A treasure found under Caesarea

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 - Photo: Yaniv Berman, via the Caesarea Development Corporation

Every Sunday, my family tunes into The Curse of Oak Island, a reality show where a group of archeologists and oddballs try and uncover a massive treasure supposedly secreted away on a Nova Scotian island. Every week the crew invests ridiculous amounts of money into sophisticated imaging equipment, massive drills, and expert opinions about the scraps and nails they dig up. 

If I had to give them some advice, I’d say save all that money and buy a plane ticket to Israel, a country where treasure really is waiting to be uncovered.

At the beginning of the month, Israeli archeologists’ workings in the ancient city of Caesarea on a routine excavation and conservation effort found something that is anything but routine. The team unearthed a wonderous cache of ancient gold coins and jewelry over 900 years old -- a discovery that is sure to shed light on the history of Caesarea and result in expanded excavations in the area.

The star of this little treasure hoard is a bronze pot that was used to conceal a small fortune in mixed currency. In total, the pot contained 18 pieces of the local Muslim coinage and 6 shiny gold Byzantine imperial coins. This would have represented a fortune from the time frame the coins are believed to originate. Imperial coins were not locally traded and the possession of several of them would indicate the person they belonged to was a merchant of some ability, one who did a lot of long distance trading.

But what might be just as interesting as the treasure itself is the circumstances surrounding it. These coins aren’t some cast off that someone forgot centuries ago. It wasn’t a mere accident that the pot was lost to the sands of time. No, the location of the pot and the time frame of the coinage inside suggest a very different, and tragic, story.

The city of Caesarea was built by King Herod the Great over 2000 years ago. As a port city with connections to neighbouring trade routes, the city had an important role – and great strategic value – over its many years of existence. This was true when King Herod founded the city, and it was true a millennium later when the Crusaders came to conquer the city.

It is from this period in the late 1000’s range where the coins originate. That would be enough to date the discovery, but what is more interesting is where the pot was found. It wasn’t just underground, or in the remains of some old lockbox or drawer. No, the pot wedged between two stones in the side of a well, a kind of hidden dead drop out of a spy movie. 

This wasn’t an accident. Over 900 years ago, someone intentionally hid a fortune in coins inside a well. And we have to ask "why?”

Well, we know that the Crusades lead by King Baldwin the first ravaged the city of Caesarea in 1101. So we have a stash of hidden money right from the time an invading army would have been storming into town ready to plunder everything of value. While there is no way to know for certain, this specific time period and event combined with the deliberate placement of the pot tells a pretty convincing story. Archeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority researching the site believe the small treasure stash belonged to a citizen of Caesarea who tried to hide their valuables in a way where they would be secure, yet still be able to reclaim them later. Sadly, it seems they never got the chance. 

You might be thinking this is a lot of effort to go through for a handful of coins. While 6 gold coins might not seem like much to us, it would have been a fortune at the time. A single imperial gold coin could represent the entire annual salary of a typical farmer. This isn’t the modern equivalent of a handful of $20 bills, this was a serious amount of money. Whoever hid the pot must have been desperate to safeguard their belongings and did not have much hope of avoiding capture or plunder by the encroaching Crusaders. Hiding it in a public place must have been an act of desperation, one we can assume did not pay off.

Also found in the pot was a piece of ancient jewelry, a single gold earing. This would have been a lavish piece of ornamentation at the time, so it makes sense it was hidden alongside the other treasures. It does beg the question though, where is its pair? Did whoever was fleeing take one earring with them and hide the other? Or are there more caches of treasure to be found in Caesarea?

That’s what the archeologists are hoping as they continue their excavation of the area. Of course, before you get the wrong idea, this is not a profit seeking venture. Israel, a nation rich with history, has a surprisingly egalitarian approach to historical finds. Every piece has been turned over to the Israel Antiquities Authority for the purposes of research and preservation. Many of the coins are already on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. 

With every artifact found, the full history of the Holy Land reveals itself, it should be a source of pride to the nation that such invaluable pieces are not hoarded by collectors or antique dealers, but instead shared and celebrated openly for the public good. 

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