A box containing 15 silver coins from the era when Judea was under the control of the Seleucid Greek Kingdom may provide the first archaeological evidence of events that formed part of the Maccabean Revolt. However, the finding place stirs modern political disputes.
The coins were found in the Muraba’at Cave during excavations by the Israeli Antiquities Authority in May, and are being exhibited for the first time at the Hasmonean Museum in Modi’in to coincide with Hannukah. The coins were minted by Ptolemy VI of Egypt between 176-170 BCE. With the last coins being from 3 years prior to the beginnings of the revolt, historians who have studied them think they were hidden in the desert to escape the uncertainties of war.
“It is interesting to try to visualize the person who fled to the cave and hid his personal property here intending to return to collect it. The person was probably killed in the battles, and he did not return to collect his possessions that awaited almost 2,200 years until we retrieved it,” said Dr Eitan Klein of the Israeli Antiquities Authority in an emailed statement.
Following the death of Alexander the Great, the division of his empire left Judea under the control of warring Greek empires. Eventually, the territory that is now Israel and the West Bank came under the control of the Seleucid Empire, founded by one of Alexander’s generals. Relative tolerance of Judaism ended under King Antiochus in 168 BCE, who banned Jewish religious practices and turned the Temple over to a cult.
The inevitable revolt was led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers and subsequently celebrated with the festival of Hanukkah. The coincidence of Hanukkah occurring close to Christmas has caused what was previously a relatively minor festival in the Jewish year to be given greater prominence in majority Christian countries so Jewish children don’t feel left out. This, in turn, has raised the prominence of the Maccabees’ story.
The Book of Maccabee's chapters describing the revolt are not in historical dispute, unlike Biblical accounts of earlier Jewish history. Nevertheless, Klein described the find as “the first archaeological evidence that directly verifies the events mentioned in the Book of Maccabees.” Specifically, Maccabees 2:29 reads: “At that time, many who sought righteousness and justice went to live in the desert.”
The Maccabees successfully deployed guerilla tactics to make up for their inferior training and weapons. Hiding in desert caves certainly fits with that, although we don’t know if the coins belonged to someone who was part of the revolt, or trying to preserve their possessions against turmoil. The same cave was used centuries later as part of a subsequent Jewish rebellion, this time against the Romans, known as the Bar Kokhba revolt.
Today, however, Wadi Murabba’at, which contains the cave, is located in the West Bank, rather than Israel itself. The taking of archaeological discoveries from occupied territories is receiving renewed focus, and some museums are reluctantly returning items seen as having been stolen. In the case of these coins, the situation is even more complicated, since they were almost certainly buried by a Jew resisting an occupying empire. Are the rightful owners the descendants of the people they once belonged to, or the current inhabitants living under their own occupation?
Klein added: “This is an absolutely unique find, presented the first clear archaeological evidence that the Judean Desert caves played an active role as the stage of the activities of the Jewish rebels or the fugitives in the early days of the Maccabean Revolt, or the events that led up to them.” His reference to the location as the “Judean Desert” is consistent with how it was known at the time, but obscures Muraba’at’s current contested status.