This study began as an exploration of coin deposits found under the floors of ancient synagogues from Late Antiquity in Israel/Palestine, as well as in the diaspora. Why were these coins placed there? Can we come up with possible hypotheses that would explain their function? When did this phenomenon start and when did it end? Can we see specific geographical clusters? Unsatisfied with the explanations that had been offered in the past, as well as with the lack of a cohesive overview of the different deposits under discussion, the main focus of my project quickly became the building of a comprehensive database that would assemble all the buildings in which any kind of coin deposit has been found, as well as the assembling of an in-depth written overview of all the deposits and their individual coins. In the end, I was able to compile a corpus or catalogue of all known synagogue coin deposits, collected in the appendix, which served as a basis for further inquiry.
In order to select which deposits to include, and which ones to discard, however, I first had to set up certain parameters. First, it was important that the deposits were found in a synagogue. Seeing that the identification of an archaeological building as a synagogue is not always as straightforward as one would hope, this required a chapter on what a synagogue is, how it can be recognized in the archaeological record, and what its main architectural features are. Second, in order to be able to date the placement of the deposits, it was also important to correctly date our synagogue buildings. A separate subchapter was devoted to an overview of past and present scholarship concerning the dating of ancient synagogue buildings, and my methodology used in this project to assess these dates (and correct them). Third, I had to decide what we mean by deposit. For this project, I discarded the single coins that can be found at any archaeological site from Late Antiquity, but instead focused only on deposits that had 10 coins or more, found in the same locus. This meant I had to discard certain “deposits” that had been identified by other scholars, like Rachel Hachlili, as synagogue deposits, as they did not adhere to my criteria.
After I choose which deposits to keep, and thus which coins to look at, I thought it important to describe what coins are, how they can be read, how they tend to be excavated, and how they are cleaned, preserved, analyzed, and published. As I consider myself a public humanist, and this project will be placed on an open-access website, it was crucial to me that anyone could follow my story, no matter their academic background. Thus, a separate chapter was dedicated to a (very brief) history of coin and hoard studies and a survey of how to read and interpret coins. After this was established, however, some issues that I encountered in my research had to be acknowledged, like the lack of coherent excavation techniques across excavation sites, which influenced the amount of coins that could be found at a certain site; the difficulty in analyzing certain coins (especially small bronze ones from the Byzantine period), which influenced how many coins could be read and published in the past; and the lack of a systematic publication method concerning coins, which influenced the amount of information about the context and content of the deposits that could be discerned from the excavation reports. Especially for older excavations, these problems could not always be overcome, despite a close reading of all published reports, checking the IAA database, and/or talking to the original archaeologists and excavators.
Despite these obstacles, in the end, I was able to compile a substantial database of information, which now contains 24 buildings, 57 deposits, and 44,254 coins, and which can be found here online (www.anciensynagoguecoins.com).
The next step in my analysis was trying to group the separate deposits according to certain criteria. As it soon became clear that one overarching theory would not be able to explain the many different deposits I encountered, I decided to split the deposits up according to three different attributes: the arrangement of the coins within the deposit (descriptive), the permanency of the deposit (retrievability), and its function (interpretative). Thus, each deposit was analyzed in three different ways, creating a new mix-and-match method, which I hope will allow future researchers to more easily place their discovered deposit into a distinctive category. Determining the description and the retrievability of each deposit was (relatively) easy and could often be efficiently established through a close reading of the excavation reports or the published maps and plans of the site. The problem, however, lay in the interpretation. After spending considerable time looking at the deposits, I decided to split the 57 deposits up into six different categories (with the seventh category being accidental losses, which I did not include in my catalogue): votive offerings and genizot, charity hoards or tzedakah, treasuries, emergency hoards, post-destruction offerings, and magico-religious deposits connected to tithing money.
My last goal of this project was to then place these different categories in their specific historical context of Late Antique Judaism and explore the different roles coins and coin deposits could have played within the synagogues of Palestine and the diaspora. Chapter Four provided an in-depth overview of the first five (or six) categories while Chapter Five was entirely dedicated to the final category, coin deposits connected to magico-religious practices, seeing that this is the category that contains the floor deposits that have been mostly discussed in synagogue coin deposit scholarship, and was the initial impetus for this project. In these two chapters, I explored each functional category in detail by looking both at written sources and archaeological remains in order to better understand the purpose of the specific deposits. I ended each category by laying out the specific characteristics I believe a deposit needs to have in order to fall under the specific category, and I then placed every deposit from my catalogue under one of the categories. Finally, I developed interactive statistical graphs and tables to go along with each category, which users can manipulate on the website to get more specific information about each grouping.
This project’s main question What was the function of the coins found under the floors of certain ancient synagogues? is difficult to answer because of a lack of textual sources describing the phenomenon. Nevertheless, based on careful research of Jewish attitudes concerning magic and apotropaic devices in Late Antiquity, and a historical analysis of tithing habits after the Second Temple destruction, I believe I was able to answer the question: the coins were symbolic tithes, taken out of economic circulation and set aside as sacred. They were added to the synagogue building during construction as away of giving back to God what belongs to God, simultaneously blessing the building and its visitors, and protecting the building against natural or supernatural harm.
 With the exception of Sumaqa, Deposit 2 which only contained 3 coins, but these were found in a unique context of a possible genizah.