Categorization and Terminology

Chapters “Synagogue Coin Deposits: Functions and Interpretation” and “Synagogue Coin Deposits: The Floor Deposits” will provide an in-depth overview of the different categories of coin deposits found in ancient synagogue buildings. However, to understand the detailed information about the coin deposits and individual coins in my catalogue (Appendix), it is first important to establish our working definitions. Scholars often use various words interchangeably when talking about synagogue coin deposits: hoards, caches, treasures, treasuries, stashes, savings, foundation deposits, favissae, and more. But are these words appropriate? Do they all have the same meaning or are these different phenomena, and if so, which categories should we establish and how should they be labeled?[267] Defining terminology is important, as it will provide a basis for future discussions and comparisons of the different kinds of deposits excavated.

The question of how to divide up coin finds into different categories and how to label each distinct category is an old one.[268] In 1965, Philip Grierson grouped coin finds into three categories: 1) casual or stray finds (also known as accidental losses), 2) hoards, and 3) excavation finds.[269] The two last categories can be subdivided into smaller groups: hoards according to the probable circumstances of their loss (emergency hoards, savings hoards, and abandoned hoards), and excavation finds according to whether they were location finds or area finds (Fig. 1). Additional distinctions can then be made between finds of single coins, cumulative finds, and hoards proper, the two latter involving a number of coins, but hoards implying groups put together at the time of the loss, and cumulative finds implying those brought together by circumstance.[270]

Fig 1: Classification System as Proposed By Grierson 1975

Grierson’s systemization was a valuable first step to categorizing coin deposits and his distinctions are entrenched in coin studies,[271] but his categories pose several problems since they are based on quantitative and contextual factors and assumptions. First, the categories are too general as, for example, an “excavation find” can mean any coin found at any excavation, lost accidentally or not. Second, the categories are a mixture of description and interpretation, and do not establish boundaries between the two methodologies. Finally, the categories do not rely upon empirical observation such as coin density but incorporate a large degree of interpretation.[272]

Over the years, scholars have tried to modify these categories. In 1974, John Philip Cozens Kent distinguished only two basic groups: currency and savings.[273] Currency, according to him, encompasses a cross-section of the available currency in the desired denominations at the date of deposition. Such deposits (or what he calls, hoards) reveal a gradation of wear from the earliest to the latest coins. Savings, on the other hand, result from setting aside coins from time to time over a longer period: such deposits contain random peaks of material, corresponding to fluctuations in the collector’s prosperity, and do not show wear to such an extent. Recently, scholarly thought around coin hoard categories has become more prudent, with numismatists realizing that hoards do not always fall into neat categories, and that different organizational systems will need to be developed for different regions, periods, or contexts.[274] It would take us too far afield here to provide an overview of all these different systems, however, as a summary, we can state that most modern scholars have been trying to find a way to differentiate between stray coins and clustered coins, while also trying to take note of the characteristics of the coins themselves to try to come up with certain interpretative groups.[275]

This study here is concerned with hoarding and the deposition of coins in the broadest sense, but limited to a very specific context: ancient synagogues. Since this context is unique, we will have to come up with our very own system. Categories such as “military hoards” and “market finds” are, for example, not applicable in our case. On the other hand, we may have several reasons for hiding money inside synagogues, including cultic or religious ones, which are not relevant to other sites or regions.[276] Hence, it is necessary to develop a new system and a separate, specific set of vocabulary that is appropriate for synagogue deposits. Luckily, we do not need to start from scratch.

Donald Ariel was one of the first scholars to propose specific categories for synagogue coin deposits. In a 1987 article, Ariel distinguished between “foundation deposits” (coins deliberately deposited with no container, during the construction or remodeling of the building, and thus not really “hoards”) and “genuine hoards” (coins intended as a contribution to the synagogue for the maintenance of the building, and the purchase of books and equipment, or as donations for charity, which usually were in a container or wrapped in cloth). [277] He also pointed out that the synagogue was a center of commercial and communal activity, and that many coins could have been lost in and around the building, especially in times when, according to him, relatively valueless small coins were in circulation throughout the Eastern Empire.

The second classification system was proposed by Jodi Magness in 2001. In her article on the typology and dating of ancient synagogues, she suggests distinguishing between the following four groups of synagogue coin deposits:[278]

  1. Coins that were mixed with the earth or fills imported during the synagogue’s construction. These were usually individual coins, but they can add up to larger quantities, as she suggests might have been the case at Capernaum.
  2. Coins that were deliberately deposited, individually or in groups, during the construction of the synagogue. These were placed in or next to the foundations, or under the floors.
  3. “Hoards” of small bronze coins, stored together (usually in ceramic vessels) in a room in the synagogue, above the floor level. Here she mentions the coins found in the western corridor at Gush Halav and the coins discovered in a small hole between two stones at Horvat Rimmon as examples.
  4. True hoards of coins of precious materials. Examples could be the gold hoard found at Horvat Rimmon and the gold coins found beneath the benches of Capernaum.

From these four groups she deducts the first one, as she believes these coins were brought in with no specific purpose, and the last group, as these deposits are relatively rare. This leaves her with the second and third group of deposits, which she believes represent a similar phenomenon: a ritual deposition of large numbers of small bronze coins in and under synagogues.

The third, and most important contribution, was made by Rachel Hachlili, who wrote a sub-chapter in her book Ancient Synagogues: Archaeology and Art: New Discoveries and Current Research entirely dedicated to the phenomenon of sub-floor coin deposits.[279] She divides synagogue coin deposits into four categories: 1) hoards, 2) caches, treasuries, and community boxes, 3) coin assemblages, and 4) small groups of scattered coins, and defines them accordingly:

  1. Hoards: Deposits that contain gold, silver, and bronze coins, hidden in containers such as pots and cloth, purposely placed or buried in a special place for future retrieval.
  2. Caches, treasuries, and community boxes: Deposits that include groups of gold, silver, and bronze coins, hidden or placed in a special spot. These may represent accumulations of public cash or treasuries intended for maintenance purposes or as charity donations.
  3. Coin assemblages: Large numbers of coins collected over long periods and placed in hiding places or buried in fill or foundations. These deposits contain mostly low-value, corroded bronze coins, likely deliberately deposited or stored together in hidden places or below foundations inside the building, possibly during the construction of the synagogue.
  4. Deposits that are probably lost coins: These are coins that had slipped between the stones of the pavement, between benches, and between benches and the wall.

Hachlili’s contribution to the field cannot be overstated; her chapter created greater awareness of the phenomenon and encouraged archaeologists to pay attention to the occurrence of coin deposits at excavation sites. However, like the definitions brought forward by Grierson fifty years earlier, her four categories are a mixture of description and interpretation and, especially for the second category, are too broad, for example, by combining treasuries and charity boxes (and each of the categories is, in turn, also too narrow because it implies a specific reason for depositing without having made any attempts to prove it). Hence, a better classification system is needed to communicate consistently about the full range of synagogue deposits.


[267] That there is indeed a need for a greater understanding of the different categories of coin deposits in synagogues can for example be seen in the article by Waner and Safrai (2001). In this article, the authors try to determine the “shelf life” of coins in Palestine by comparing the coins from all known coin hoards with each other. However, since they do not distinguish between coins in synagogues found scattered under the floor and coins found together in hiding places, their results are problematic. When one wants to compare different hoards with each other, their function within the building must be taken into consideration.

[268] Here I only go into the classification systems that are helpful for our project and have had the most influence on the field of numismatics. Of course, dozens of systems have been proposed over the last century, and are still being proposed, ranging from scholars studying Roman coins found in Britain (Johns 1996), to those studying Byzantine coins that were concealed in the period 1204-1453 (Lianta 2003).

[269] Grierson 1965; 1966; 1975, p. 125; 128–138. This categorization was partly based on Mattingly 1932 and Laing 1969, but Grierson’s classification has been widely accepted as the standard way of thinking about hoards and it is frequently quoted in hoard studies.

[270] His definition of a hoard is “a group of coins or other valuables which was concealed as a unit.” Grierson 1975, p. 125.

[271] For example, Crawford 1970; Kent 1974; Casey 1986; Burström 2019.

[272] This critique has also been brought up by Aitchison 1988.

[273] Kent 1974, p. 185.

[274] Reece 2002; Krmnicek 2010; Thüry 2016; Bland 2018b.

[275] For example, Danny Syon, who divides coin finds up into four categories according to the way in which they were deposited: Loss, Abandonment, Hoarding, and Discard (Syon 2015, pp. 36-37).

[276] The same problem exists for coin deposits found in ancient Greek temples, see for example Hunt 2016; Lykke 2017.

[277] Ariel 1987, pp. 148–149, and nn. 4–15. He divides synagogue deposits according to these categories: the deposits found at ‘En Nashut, Capernaum, Khirbet Marus (Meroth), Horvat Kanef, Qasrin, Dabiyye, Khorazin and Gush Halav are interpreted as foundation deposits, while the deposits at Gush Halav, Capernaum, Rehob, Horvat Rimmon, and another deposit at Khirbet Marus are interpreted as genuine hoards.

[278] Magness 2001, pp. 31–32.

[279] Hachlili 2013, pp. 559–562. Note that she here also includes synagogues that technically do not have not coin deposits, like Meiron (1003 single coins found), Nabratein (138 single coins), and Sepphoris (20+ single coins).