Are the coins “foundation deposits”?

As we discussed in our introduction, most scholars who have recently explored the floor deposit phenomenon connected it to “foundation deposits” found in other Mediterranean cultures. However, to determine if scattered coins found under the floors of ancient synagogues can indeed be categorized as foundation deposits, I believe we must first consider the phenomenon of the “foundation deposit” as an inter-regional ritual practice and fully determine its characteristics. Only then will we be able to determine if synagogue floor deposits are indeed foundation deposits.

The performance of a so-called foundation ritual was common in the ancient Mediterranean world, including in Egypt,[472] Mesopotamia,[473] the Levant[474], the Hittite Empire,[475] Greece,[476] Rome and Italy,[477] and Christian sites in the Near East and Europe.[478] In Egypt and Mesopotamia in particular, written and archaeological sources point to elaborate rituals that took place during the construction of sacred structures. The abundant evidence provided by these sources helps us to reconstruct the activities that took place during such rituals. For the purpose of this project, I explore different kinds of foundation rituals performed in the eastern Mediterranean world to determine their socio-historical contexts and characteristics.

Foundation rituals are best known from ancient Egypt, where they are described in textual sources and depicted in art.[479] The sequence of the ritual act of the “ground-breaking”-ritual included: the fixing of the building’s plan, or “stretching the cord”; hoeing the earth; molding the first brick; scattering gypsum and sand over the construction site; digging the first foundation trench; and placing materials in the trench.[480] These materials could include small bricks or plaques made from various metals and stones,[481] miniature models, mortars and grinders, copper and iron tools, libation vases, offering cups, and others. These were usually laid in a pit and monumentalized with brick or stone lining. Generally, the deposits were placed near important parts of the building, for example, under the corners of the building or under the threshold.

In Mesopotamia, foundation rituals appear to have been less formalized, nevertheless, clear chronological and cultural patterns have been identified, and several aspects of the ritual were practiced from the Bronze Age through the Parthian period.[482] The intricate foundation rituals of Assyria and Babylonia contain elements similar to the Egyptian ones, including the purification of the building site, the ritual preparation of the building materials, the sacrifice of animals, and the burial of foundation deposits. These deposits included pegs, figurines, inscriptions, and small objects made of various materials including bone, stone, copper, silver, and lapis lazuli.[483] Sometimes the objects were placed in jars or other containers. Mesopotamian foundation deposits were also placed in pits under the walls or floors but starting with the Ur III period (ca. 2112-2001 BCE), they were inserted into brick boxes built into the substructure or lower parts of the walls of a building.[484]

As for the Romans, the historian Tacitus describes a foundation ritual that took place when the emperor Titus reconstructed the ruined Capitolium:

“The charge of restoring the Capitol was given by Vespasian to Lucius Vestinus, a member of the equestrian order, but one whose influence and reputation put him on an equality with the nobility. The haruspices when assembled by him directed that the ruins of the old shrine should be carried away to the marshes and that a new temple should be erected on exactly the same site as the old: the gods were unwilling to have the old plan changed. On the twenty-first of June, under a cloudless sky, the area that was dedicated to the temple was surrounded with fillets and garlands; soldiers, who had auspicious names, entered the enclosure carrying boughs of good omen; then the Vestals, accompanied by boys and girls whose fathers and mothers were living, sprinkled the area with water drawn from fountains and streams. Next Helvidius Priscus, the praetor, guided by the pontifex Plautius Aelianus, purified the area with the sacrifice of the suovetaurilia, and placed the vitals of the victims on an altar of turf; and then, after he had prayed to Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, and to the gods who protect the empire to prosper this undertaking and by their divine assistance to raise again their home which man’s piety had begun, he touched the fillets with which the foundation stone was wound and the ropes entwined; at the same time the rest of the magistrates, the priests, senators, knights, and a great part of the people, putting forth their strength together in one enthusiastic and joyful effort, dragged the huge stone to its place. A shower of gold and silver and of virgin ores, never smelted in any furnace, but in their natural state, was thrown everywhere into the foundations: the haruspices had warned against the profanation of the work by the use of stone or gold intended for any other purpose. The temple was given greater height than the old: this was the only change that religious scruples allowed, and the only feature that was thought wanting in the magnificence of the old structure.”[485]

In other words, gold and silver ores and other pieces of metal were thrown into the foundations of a temple in Rome in the 1st century CE.[486] No doubt similar rituals took place at many other buildings, although these are not described in written sources.[487]

For ancient Greece, no textual or representational evidence exists that directly describes foundation rituals.[488] However, foundation deposits have been discovered in buildings throughout Greece, including on Crete and Cyprus and in western Asia Minor.[489] They are primarily found in sacred buildings like temples, heroa, and treasuries, especially beneath walls or between their courses, below floors and thresholds, and in foundation trenches. Greek foundation deposits contain a great variety of finds including figurines, ceramics, remains of animal and vegetable sacrifices, jewelry and other luxury goods, and coins. The remains of (burnt) sacrifices and libation vessels suggest that in ancient Greece as well, the burial of foundation deposits was but one step in a longer dedication process.

Written sources mentioning Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Roman foundation rituals display certain commonalities which help us to establish basic definitions of the phenomenon:[490]

-First, placing deposits was part of an elaborate ritual with multiple steps to prepare the site for the construction of the building.
-Second, the items were brought in at one moment in time as part of the ritual.[491]
-Third, the ritual was supervised by religious leaders who knew the different steps and rules to follow.
-Fourth, the deposits consisted of a variety of materials, ranging from precious objects to figurines and ceramics.
-Fifth, the materials were not decorative or structurally useful to the building.
-Sixth, the materials were meant to stay in/under the building permanently.
-Seventh, the deposits were placed together in carefully selected spots such as under the threshold or the corners of the buildings.[492]

Based on these characteristics, I propose that coins found under the floors of ancient synagogues are not foundation deposits for the following reasons. As we have seen from neighboring cultures, priests and religious officials were involved in such ceremonies; if we were to follow my definition of foundation deposits and extend this into ancient Judaism, priests or synagogue leaders would have to be involved (and not, for example, the local necromancer or other “magician”). However, we do not have any evidence for this: no texts were written with guidelines or examples of this practice, and no artistic depictions have been discovered illustrating it. It is true that we are not informed about all (or any?) the specifics of magical rituals (for example, we do not know how or where an expert would write a magical amulet), but in most cases, we at least have hints at their existence.[493] No such hints exist for a foundation ritual. Even if we do not follow this argumentum ex silentio (most likely because most rabbinic literature was formulated before this phenomenon started), there are other arguments to consider. The deposits found under the floors of ancient synagogues do not contain a variety of materials. Despite careful excavation methods including sifting, archaeologists have not found other objects buried under synagogue buildings: no gemstones, plaques, mirrors, jewelry, ceramic vessels, etc. only coins (and the aforementioned amulets). Why would Jews deviate from neighboring peoples in this regard? And why would specifically coins have been chosen?[494] Furthermore, coins as floor deposits also do not appear in specific locations placed together. Although groups of coins have been found in and around thresholds, they are usually scattered around, dispersed over a larger area. Unlike Aramaic incantation bowls, for example, coin deposits do not seem to have been placed carefully in certain strategic locations.[495] Last, the coins are usually found high up, close to the surface of the floor, and not in deep pits or in the foundation trenches of the walls.[496] Therefore, we might conclude that coin deposits found under the floors of ancient synagogues are not foundation deposits according to the definition I have set forth, but instead are a different phenomenon that is unique to ancient Judaism.


[472] Weinstein 1973; El-Adly 1981; Sakr 2005; Masson 2017; Müller 2018.

[473] Ellis 1968; Ambos 2004; Tsouparopoulou 2014.

[474] Reece 1988; Bunimowitz and Zimhoni 1993; Gitin and Golani 2001; Mansel 2003.

[475] De Pietro 2012.

[476] Weikart 2002; Wagner 2014; Hunt 2016.

[477] Donderer 1984; Crawford 2003.

[478] The phenomenon of foundation deposits was not restricted to the Mediterranean world but is a world-wide phenomenon that existed from the Neolithic Period until today. Extensive scholarship has been written on concealed deposits in architectural contexts, ranging from prehistoric Iraq (Garfinkel 1994) to medieval China (Knapp 2005) to the modern-day US (Manning 2012). However, it is difficult to determine which cultural traditions influenced each other, and the extent to which these ritual deposits had the same functions in different cultures. For this project, I have limited myself to the ancient Mediterranean world, chronologically and geographically closest to Late Roman and Byzantine Palestine. Nevertheless, choices had to be made about which examples to include and exclude and this overview is therefore not exhaustive.

[479] Hunt 2016, p. 2; Karkowski 2016.

[480] When the building was complete, further rituals include purifying the temple and offering sacrifices.

[481] Including protective amulets (Weinstein 1973).

[482] Ellis 1968, pp. 5–33.

[483] Ellis 1986, pp. 46–144. Tsouparopoulou points out that in Egyptian foundation deposits the objects were generally symbolic but related to the construction of the building: miniature tools made of cheap materials and raw building materials. In Mesopotamian deposits, on the other hand, there were fewer objects with no relationship to the architecture of the building: instead, they were more costly and had a higher symbolic value (Tsouparopoulou 2014, p. 18, note 4).

[484] For example, at Mari (Ellis 1968, p. 59), Ur (Ellis 1968, pp. 63–64) and Tello (Tsouparopoulou 2014, p. 22).

[485] Tacitus, Histories IV, 53.

[486] A similar ritual could have taken place when a Roman town was founded: according to classical descriptions, after the axial orientation of the urban grid was set out, a hole or mundus was dug to receive foundation offerings, usually the first fruits. However, the mundus concept is not well understood. In any case, this did not seem to include large quantities of metals or coins (Woodward and Woodward 2004).

[487] For example, at Magdalensberg in Austria, where 42 coins were found in pits and foundation of non-sacred buildings at a 1st century CE Roman settlement (See Krmnicek 2018 for a summary and analysis of the coins, and references to other coin deposits found in Iron Age through Roman-period European settlements).

[488] Hunt 2016, p. 5.

[489] The first and perhaps most famous example was discovered in 1905-06 by David Hogarth at the Artemision of Ephesus (Hogarth 1908, Robinson 1951). Here, 24 early electrum coins and about 800 gold, silver, and electrum objects, including fibulae, earrings, pins, rings, and beads, as well as ivory and bone objects, amber, and cowrie shells were found. See for more examples of Greek foundation deposits: Orlandini 1957; Müller-Zeis 1994; Hoffman 1997; Crawford 2003; Wagner 2014; Hunt 2016; Lykke 2017.

[490] See Hunt 2016, p. 3.

[491] See also Hunt 2016, p. 18.

[492] Thus, my definition of a foundation deposit is more precise than that of Ellis, who states that true foundation deposits should have a clear spatial and temporal link to the beginning of the construction of the building, they should neither decorate nor be structurally useful, and they must be made with clear intention of permanence, that is, there should be no plan for reclamation (Ellis 1968, p. 1).

[493] Bamberger 2020. For example, we have references to the writing and burial of amulets in the synagogue in the Cairo Genizah, and the production of amulets by rabbis in the Talmud.

[494] Just as with the Aramaic bowls, it would have made more sense to place pottery in the foundations, or perhaps even ostraca with the name of YHWH, stone vessels, small menorot, miniature Temple vessels, or any other ancient Jewish symbols that we are familiar with.

[495] By which I mean, as a group stacked together in one exact location. There does seem to be a higher favor for the larger area around the door openings, which might indicate that clusters of coins at the entrance could be linked to rites of passage and the transit between the profane and the sacred.

[496] With the exception perhaps of ‘En Nashut (Deposit 2), where the coins were found “next to the foundations” of the western room. See appendix, case-study 6.