By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
Much has been written by eminent numismatists and religious scholars on the biblical significance of the shekels of Tyre. In fact, David Hendin, an expert American numismatist of ancient Jewish and Biblical coins, wrote an article for CoinWeek earlier this year on these fascinating coins. His article, “Graven Images and the Coins of Ancient Tyre“, focused mainly on the historical and cultural context surrounding these coins. This article focuses on the technical dating and imagery changes over the “continuous” 191 years run from 126/5 BCE to 66/67 CE.
Since the shekels of Tyre are widely accepted as the famous 30 pieces of silver, it is important to learn the dating system employed by the Tyrian moneyers. Not only can this help numismatists place a specific example in the overall life of the series, but correctly dating these coins has significant impacts on their market value. For example, if a shekel of Tyre can be dated to the years of Jesus Christ of Nazareth (calendar year 126 – 154/5), then its value will be dramatically increased.
In his comprehensive dating catalogue of Tyrian shekels, Edward Cohen describes in detail the mint marks, monograms, year dates, and Phoenician letters that give the biographical information of each coin. The date is shown in Greek numerals based on the Tyrian calendar, with the year 1 being the equivalent to the Gregorian calendar year of 126/5 BCE. This dating system was started at that time because it was the year the city “declared itself independent” from the Seleucid Empire.
The alphabetical representation of the date always appears in the upper left reverse field to the left of the eagle’s chest above the herculean club.
Starting with the Greek letter A, Alpha, the dating system uses letters representing Units (1-9), Tens (10, 20, 30, etc), and Hundreds (100, 200, 300, etc). However, this system requires 27 figures, nine for each category, and the Greek alphabet only has 24. To fix this, the moneyers used three Phoenician letters. These are Digamma, Koppa, and San representing the Latin numerals 6, 90, and 900 respectively. The table below shows, in a clear fashion, not only the specific corresponding Greek letters and Latin numerals but the various forms of the three additional Phoenician letters used. It is interesting that the Phoenician letters were included since the dating system never progressed past 100 in the Hundreds category. This freed up seven Greek letters and negated the need for the additional Phoenician letters. I suppose that this was optimistic thinking on the part of the Tyrian moneyers in assuming that their coinage would continue for up to 999 years.
While the same dating system was employed on all denominations, unlike the larger denominations, the single extant example of the eighth shekel design was completely different. Yet it still used the same dating system. Below can be seen the unique eighth shekel from the 2011 CNG auction records. Using CY LΘ or year 9, the coin can be dated to the Gregorian year 118/7 BCE.
An important note on the dating pointed out by Cohen was that until CY 72 (55-4 BCE), the dating was always written right to left. For example, the date for CY 27 would appear as ZK (7 – 20). This practice began to change in a piecemeal fashion until CY 86 when the dates were always written from left to right. For example, the date for CY 115 was written as PIE (100 – 10 – 5). Numismatists should also be aware that on dated shekels that required only one Greek letter (CYs 1-10, 20, 30, etc.), the date was proceeded by the “Egyptian hieroglyphic” L. This may be because, as Cohen suggested, it was important to “distinguish” the date from the other monograms and devices.
Another useful dating trick is the reverse KP monogram. This monogram appears starting in CY 111 (16/15 BCE). While the KP cannot offer a definitive date, it can help narrow the dating range if the actual date is not visible or is unreadable.
Additionally, after the first few years of production either the Phoenician letter Aleph or Bet appeared between the eagle’s legs. If there is no evidence of one of these letters, then it is almost certain that the example was struck in either CY 1 or 2. On the example below, the only thing between the eagle’s legs is the ship’s prow present on all Tyrian shekels.
Nine CY dates have not been confirmed: years 44, 56, 75, 76, 77, 90, 91, 119, and 191. The absence of these dates leads to one of two conclusions.
Firstly, they were struck but we have not discovered them. Or, for some reason, these dates were never struck, and the theory of uninterrupted mintages is incorrect. Fewer confirmed dates exist for the other denominations of half, quarter, and eighth shekels. There are 99, 5, and 1 confirmed dates of the possible 191 years respectively for the fractional denominations.
Tyrian moneyers were extremely consistent. Even when production shifted from the city of Tyre in CY 108 (18 BCE) to Jerusalem, the dating system did not change. This shift in production was around the same time the KP monogram first appeared. It may be presumptuous to claim a link between the shifting production and the use of the KP monogram, but it is suggestive.
While the overall design did not change over the years, the move from Tyre to Jerusalem is the one main delineation. Shekels struck until CY 108 are of the “high style” and those struck after are of the “new style”. This was despite the consistently variable quality of the engraving. For example, below are two shekels belonging to the “high style” and one to the “new style”; one is quite attractive while the others are not. Importantly, this variability seems to only apply to the obverse design, with the reverses being highly consistent across the years and styles.
Currently, in poor condition non-“lifetime” shekels cost between $400 and $600 and those in good condition between $1,000 and $1,500. Due to the biblical connections, “lifetime” issues can cost $2,000 or more.
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).