Compiling and rea-assessing old collections

In 2001, Raz Kletter and Alon De-Groot pointed out that no fewer than 2,200 excavations were carried out in the State of Israel between the period of 1989 and 1998, and the number of projects conducted annually is constantly rising. Yet, final publication reports are lagging far behind, running at only about the 20 per cent level.[35] It is easy to understand why we dig so much but publish so little: as archaeologists, we love to be “in the dirt”. The thrill of new discoveries, the media attention, the academic funds that become available when something “happens”, it is often these reasons that attract us to the field in the first place (pun intended). However, the paperwork that comes out of excavations can often be overwhelming. For every week of digging, there are months’ worth of notes, maps, photographs, and database entries to go through. Writing can be painstakingly slow and boring; instead of sitting behind a desk evaluating our finds, we would much rather go back to the site and continue digging. For this reason, many excavations remain unpublished forever. Finds that were excavated are stored in a storage unit, a depot, or a basement and slowly become forgotten (John Cherry calls this “the crisis of confidence” in archaeology).[36] However, there is value in going back to these old collections and re-asses them. In recent studies, scholars like Julia King and Barbara Voss have pleaded for the study of material housed in warehouses across the globe as an alternative mode of research.[37] As Morag Kersel has pointed out, the goal of archaeology is to create new knowledge about the human past.[38] Going back to old collections, re-interpreting them based on new archaeological insights, comparing collections that have been found in different regions and at different times with each other; all of this can yield new information about the past.

This is exactly what this project does: it brings together all published and unpublished synagogue coins from the storage rooms and places them together in a digital environment, making examination and comparison possible. This project is thus what might be called an “archival collection excavation report”.

The reasons for why all coin deposits from Late Antique synagogues have never been analyzed, published, and compared as a whole before are many: first, many of the deposits presented here never reached a final publication. As we will see in the catalogue, many sites were never fully published (and probably never will be, since many excavators have now passed away) and even when synagogue excavations were published, a detailed overview of the coins is lacking. The coins were simply stored (in most cases at the IAA in Jerusalem) and then forgotten.

A second reason for why it took so long is that most of the coins found in ancient synagogue deposits are of very small value; the majority are bronze nummi or minimi.[39] Historically, numismatists were not very interested in these coins: they are hard to decipher (especially compared to gold and silver coins that can often still look newly minted after thousands of years), often heavily corroded, and thus not very attractive for study. Their analyses and identifications were long ignored. This only recently changed thanks to the ground-breaking work of Gabriela Bijovsky, who was able to define and identify a whole new range of low-value coins.[40] Thus, a study like this has only recently become possible.

Finally, this project also required availability and knowledge of multiple software programs in order to process the data and generate meaningful observations. One thus had to wait until the technology was ready before a project like this could be undertaken.


[35] Kletter and De-Groot, 2001. See also Cherry 2011.

[36] Cherry 2011, p. 10.

[37] King 2008; Voss 2012.

[38] Kersel 2015.

[39] Nummi and minimi are terms of modern numismatic parlance referring to the physical appearance of small, low value bronze coins in the 5th-7th centuries. Minimi can also include worn and illegible earlier coins that remained in circulation for long periods, poorly manufactured local imitations, and pieces of metal that hardly could be called coins. These coins circulated as “token” money: a number of coins together made up a larger weight, without taking into account the weight of each single coin. Often, they would be weighed together in a purse. It is therefore no surprise that large quantities of minimi are found at almost every site in Palestine (Bijovsky 1998 p. 84; 2012, p. 3).

[40] Bijovsky 2012.