Archaeologists identify early Israelite-era attempts to forge ‘dirty’ currency

When the Israelites arrived from Egypt in the Land of Israel some 3,000 years ago, according to the biblical account, they may have been exposed to — or even been at the forefront of — one of the earliest examples of financial fraud in the form of forged coins, new combined research from Haifa and Hebrew University has found.

According to a paper set to be published in the highly regarded Journal of Archaeological Science, several caches of coins found in the southern Levant from 1200 to 950 BCE, exactly when the Israelites are believed to have arrived in the area, exhibit small quantities of silver, high quantities of copper, and significant amounts of other materials that may have been specifically added to make the coins looks like silver.

“Despite the small percentage of silver in the silverware, they were mixed with other substances such as arsenic that made them look silver, which reinforces the hypothesis that at least part of the period it was a deliberate forgery,” said the researchers, who based their study on the doctoral work of Haifa University student Tzilla Eshel.

The research looked at silver from eight caches from the period found at different locations around Israel including Beit Shan, Megido and Ashkelon.

According to the researchers, coins from the period were not uniform, giving specific value to the size and weight of the coin. With the decline of Egypt and the collapse of the Hittite empire and Mycenaean culture, however, instability in the region and the disruption of naval trade routes resulted in a shortage of raw materials, including the silver used to conduct commerce.

Megiddo Junction in northern Israel. Legio, the site of a Roman military camp from the second and third centuries CE, was found in the field to the right. (CC BY-SA Golf Bravo, Wikimedia Commons)

While coins dated to before 1,900 BCE were found to be 100% silver, the Israeli research team said, a chemical analysis of coins from the beginning of the Iron Age found many to be made of an alloy with a high percentage of copper. Some were found to be up to 80% copper, with arsenic added to make them shiny like real silver.

Although there is no clear proof that it was intended to be a forgery, the effort to make the coins shiny points in the direction of “dirty money,” the paper said.

“In addition to the fact that there was a deliberate attempt to give the metal the color of silver, we found in earlier caches dating to the late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age (1150-1200 BC), the percentage of copper was higher and the amounts of arsenic were very similar from piece to another. That seems like an organized activity — which reinforces the assumption that it is a forgery,” the researchers said.

They estimated broken trade routes from Turkey, Greece, Iran, Sardinia, and Spain likely led to a lack of silver in the area from 1,200 to 950 BC and suggested that the copper in the alloy comes from mines in the Timna area.

“It is likely that they used money that already existed in the area from previous periods, to which they added the copper from Timna,” the paper says.

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