Archaeologists working in Tel Kedesh in northern Israel have uncovered an extremely rare 2,200-year-old gold coin, minted in Alexandria by King Ptolemy V.
The head of the Coin Department of the Israel Antiquities Association, long-time American immigrant Dr. Donald T. Ariel, said, “This is the heaviest and most valuable ancient gold coin ever found in an excavation in Israel.” The coin depicts a queen, believed to be Arsinoe II Philadelphus, who was married to her half-brother Ptolemy II. It is possible, however, that it may actually be Ptolemy V's wife Cleopatra I, daughter of Antiochus III."
The excavations at Tel Kedesh, near Israel's border with Lebanon, are being carried out by the University of Michigan and University of Minnesota.
“This is an amazing numismatic find," Dr. Ariel said. "The coin is beautiful and in excellent preservation. It is the heaviest gold coin with the highest contemporary value of any coin ever found in an excavation in Israel, weighing almost an ounce," or 27.7 grams, compared with 4.5 grams for most ancient gold coins.
In Ariel’s words, “This extraordinary coin was apparently not in popular or commercial use, but had a symbolic function, possibly related to a festival in honor of Queen Arsinoe, who was deified in her lifetime." The coin's denomination is called a mnaieion, meaning a one-mina coin, and is equivalent to 100 silver drachms, or a mina of silver.
The reverse side of the coin depicts two overlapping cornucopias (horns-of-plenty) decorated with fillets.
“It is rare to find Ptolemaic coins in Israel dating after the country came under Seleucid rule in 200 BCE," Ariel explained. "The only other gold Ptolemaic coin from an excavation in Israel (from Akko) dates from the period of Ptolemaic hegemony, in the third century BCE, and weighs less than two grams.”
The excavations at Tel Kedesh, conducted since 1997, have uncovered a large Persian/Hellenistic administrative building, complete with reception halls, dining facilities, store rooms and an archive. While the documents in the archive were not preserved, the excavations yielded 2043 seal impressions, from which the flourishing of the Hellenistic phase of the building can be dated to the first half of the second century BCE.
About three years ago, an Alexandrine hoard of Ptolemaic gold coins appeared on the world antiquities market. No coins of Ptolemy V were included in that hoard, however, so the extreme rarity of the mnaieion from Tel Kedesh remains unimpaired.