Deposits categorized as magico-religious deposits

Based on the characteristics above, I have identified thirty deposits in fourteen separate synagogues that can be categorized as tithing deposits:[566] Dabiyye (Deposit 1), Dabiyye (Deposit 2), Deir ‘Aziz (Deposit 3), Deir ‘Aziz (Deposit 4), ‘En Nashut (Deposit 1), ‘En Nashut (Deposit 2), Horvat Kanaf (Deposit 1), Horvat Kanaf (Deposit 2), Qasrin (Deposit 1), Bar’am (Deposit 1), Bar’am (Deposit 2), Bar’am (Deposit 3), Meroth (Deposit 1), Korazin (Deposit 1), Korazin (Deposit 2), Korazin (Deposit 3), Capernaum (Deposit 1), Capernaum (Deposit 2), Capernaum (Deposit 3), Capernaum (Deposit 4), Capernaum (Deposit 5), Capernaum (Deposit 6), Capernaum (Deposit 7), Horvat Kur (Deposit 1), Horvat Sumaqa (Deposit 1), ‘En Gedi (Deposit 3), Sardis (Deposit 1), Sardis (Deposit 2), Sardis (Deposit 3), and Ostia (Deposit 1). A map can be found at

At Capernaum, seven different deposits fall under this category. The first deposit was discovered as a cluster in Stratum C (a layer of white mortar on top of the synagogue platform, onto which the synagogue building and its benches were set) in the southern part of the west aisle: 2922 bronze coins were found underneath just one floor paver that was lifted by the excavators. Many of these coins were stained with the white mortar of the stratum, indicating that they were placed in the soft foundation mortar before the stone pavement was placed on top of it. The second deposit consists of 67 bronze coins and five gold coins found under several side benches of the prayer hall. Six coins were embedded in the foundation of the benches; the others were lying on top of the bench foundations. The five gold coins were found together under the eastern benches, near the doorway leading from the synagogue hall to the courtyard.[567] The third deposit are multiple coin groups found in Stratum C in various locations in the synagogue building where the stone pavement was missing. A total of 178 coins were collected here. The fourth deposit consists of coins found in the courtyard area in Stratum C; 20 bronze coins were found here in various locations under the stone pavers, some with traces of mortar stuck to them. A fifth deposit consists of 236 bronze coins found together in the southwest corner of the synagogue hall but at a deeper level than previous deposits: these coins were embedded in Stratum B, an artificial platform circa 3 meters high that leveled the synagogue area, immediately beneath the white mortar layer. The coins were found dispersed throughout this stratum, mixed with dirt, ash, basalt stones, and a large number of broken vessels. The sixth deposit was found underneath a staircase built against the outside of the south wall of the synagogue building. Here, Stratum C was missing, but 570 bronze coins were found in the fill of Stratum B and 10 more in the fill of the steps themselves. The last deposit consists of a clustered group of coins discovered in the northeast corner of the courtyard, underneath eleven adjacent pavers. This group consists of 20,323 bronze coins found together on and between two layers of mortar. In total, the excavators noted 24,280 bronze coins discovered underneath the synagogue of Capernaum, either in areas where stone pavers were missing, or where stones were lifted in test trenches.

At Dabiyye, a test trench excavated in the middle of the west aisle of the synagogue building revealed two separate deposits. The first consists of 312 bronze coins in a compact brown layer of dirt just below the stone pavement floor. A few of the coins still adhered to the underside of the flagstones. The second deposit of 24 bronze coins was found in the fill layer beneath that, interspersed between small stones and compact earth. These deposits were the only sealed clusters excavated at the site, but a total of 750 coins was eventually discovered inside the building in areas where the pavers were missing, indicating that the coin deposits are only a small part of a “coin carpet” underneath the entire synagogue building.

At Bar’am, multiple coin deposits were found in different areas under the floor of the main hall of the building. In Area A, along the south wall of the synagogue between the central and eastern door opening, 12 bronze coins were discovered under the stone floor pavers. In area B, along the south wall between the central and western door opening of the building, 25 bronze coins were found under the floor pavement. Last, 32 bronze coins were found under the stone floor pavement in Area D, in the northwest corner of the hall. All the coins were discovered in a dark-brown layer of fill overlying a layer of field stones that made up the bedding for the stone pavers. The coins were found only in areas where the stone pavers were still in situ; in areas where the pavers were missing no coins were detected. It is important to note that these three areas were excavated as test trenches: most of the pavers of the hall were never lifted to check for more coins and it is possible that all three deposits are part of a “coin carpet” that extended over the entire hall of the synagogue.

At Deir ‘Aziz, two deposits of this category were found under the floor of the building. The first was found in front of the northern side benches of the main hall. Here, 346 bronze and two gold coins were spread out over an area that ran from the second northern column from the west to the northern benches, in an area where the floor pavers were missing. All these coins were found close to the surface. An additional 348 coins were found in a deposit in the western half of the synagogue, next to the northern pillars and benches, about a meter above the pit containing the 2027 coins. These coins were spread out over the surface as well, close to the surface of the floor pavement. Both deposits could have been part of a larger “coin carpet” spread just below the pavement in the western half of the synagogue hall; several flagstones were also lifted in the eastern half but no coin deposits were discovered.

At ‘En Nashut, a hole in the pavement floor of the portico area of the synagogue building was discovered. The hole was located in front of the main entrance to the synagogue building, on its south side, and had been dug by robbers who discovered coins and dug a trench of about 3.5 meters wide and 1 meter deep. During the excavations, the soil of the pit was sifted and more coins were found. It is unclear how many coins were originally part of this deposit as visitors and local kibbutz members had been removing coins from the hole for years, but in the end, 446 bronze coins made their way to the IAA depot. No other portico pavers were lifted to check for more coins. A second deposit at ‘En Nashut was discovered next to the foundations of a room west of the synagogue. Here, 51 (?) bronze coins were excavated, 32 of which could be dated to 300-455 CE.[568]

At Horvat Kanaf, two coin deposits were found spread in two different layers over the surface of the synagogue hall. The first deposit was encountered in a layer of loose, sandy soil that was almost black in color, below the modern floor of the granary that now stands on top of the synagogue building. In this layer, 234 bronze coins were found in four areas where the floor had been broken by the archaeologists. Below this black layer was a compact layer of reddish soil, probably the original foundation fill of the synagogue building, which was placed there to level the natural bedrock. In this layer, 289 bronze coins were found in the same four areas where the modern floor had been lifted. Since these four sections were the only places where the floor was removed, it is impossible to say if more coins belonging to these “coin carpets” are still hidden under the rest of the modern floor.

At Qasrin, 125 bronze coins were found behind the northern side benches of the main hall of the synagogue. The coins were dispersed among the rubble that filled the space between the lower stone blocks of the benches and the wall behind it, but below the upper block of the two-tiered bench. The coins were detected only because the upper block was missing in this area, which allowed archaeologists to excavate the space.

At Meroth, 361 bronze coins were found under the flagstone pavement of the main hall in three different areas (although there is some unclarity about the exact number of coins found). It is also unclear where exactly these areas are, as only L157 is indicated on an excavation map found in the IAA archives: this trench is located in the middle of the north part of the synagogue hall.

At Korazin, three different coin deposits were found under the floor of the synagogue building. The first was discovered in a test trench just inside the southern doorway to the western aisle of the building, next to and under the threshold. Here, 311 bronze coins were found by the excavators. Over the course of the following decade, another 550 bronze coins were found by a visiting archaeologist close to the surface “in the south west quarter of the synagogue,” and according to rumors another 1200 to 1500 coins were found by UN visitors. In total, however, only 861 bronze coins were partly published, 311 of which are stored at the IAA. Besides this trench, another sounding was made along the southern doorway leading into the eastern aisle where 34 coins were found under and next to the threshold. Last, a test trench running along the inside of the south wall was dug, connecting the two soundings. Here, below the layer of dirt in which the first two deposits were found was an accumulation of small flat stones. This is interpreted as construction or quarry debris brought in to level the area. Below this layer was a bedding of large basalt blocks. In these two layers, 1063 more bronze coins and 2 gold coins were discovered, most of them in the western part of the building. Unfortunately, the deposits also include two Islamic coins and even a modern Israeli coin, showing that this area was disturbed or contaminated. It is unclear which coins come from which level as this was not recorded during the excavations.

At Horvat Kur, 839 bronze coins were retrieved from the western portico area of the synagogue building. The coins were found in two layers on top of each other: a hard, grayish dirt layer of about 5-10 cm containing over 15,000 tesserae and 87 coins, and above that a soft, brownish dirt layer of circa 5 cm, containing almost 10,000 tesserae and 752 coins. According to the excavators, this rubble was brought in to level and construct the portico of the synagogue. The rubble may have come from a destroyed mosaic floor that once covered the synagogue hall, meaning that the coins originally would have been placed under the mosaic floor, probably (but not certainly) scattered over the surface of the building. Or the coins might have been brough in from somewhere else and were added to the mixture to form the portico floor.

At Horvat Sumaqa, a total of eleven bronze coins was found between the stone pavers of the floor of the second Phase of the synagogue building, in the northern area of the eastern narthex of the building. A section of this floor to the north was left in situ and it is thus unknown if more coins could be found there. No other coin deposits were found in or under the rest of the synagogue’s stone pavement, which survived only in patches above an older plaster floor.

At ‘En Gedi, 150 bronze coins were found under the floor of a northern side room of the synagogue building. The coins were found as a group and were not scattered over the surface of the room. No deposits were found under the floor of the main hall of the building.[569]

At Sardis, hundreds of bronze coins have been found under the floor of the synagogue building. Around 400 were discovered under the mosaic pavement of the forecourt of the building, although the exact location of each coin is confusing. Ca. 123 of these coins were reliably located beneath unbroken mosaics or were sealed in the mortar bedding for the fountain, but it is uncertain if they were discovered immediately beneath the mosaics, in the mortar bedding of the mosaics, or next to or under the water pipes that provided water to the forecourt fountain, and which according to the excavators, were laid in at a later stage. A group of coins, however, was discovered in one location and was labelled by the archaeologists as Hoard B. This deposit contained 248 bronze coins found in an interval depth of 0.5 meter but only three have been identified. 65 coins were found under the mosaics of the main hall of the synagogue building, at different spots where the mosaic panels were lifted. The exact location and context of the coins, however, are unknown.

At Ostia, 51 bronze coins were found underneath a mosaic floor in a side room of the synagogue. The deposit was found in the northern half of this room, 0.60 m from a marble table installed in the southwest corner of the room in a later Phase. The coins were found stuck in a layer composed of the lime setting for the mosaic, about 13 cm above an older cocciopesto surface.

When we consider the common attributes of these deposits, some observations can be made. First of all, almost all the tithing coin deposits were found close to the surface of the floor. In some cases, they were even embedded in the bedding of the floor, mixed with the plaster (Capernaum, Ostia and possibly Sardis and Horvat Kur), or placed in between the stones of the floor itself (Horvat Sumaqa and presumably Umm el-Qanatir). This shows that the deposits are not “foundation deposits” buried deep in the foundation trenches of the building, but “floor deposits,” placed just under or in the floor itself, producing some sort of “magical mortar” base.[570]

Within the building, a greater emphasis seems to have been placed on the areas around door openings (Capernaum, Bar’am, ‘En Nashut, Korazin, Sardis) or in and around benches (Capernaum, Qasrin, Deir ‘Aziz),[571] the Torah shrine or the bemah. This underscores our understanding of the coins as performing critical functions to their depositors: they were buried in spaces upon which their targets stood, sat, or traversed, or around the most powerful place of the building: the place of the Torah scrolls. So, the same conclusion Karen Stern makes about synagogue amulets is also applicable here: “their location was not only metaphorical, nor incidental, but physically instrumental to their efficacy: they did not only bless the building, but also its visitors.”[572] By placing the coins beneath the spaces where visitors spent most of their time or where the Torah scrolls were kept, they became activated and empowered.[573]

Table of all Magico-Religious Coins broken up per deposit. Toggle the parameter to show the emperor under which each coin was minted, the minting place, or the end date (final terminus post quem) of each coin.

Table of all Synagogue Magico-Religious Coins. Toggle the parameter to choose between exact dates or quarter centuries.

Table of all Synagogue Magico-Religious Coins. Toggle the parameter to show the emperor under which each coin was minted, the minting place, or the end date (final terminus post quem) of each coin; or choose between absolute numbers or percentage of total.


[566] As one notices, this is by far our largest category, making it not a marginal phenomenon, but the most prominent one among synagogue coin practices.

[567] A possible distinction could thus be made between the 67 bronze coins from the 5th century and the 5 gold coins from the 7th century. Perhaps the gold coins were an emergency hoard. More detailed publications on their stratigraphical context in the future might help clarify this.

[568] This is a difficult deposit to assess since it was not found in the synagogue but in the foundation trench of a small room/building annexed to the building, which may or may not have been a part of the synagogue complex. Since the coins are low in value, have the same date range as Deposit 1, and were found in the (inaccessible) foundations, I have given them the same function as a deposit. However, it is possible that this deposit belongs to an individual and has nothing to do with the ritual space.

[569] This would be the only tithing deposit with the coins placed together. However, the fact that it was found under the flagstone pavement of a synagogue building (and was thus inaccessible), containing mainly minimi from a longer period, makes me put this deposit under this category.

[570] Some scholars have stated that all magico-religious coin deposits have been found under mosaic or pavement floors and that no magico-religious deposits have ever been identified under plaster floors (Ahipaz and Leibner 2021, p. 211). Ahipaz and Leibner attribute this to the fact that the phenomenon was only dominant during a time when synagogues were constructed with mosaic or pavement floors (= after 70 CE). However, synagogues such as Horvat Kur, for example, show that some Late Antique synagogues had plaster floors — and no coins were found under them. The possible example of the deposit found at ‘En Gedi below a dirt floor (see below) would also contradict this statement.

[571] Also at Umm el-Qanatir (Dray, Gonen and Ben-David 2017, p. 216, p. 225). However, most synagogue buildings have not been systematically dismantled and thresholds, benches, or stylobates are almost always kept in place, although smaller pieces might be moved to museums. Thus, there is a chance that more coins could be found in these areas.

[572] Stern 2021, pp. 231–232, pp. 240–242. She explores how the sacredness of synagogue space could influence and enhance the power of certain “requests”, like prayers or amulets: “For instance, both Rabbinic texts and the study of piyyutim reveal the importance of ancient synagogues for conducting acts of scriptural recitation, interpretation, and prayer. But attention to vernacular inscriptions – on lamellae and on doorways – offer insights into the ranges of prayer practices once considered to be possible or normative in these spaces…Attention to various genres of vernacular inscriptions thus illuminates a wide range of precatory practices in ancient synagogues that many specialists inadvertently overlook…Sanctity, in many parts of the ancient and medieval worlds, however, was something physical, tactile, and transferable (and translatable). Jews who clustered their amulets around Torah scrolls (such as at Nirim) might have done so to help compile a sacred graveyard. But they also might have done so to accelerate the efficacy of healing amulets by positioning them inside or beside a room with objects of consummate sanctity and connection to Divinity (which might, in turn, also accelerate their efficacy).” I believe the same observations hold true for the synagogue coins.

[573] Compare, for example, this phenomenon to the subsequent and related emplacement of the mezuzah on the doorframe of a room or building.