I had not come in search of gold. I was an academician, seeking only to understand. Until 1980, I had been an armchair archaeologist. Then I accepted an invitation to become associate director of the volunteer program of a dig at Capernaum. That summer, I worked in a residential quarter of the city about 200 feet east of Capernaum’s famous ancient synagogue and northeast of the equally famous octagon church built over what may have been St. Peter’s house.a
The house I was excavating had been built in the late Byzantine period. Our first discovery was a maze of thin walls held together by mud, built in the ninth century. Digging deeper, we reached the solid walls of the square sixth-century Byzantine house. It was large and commodious, over 40 feet on a side. In later periods (in the eighth century), it had been subdivided into smaller living units, but its occupants in early Arab times still enjoyed the comforts of the original Byzantine structure. It was built of the large black basalt stones plentiful in the Galilee, bonded with good mortar, so that it had survived several occupational periods indicated by changes in the traffic flow within the house and the different floor levels.
In 1982, I returned to this house for a second season of work. During the first week, I helped uncover the beautiful pavement of the house’s inner court, which served as a vestibule between the street and the private rooms of the house. The pavement had been laid in the late Byzantine period but had been used in the Omayyad period as well (650–749 A.D.).
By Tuesday of the second week of excavations we were ready to lift the pavement and dig deeper. I anticipated the prospects of finally leaving behind the Arabic levels of occupation and entering the Byzantine house through its front door.
Removing those heavy basalt building blocks from ancient Capernaum requires considerable physical strength and stamina. The stones have to be loosened with a heavy pick. The larger stones then have to be rolled onto a heavy canvas mat so that two persons can lift and remove them. Our removal team included Jacki Stone, a housewife from Australia, and Stan Bomgarden, a graduate student at the University of Iowa.
Jacki had come to Israel to visit relatives. In Jerusalem she met the director of our dig, Dr. Vassilios Tzaferis of the Israel Department of Antiquities. When she expressed a desire to join an archaeological dig, he invited her to come to Capernaum to help us.
After Stan and I lifted each heavy stone onto the mat, Jacki would clean up so that we could all see what we were doing.
It was a few minutes to noon, quitting time, on June 1, 1982, and I announced that the next stone would be the last for that morning. Then we would clean up the area and pick up our tools.
That last stone was a big one. As Stan and I were lifting it, Jacki gave a small shout. I had heard her make that sound before. It was a gasp that meant something was underneath the stone. When I turned to look, I saw what appeared to be be or six gold coins lying on the earth. As Jacki gently lifted the loosened soil, more gold coins appeared before our eyes. We resisted the temptation to pick them up and examine them in our hands. We knew the rules- “Don’t dig around what you find in order to pick it up. Dig the stratigraphical layers in their own context.”
Our shouts however grew louder, and soon other volunteers crowded around to see what we had found. Tzaferis also came running over. Ever the professional, he immediately took charge, but he was barely able to contain his own excitement. When the last coin was finally removed, we had excavated 282 gold dinars.
The next day, after we had completed our field work and washed the pottery, Tzaferis brought us some of the gold coins to examine. He spread them over sheets of our field working plans, under the shade of a eucalyptus tree by the Sea of Galilee. They looked as if they had come out of the Damascus mint the day before. They could have been gold medals just polished for ceremonial awards. Nobody could have guessed that they had been buried loose in the soil since about 743 A.D.
The next day a specialist from the Department of Antiquities visited Capernaum to look at the coins and dated them to 695–743 A.D., confirming Tzaferis’s dating of the previous day. He also told us that we had uncovered the largest hoard of gold coins ever found in Israel!
Arab coins minted after the numismatic reform of Abd al-Malik in 695 A.D. (77 A.H.b) do not have human effigies, in strict conformity with Moslem religious law barring such representation. Both sides of each dinar were filled with Moslem religious affirmations from the Koran.
On the obverse they read-
“There is no god except Allah alone. He has no partner. Muhammad is the apostle of Allah whom he sent with guidance and the revelation of truth that he may make it victorious over every other religion” (Koran 9-33).
The reverse proclaims-
“Allah is one, Allah is the eternal. He begets not, neither is he begotten” (Koran 112-1–3).
These affirmations are victorious, polemical declarations in opposition to Jewish and Christian religious beliefs. The second quotation is a specific denial of the orthodox Christian definition of the relationship between the Father and the Son.
My imagination was filled with speculations about the man who, sometime about 743 A.D., buried these 282 gold dinars under a stone in the inner court of his house. Why hadn’t he placed them in some container? Had he buried them in a hurry? Why were they loose in the ground? What had prevented him from returning to retrieve this treasure? Had he died suddenly, violently? Why hadn’t he shared his secret with any other member of his household? Was this hoard the result of years of conscientious saving or the benefit of corruption in service to the Caliph who spent winters at his palace just a few miles to the south? Were they won by violence, in war—or robbery? If the coins could sing their story like a chorus, what would they tell?
My questions may never be answered with certainty. Even tentative answers will have to await a careful examination of all the evidence brought to light in the excavation.c
Before our mysterious Omayyad householder lived here, the house had been occupied by Christians. We discovered a ringstone with the Constantinian monogram and lamps with Greek crosses, suggesting the religion of the earlier occupants of the house. We also discovered a little cosmetic spoon used by the lady of the house to mix and apply her facial make-up. The Byzantine Christian residents were probably upper-middle class. But who were the early Arab inhabitants, one of whom left behind his treasure after burying it under the stone pavement of the house’s inner court? And what of those who lived in the house after him? The archaeological evidence suggests that these later occupants were quite poor. One cannot help but think how often these later occupants crisscrossed their way over the pavement of the inner court, unaware that they were just a stone away from golden treasure.
The Persian invasion of Palestine (614 A.D.) was followed by the Arab invasions (640 A.D.). Surely these invasions disrupted life at Capernaum. But with the establishment of the Omayyad Dynasty (650–749 A.D.), trade in the Near East flourished. The gold of Russia and the Sudan flowed freely to Damascus. Soon the Arab gold dinar became the standard for all commerce, replacing both the Byzantine solidus aureos and the Persian drachma. The Omayyad period was one of extraordinary economic prosperity, in which Capernaum no doubt shared, partly because of its privileged position on the ancient King’s Highway that linked Damascus with Akko and Caesarea on the Sea. Just a few kilometers south of Capernaum, the Caliph built his winter palace at Khirbet Minyeh. Other evidence of the wealth of the Omayyads may still be seen at the magnificent palace of Hisham near Jericho and, of course, at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
To appreciate the value of the gold hoard we discovered, consider that the annual salary of an Omayyad soldier was about one dinar. It would take him 282 years to earn our hoard. How were these kinds of fortunes accumulated in those heady days of Omayyad prosperity? There are records telling us that under the rule of Harun al-Rashid (786–809) the budget of Baghdad was 1,500,000,000 dinars, which would weigh 750,000 kilos (1,650,000 pounds). When the merchants of the al-Karh quarter of Baghdad suffered heavy losses in a fire, the Caliph al-Watiq (842–847) gave them 500,000 dinars to help them rebuild. Beside such figures, 282 gold dinars, weighing about 1.2 kilos (2.6 pounds), may not seem so impressive. Some scholars, however, have cautioned against accepting the accuracy of these enormous figures. On the other hand, I can affirm that an anonymous eighth-century Arab benefactor just gave the Israel Museum in Jerusalem 282 Omayyad gold dinars, which, if sold in today’s market, would bring well over a quarter of a million dollars.
a. See “Has the House Where Jesus Stayed in Capernaum Been Found?” BAR 08-06.
b. A.H. is the abbreviation for After the Hegira. In 622 A D., Muhammed fled from Mecca to Medina to escape persecution. This journey is called the Hegira and is considered to mark the beginning of the Moslem era.