago.

This isn’t the first time that archaeologists have found a historic trove of gold. In May 2014, a steamship loaded with tons of gold bullion that sunk in 1857 was discovered off  South Carolina. And in 2013, Israeli archaeologists unearthedhundreds of gold coins and jewelry in a Byzantine trash pit outside of Tel Aviv.

An amateur scuba diving club recently unearthed the biggest trove of gold coins ever found in Israel. The stash was revealed after winter storms shifted the sands off the coast of Caesarea in Israel. The coins are about 1,000-years old, and were minted by the Fatimid Caliphate, which ruled much of North Africa and the Mediterranean at the time. [Read the full story on the trove of gold coins]

Bustling city

the city of caesarea

The coins were found in Caesarea National Park, an archeological heritage site that preservers the remains of the ancient city of Caesarea. Caesarea was a harbor city founded by King Herod the Great about 2,000 years ago. At the time the coins were minted, the city was a bustling, prosperous port that played an important role in the Fatimid’s trading network.


More than toys

scuba diver and gold coins

Earlier this year, scuba divers were exploring off the coast of Israel in Caesarea National Park when they noticed what looked like a toy coin. When they took a closer look, they found ancient gold coins shimmering in the light. The club’s leader reported the find, and the Israel Antiquities Authority returned to the site with metal detectors in hand.


Mint condition

gold coins

The antiquities authority soon found a huge trove of gold coins, the largest ever unearthed in Israel. All told, about 2,000 gold coins were discovered under the ocean. Despite spending a millenium in the harsh saltwater environment, the coins were in pristine condition and needed no refurbishing or conservation work. That’s because gold, as a noble metal, does not react with air or water.


Wealthy Kingdom

The gold coins were minted by caliphs who ruled the Fatimid Kingdom, which spanned much of North Africa and the Mediterranean. The earliest coin in the trove was minted in Sicility in the ninth century, though most were minted by the caliphs Al Hakim and Al Zahir, who ruled between A.D. 996 and A.D. 1031. Some of the same types of coins were circulating decades later, when crusaders conquered Jerusalem in A.D. 1099.


Princely sum

A fragment from the Cairo Genizah.

It’s not clear how this huge trove of coins came to rest at the bottom of the sea. The money which came in denominations of dinars, half dinars, and quarter dinars, represented a princely sum in the Medieval time when it was circulating. For instance, freeing several captives would have cost hundreds of dinars, according to eleventh and twelfth century documents found in the Cairo Geniza, a trove of Jewish documents found in the storeroom of an ancient Jewish synagogue.


Teeth marks

gold coins from Caesarea

Some of the coins harbored tooth marks, likely from traders who tested the coins’ metal by biting into them. (Gold is a soft metal that leaves tooth impressions, while harder, but cheaper metals do not.) Some of the coins had scratch marks from frequent use, while others seemed to be newly minted.


Lost to sea

gold coins found near Caesarea

It’s not clear how such a huge trove of gold coins wound up buried beneath the waves. One possibility is that a treasury ship laden with tax receipts sank off the coast of Caesarea. Another possibility is that the haul came from a merchant ship that traded up and down the Mediterranean, but sank on one of its routes.

Follow Tia Ghose on Twitter and Google+. Follow LiveScience@livescience,Facebook& Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

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