Major Discovery Highlights Gold’s Long History As Money

Major Discovery Highlights Gold’s Long History As Money

A major discovery of more than 2,000 gold coins off the north-central coast of Israel could prove to be a part of the largest gold hoard ever found in the eastern Mediterranean, say archaeologists. The discovery highlights the long history of gold as money.

The coins have been identified as dinars, which was the official currency of the Fatimid caliphate that ruled parts of the Mediterranean from AD 909 to 1171.

The coins were found in early February when a team of six sport divers found what they initially mistook as a few toy coins on the seabed near the ancient harbor of Caesarea.  The divers immediately notified the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). Divers from the IAA’s Marine Archaeology Unit accompanied the group back to the site and were stunned at what they had found.

We were told [that the divers] had found about 30 or 40 coins,” says Jakob (Koby) Sharvit, director of the Marine Archaeology Unit. “Usually that means you’ve found a hoard. So we went back and performed a small excavation. After two hours, we had found something like one thousand coins.

“We were shocked,” he said. “We were so incredibly excited, but when you’re underwater, you can’t talk to each other. It was only when we surfaced and pulled out our regulators that we could scream with happiness.”

A thousand more coins were recovered from the site last week, which places the find as at least five times as large as what has been considered the largest known gold coin hoard ever found in the country: 376 Fatimid dinars discovered in the city of Ramle in the early 1960s.  The recent find could count as the largest find of gold coins ever reported in the eastern Mediterranean.

Fatimid dinars feature names of the caliphs under whom they were minted, as well as the date and location where they were minted. “They’re first-class historical documents,” contends Robert Kool, curator of the IAA’s Coin Department.

The empire reached its height in the mid-tenth to mid-eleventh centuries AD, when Fatimid dominion reached across North Africa and Sicily to the Levant, enjoying trade ties all the way to China. With its capital in Cairo, the caliphate controlled access to gold from sources in West Africa to the Mediterranean.

The earliest coin from the heard was minted in Palermo, Sicily, while the majority were minted in Egypt and other parts of North Africa and date back to the reigns of Caliphs al-Hakim (AD 996-1021) and his son al-Zahir (AD 1021-1036). The coins are two different denominations – whole dinars and quarter dinars – and are various weights and sizes. Initial tests indicate that they are 24-karat gold with a purity of nearly 95 percent.

“The amount of currency minted under the Fatimids is truly staggering,” says Kool. “It was truly a monetary society. People got paid.”

Some of the coins are in mint condition, while others are circulated. Several coins show tooth marks, which represents a bite test to attain authenticity.

Researchers will attempt to figure out why so much gold was found on the seafloor. The most likely explanation seems to be shipwreck.

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