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Looted coin of Hanukkah villain found during bust of suspected artifact thief

  • November 24, 2022

A house search of a suspected artifact thief in the northern town of Kiryat Shmona led to the discovery of illegally obtained artifacts on Wednesday, most notably a coin depicting the Seleucid King Antiochus IV, the villain of the Hanukkah story, the Israel Antiquities Authority said.

According to Danny Synon, an IAA coin specialist, the bronze coin found at the suspect’s home was minted in Tyre, today part of Lebanon, and was “common currency” during the era.

It was the “small change” of the day and hundreds of such coins have been found in digs throughout Israel, Synon told The Times of Israel.

While it is impossible to know how much the coin was worth during the reign of Antiochus IV, it would have been used to purchase everyday items from the local market, he said.

“I can’t say whether it was worth a loaf of bread or a chicken, but something along those lines,” said Synon.

The suspect, 33, was caught “in the act” by Border Police, who found him illegally using a metal detector at a registered archaeological site in Ramot Menashe in northern Israel.

“He was detained for questioning, and in his bag were found ancient coins, various digging implements, and a metal detector,” the IAA said in a statement.

The IAA’s Department for the Prevention of Archeological Theft then conducted a search of the man’s house, finding the coin in addition to “arrowheads, rings, cosmetic spoon, buckles, lead objects, buttons and more.”

The suspect was released following questioning, and his metal detector was confiscated. The IAA is weighing whether to press charges, the statement read.

If convicted, those guilty of collecting antiquities at registered sites can be jailed for three years.

“The suspect claimed that he was interested in geology, and was looking for quartz crystals and metals, and ‘by the way’ he collected coins and other ancient finds,” said Nir Distelfeld, the IAA’s northern area inspector of the Department for the Prevention of Archaeological Theft.

Distelfeld noted that the discovery of the Antiochus IV-era coin was made shortly before Hanukkah, the eight-night Jewish festival set to begin on December 18.

Ancient artifacts, including arrowheads, rings, cosmetic spoon, buckles, lead objects, buttons discovered in a suspected thieve’s home, Kiryat Shmona, northern Israel, November 23, 2022. (Nir Distelfeld, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Antiochus IV was a Seleucid monarch remembered in Jewish history for his promotion of Hellenization and suppression of religious observances. While he was battling the rival Ptolemaic kingdom in Egypt for control of the Levant, Jewish zealots rose in revolt against Antiochus and the Hellenized high priest installed in Jerusalem’s Second Temple.

Antiochus returned from Egypt and attempted to quell the uprising. After his death on a subsequent campaign in Persia, Hasmonean rebels led by Judah Maccabee and his clansmen succeeded in wresting control of Judea from the Seleucid Greeks, restoring the temple and forming a Jewish kingdom that ruled for a century. The Hanukkah holiday celebrates the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks and Hellenized Jews.

According to Synon, what is unique about the currency series that the bronze Antiochus IV coin is part of is that they were minted during what he calls an “economic experiment” conducted by the monarch in which he allowed four municipalities to mint their own local coinage.

One side of the “municipality coin” usually featured a local god, said Synon, and the other side was engraved with an image connected to the local area. In the case of the recently recovered coin, one side features the king, and the other shows a ship and the name of the port city of Tyre.

“Stealing remains from ancient sites negates the possibility of researching the finds and the sites in their true archaeological historical context, thus withholding valuable knowledge from researchers and the entire community,” IAA director Eli Escusido said in a statement.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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