Thursday, March 4, 2010

An ancient mystery. Who buried these coins of Alexander the Great?

Chance archaeological finds are often intriguing in that because they lack background information or context, they necessarily lead to a great deal of speculation. The collection of coins recently found by a Syrian man has really set my imagination alight.

This gentleman was preparing his land in order to build on it when he discovered a bronze box. Just imagine how that must have felt, to find a metal box, green with age, in the soil. Images of treasure must have entered his head, of treasure chests brimming with gold jewellery and coins. On opening the box, even if he did not see the glint of gold, he was surely not disappointed, for it contained around 250 silver coins minted during the reigns of two famous figures of ancient history : Alexander III, also known as ‘the Great’ and a King Philip of Macedon.


The man, who has not been named, took the box to the authorities and they are now with the Aleppo Department of Archaeology and Museums. Presumably this honest individual's identity is being withheld to deter illegal digs on his land, which is near to Najm Castle in the Manbej area of Northern Syria.
The box contained two groups of silver coins: 137 tetradrachma (four drachma) and 115 drachma coins. Of the tetradrachmae, 34 of these coins bear the inscription ‘Basileus Alexandros’ (King Alexander), while 81 coins bear the inscription ‘Alexander’ and 22 ‘King Phillip’.
When Alexander succeeded Philip II to the throne of Macedon, he initially continued to mint the gold and silver coins of his father. Soon, however, the need for a silver coinage that could be widely used in Greece caused him to begin a new coinage on the Athenian weight-standard. His new silver coins, with the head of Herakles on the obverse and a seated figure of Zeus on the reverse, went on to become one of the staple coinages of the Greek world. It is these coins that make up the bulk of this find.
The head of Heracles, wearing his distinctive lion skin cap, is often thought to be actually a portrait of Alexander himself. Certainly the figure represented bears similarities with how Alexander came to be portrayed, and we know that he was also sometimes shown with a Heracles helmet (for example, on the Alexander sarcophagus in Istanbul). He was also believed to be descended from the hero on his father’s side. The reverse depicts Zeus sitting on a throne with an eagle on his outstretched right arm.
On the death of Alexander in 323BC, his half brother Philip III Arrhidaeus succeeded him and the coins bearing the name King Philip belong to his reign. Philip III died in 317BC, so since there are no coins of later monarchs, it may be that the ‘treasure’ was buried sometime during this very short time span.
So, what caused the owner to part with his considerable treasure? The period of the Successors or Diadochi of Alexander were yeas of turmoil and warfare, and bands of mercenaries and troops criss-crossed the former empire of Alexander to fight in the battles of those contesting the thrones of the Hellenistic kingdoms. In periods of great unrest, it was common to bury your treasure to safeguard it. The fact that many of these hoards are recovered two millennia later shows just how perilous these periods were. We will most likely never know the identity of the owner of the coins, and what kind of life they led, or what circumstances forced them to bury their treasure, but since I read about the coins this morning my mind has been creating a variety of scenarios.

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