A New Categorization System

On the basis of the previous debate, I conceive that synagogue coin deposits need to be categorized according to a more flexible system, leaving room for adaptability as well as uncertainty. The word “deposit” then is here chosen as the most neutral term encompassing all coin groups, without making any assessment on their archaeological context, form of burial, or function. However, each deposit can also be further categorized according to three different approaches or elements: according to its arrangement (description), its permanency (retrievability), and its function (interpretation).[280] This unique categorization method allows for a “mix-and-match”-system, in which each deposit can be described according to three categorical elements. So, instead of finding a specific label for each type of deposit (“clustered hoard”, “scattered hoard”, “scattered emergency hoard”, “scattered charity hoard”, etc.), which would create dozens of unique categories, we are implementing a code-system, which allows for more truncated nomenclature.[281] Examples of how this system works will be provided below.

The first way of categorizing the deposits is purely descriptive: the coins are divided into categories based on the form of their burial. I argue that there are two categories: I) scattered coins, and II) clustered coins (or hoards).

  1. Scattered coins: These deposits consist of loose coins retrieved from a larger area of the building, seemingly without any connection to each other. The number of coins can range from as little as ten to several thousands. These deposits differ from hoards or caches in that they do not seem to have been placed in or under the building as a cluster of coins (that is, they are not found together in a container, wrapped in organic material, or stacked together) and they were not placed in one particular spot; instead, they can be found scattered under the threshold or the benches as well as under the floor of the nave, the aisles, and the courtyard of the building.
  2. Clustered coins (Hoards): The second category is coins stored in clusters, with a minimum number of three. These contain “deposits hidden as a rule in a protected form, unrecovered, containing complexes of metal objects withdrawn from circulation which directly and regardless of the owners’ intentions assumed an archaeological form,”[282] as well as groups of lost coins or coins that were never meant to be retrieved. Hoards are found mostly in and around the bemah area, in hidden compartments, or under other distinct features of the synagogue such as thresholds or benches. These deposits can consist entirely of bronze coins, but they can also contain silver and gold coins. Sometimes these deposits are sealed in a container like a pottery vessel, a bag, or were wrapped in cloth (these can also be referred to as “money pouch hoards”, or “purse hoards”).[283]

The second way of categorizing the deposits is according to their permanency: were the coins deposited in a manner that made them easily accessible, or not? In other words, could the coins be accessed by the users of the synagogue at any given point without much difficulty, or were they deposited in the building in a sealed context and could not be accessed? There are two categories:

  1. Retrievable Deposits:These are the deposits that could be retrieved without having to dismantle (parts of) the synagogue building. These deposits were either stored in “open” spaces, like in a wall niche or in a container on top of the floor, or inside a space that could be easily opened, like under a movable stone or in a hole in the ground covered by a wooden plank or carpet. Stashed in this way, coins could easily have been added to, or taken from, the deposit, making it a “living” deposit.
  2. Irretrievable Deposits:These are the deposits that could not be recovered without having to break out the floor, walls, or benches to get to them. As such, these coins were completely removed from the monetary economy and stored within the building permanently and inaccessible. The deposit is a “dead” one.

The third way of organizing coin deposits is interpretative: categories based upon the assumed function the deposit had to the people who placed them within the synagogue building. I argue that there are seven possible categories in our context, which will be explored in chapters “Synagogue Coin Deposits: Functions and Interpretation” and “Synagogue Coin Deposits: The Floor Deposits”: 1) accidental losses, 2) votive offerings and genizot, 3) charity hoards or tzedakah, 4) treasuries, 5) emergency hoards, 6) magico-religious deposits connected to tithing money, and 7) post-destruction offerings.[284]

1 Accidental Losses: Some of the loose or scattered coins are accidental losses dropped by, e.g., the builders during the construction of the synagogue, or more specifically, during the construction of the floor or benches of the synagogue. Their occurrences are accidental and the coins have no specific purpose. In general, accidental losses are coins of low value, not worth spending much time trying to recover. Sometimes these are called stray finds.[285]

2 Votive offerings and genizot: These are coins that were given to the building to be put on display, mostly as donations from Roman rulers. The coins, together with many other objects that were donated to the community, were placed in a visible spot inside the building for all visitors to see and to remind them of the benevolence, power, or success of the donor.[286] After their function was fulfilled, they were kept and stored in the building as part of a genizah, where they can now be found (and recognized) by the archaeologist. Other coins that might have been used for ritual purposes as well could have ended up in these genizot, together forming “genizah coins.”

3 Charity Hoards or Tzedakah: Charity hoards are collections of money kept at the synagogue to be distributed to the poor and needy. These charity hoards were living hoards (donations were added and removed from it when needed), containing coins from a relatively short date range, and were often stored in containers such as wooden boxes or in specific units, such as niches, built into the synagogue itself.

4 Treasuries: These are coins that were collected and stored together in a deposit as taxes or donations by the community. This money could have been intended for the synagogue to pay for upkeep, books, and personnel, or for the community to, for example, pay taxes to the Roman government. The treasury is usually a public hoard to which individuals were expected to add at regular times. These deposits were often placed in areas that were easy to remember and have access to, so that coins could be added to, or deducted from the deposit on a regular basis. Treasuries are part of the larger category of “savings hoards”: deposits deliberately accumulated over time and added to at intervals.[287] Coins in savings hoards generally give an overview of the coins that were in circulation for a longer period.

5 Emergency Hoards: This type of hoard was created on impulse rather than careful planning. It is a deposit in which the coins were not deliberately selected but consists of what was on hand when a crisis arose that created the impulse to hide the coins.[288] Consequently, emergency hoards will usually be heterogenous in variety but homogeneous in date range, reflecting the coins in circulation at the time of deposition (creating a numismatic “snapshot”). Emergency hoards are always retrievable deposits: the owner planned to return to the spot after the crisis was averted to retrieve the money and thus needed easy access to it. Archaeologists are only able to find emergency hoards when something happened to the original owner that prevented him or her from returning.

6 Magico-religious Deposits and Tithing Money: These are assemblages of coins placed inside the building during its construction or renovation. They were never meant to be retrieved but were intended to remain as long as the building was in use. These deposits were placed as part of magico-religious practices to call upon supernatural powers to protect the building and its users. Coins in such deposits are usually of low value, illegible because of their poor quality, their long circulation, or their burial circumstances, and a large number are imitations of original coins.[289] Their primary function may have been ma’aser sheni, or second tithing money, taken out of monetary circulation and stored inside the building in a secondary context.

7 Post-Destruction Offerings: These are coins that were hidden in the synagogue after its use as a ritual place ended or after its destruction because of the belief that the sacredness of the space would protect the coin deposit from harm (or theft?).

The merits of the above classification are apparent: by using a tripartite categorization system, each deposit found in an ancient synagogue could in theory be described with only three symbols, creating a much simpler language-like “mix-and-match system” (Fig. 2).

New Mix-and-Match Categorization System

For example, scattered coins under a stone floor placed deliberately during the construction of the building would be a IB6-deposit (a scattered, irretrievable, magico-religious deposit). A deposit found inside a hole in the bemah used as treasury of the building would be classified as a IIA4-deposit (a hoard, retrievable, treasury deposit). When one of the factors is unknown, a question mark can replace the number/letter.

While this system works in theory, the problem, as the reader realizes, lies in the application of the interpretative part: we simply do not know the different circumstances under which coins were deposited in synagogues.[290] It is this problem that has been puzzling scholars for decades and it is this issue that drove this database project. However, interpreting the coin deposits can only be the result of careful consideration of a) the contexts and burial circumstances of the deposits, and b) the socio-cultural and religious frameworks in which this phenomenon took place. The appendix provides a catalogue of all coin deposits found in ancient synagogues. For each deposit, I carefully describe and analyze its depositional context (as far as can be known), and give a detailed overview of the coins within the deposit. The catalogue will be able to provide us with the Description and Retrievability element of each deposit. Chapters “Synagogue Coin Deposits: Functions and Interpretation” and “Synagogue Coin Deposits: The Floor Deposits”then provide an in-depth analysis of the different cultural and religious circumstances that could have led to the placement of these coins in and under the ancient synagogue building. These chapters will provide the Interpretation element. Together, these three parts will give us a complete overview of the phenomenon of coin deposits found in ancient synagogue from Late Antique Palestine.


[280] A similar approach was used by Suchodolski in 1998, who divided all coin finds into four categories: according to their quantitative aspect, find spot, mode of origin, (the circumstances under which coins found their way into the soil), and mode by which the coins became historical evidence. This approach is useful for coins in general, but not applicable to synagogue deposits, where, for example, the find spot is always the same context: the synagogue building (Suchodolski 1998).

[281] This also helps in cases where certain characteristics of the deposit are unknown. If one finds a deposit that is clustered and irretrievable, for example, but has idea about its function, they can at least indicate something. In this case, this would make the deposit a IIB? deposit, indicating to the reader that we know only two of its three qualities.

[282] Tabaczyński 1987, p. 184, as translated by Suchodolski 1998, p. 368.

[283] Casey 1986, pp. 57–58. Of course, when the clustered coins are not protected by a container, deposits that started out as clustered could have become scattered over time, because of bioturbation, earthquakes, groundwater, and other causes. Careful analysis of the context must thus be taken when placing a deposit in a specific category.

[284] I have omitted a couple of common coin groups as I do not believe they are applicable to our context. For example, I do not think that any of the deposits in ancient synagogues are “abandoned coins,” that is, coins that were neither lost nor deliberately placed in a building but were in the possession of an individual and simply “left” there when the building collapsed because of an unexpected catastrophe. This would be the case, for example, when a house would burn down, a dwelling would collapse because of an earthquake, or a ship would sink. I do not think this situation is applicable to ancient synagogue contexts in Israel/Palestine. We also do not have any grave goods or post-mortem gifts to the dead in our contexts, as no dead bodies have ever been found under an ancient synagogue building (in contrast, for example, to churches in antiquity), although a finger-bone was discovered buried under the threshold of the Dura-Europos synagogue (see “Protection against the evil eye”).

[285] Another group that belongs to this category is infiltrated coins: coins that accidently worked their way into the deposit, mostly because of natural processes like the pushing of plant roots and animal burials. I place infiltrated coins in this category as it is almost impossible to determine if a coin was lost under the floor or if it is a later intrusion.

[286] Unfortunately, there is no way to recognize coins put on display as votive offerings in the synagogue. Only when they have been discarded and stored in a secondary context, are we able to interpret their previous function. See “Votive Offerings and Genizot”.

[287] Because savings hoards were accumulated over time, an intriguing occurrence that can manifest in this group is stratification of the deposit: the coins are stratified within their container or hole in a dated sequence, with the oldest coins at the bottom and the youngest ones on top. Excavation of this kind of hoard must thus be done with the utmost care: it is important to record the relative position of each coin as it is removed to see if any stratification is evident.

[288] Casey 1986, p. 54; Ahipaz 2013, p. 63; Butcher 2013, p. 3.

[289] Bijovsky 2012a, pp. 75–77. One will note that I do not use the term “foundation deposit” here, nor do I have that term as a possible category. The reasons for this will be explained in “SYNAGOGUE COIN DEPOSITS: THE FLOOR DEPOSITS”: in any case, the term “foundation” would refer to the founding, or initiation of the building, and not to the physical foundations of the building.

[290] See also Osborne 2004; Manning 2012; Crease 2015; Guest 2015.