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Middle East Organization Tries to Rewrite Numismatic History
middle eastBy Richard Giedroyc, World Coin News
October 14, 2009
middle east

All numismatic evidence and research points to coinage being invented independently in three places. None of these was likely uninfluenced by the invention of coinage in the other two. These are Lydia or Ionia in Asia Minor, China and India.

In the Western tradition the coinage of the region of Asia Minor was likely invented about 650 B.C. In nearby Egypt barter, gold rings, and other odd and curious (also called primitive) money was used until just prior to Alexander III’s (“the Great”) general Ptolemy became king in 305 B.C.

Surviving ancient coinage indicates the earliest coins of Egypt were issued about 359 to 340 B.C. by the pharaoh Nektanebo II. Rare gold darics or staters from this period depict a horse rearing right surrounded by a border of pellets on the obverse, with heart and windpipe hieroglyphics on the reverse that translate to “the king’s good gold.”

Nektanebo II also issued a 16 millimeter bronze coin on which a ram runs left with head facing right on the obverse, with scales on the reverse.

Gold was important in Egypt both for its value and for its status. First century BC historian Diodorus Siculus wrote, “The [Ptolemaic] kings of Egypt collect together and consign to the gold mines those who have been condemned for crime and who have been made captive by war … Those who have been consigned to the mines being many in number and all bound with fetters toil at their tasks continuously both by day and all night long, getting no rest and jealously kept from all escape.”

Faith is a powerful thing and should never be discounted, but let’s not rewrite history due to wishful thinking. The Middle East Media Research Institute has recently translated an article from Egypt's Al Ahram newspaper stating that coins identifying and imaging the biblical Joseph (ca. 1800 to 1600 B.C.) are among artifacts at the Museum of Egypt. The claim has since been perpetuated by other news media as well. At the time this article is being written no scholarly journal has addressed the Al Ahram report.

The Jerusalem Post was quick to jump on the bandwagon. In a Sept. 25 article the Jerusalem newspaper reported “scientific evidence countering the claim held by some historians that coins were not used for trade in ancient Egypt, and that this was done through barter instead.”

The article reported the artifacts were initially identified as charms, but insists the objects carry the dates in which they were “minted” and a denomination value. The birth of coin denominations in the Western tradition can be traced to either Lydia or Persia, Persia having adopted the invention of coins once Persia conquered Lydia.

“Some of the coins are from the time when Joseph lived in Egypt and bear his name and portrait … This [find] prompted researchers to seek and find Koranic verses that speak of coins used in ancient Egypt,” the report stated.

Al Ahram threw gasoline on the fire, reporting the coins are from different periods of Egyptian history and are “including coins that bore special markings identifying them as being from the era of Joseph. Among these there was one coin that had an inscription on it, and an image of a cow symbolizing pharaoh’s dream about the seven fat cows and seven lean cows.”

The Al Ahram report also claims Joseph’s name appears twice on the alleged coin, written in hieroglyphics: “once the original name Joseph, and once his Egyptian name, Saba Sabani, which was given to him by pharaoh when he became treasurer.”

Ancient Egyptian history scholar Robert Griffin of the University of Memphis in Tennessee is quoted in the Oct. 5 Baptist Press newspaper as saying, “My initial response is one of skepticism in that the interpretation of the coins is quite subjective. ... It’s a bit of a stretch to say the least, especially when you consider that one of the most prominent goddesses in Egyptian mythology is Hathor, who is represented as a cow or a woman with cow’s horns as part of her crown.”

Griffin said he would be interested to see the actual writing of what the researcher claims are the names of Joseph. “The English transliteration he gives for the Egyptian name of Joseph is close in form but not exactly as it would be transliterated from the Hebrew text.”

Griffin told the Baptist Press he would hesitate to say the artifacts are definitive proof of the existence of Joseph in Egypt.

“The items appear to be scarabs or scaraboids,” said David Hendin of New York, an expert in ancient Judaean coins. “Sometimes archaeologists are under pressure to ‘discover’ something and get publicity to justify the funds they have spent on an excavation, but this one is so far off the wall, and supplies no relevant facts, that it is hard to evaluate.

“I cannot say for certain that these items did or did not have a local ‘value’ for barter, which was certainly common in the ancient world. But weight standards are evident in remains from the Middle Bronze age (c. 2100-1550 BC) onwards and certainly gold, silver, and copper were used as currency as early as the time of the New Kingdom around the 15-11 centuries B.C. These systems are well attested in archaeological studies, including by Petrie. These commodities were weighed on scales, and both the scales and weights have been discovered in excavations.

“If there was a scarab or another piece with the name of Joseph it would be interesting if this name occurred the context of the correct period and connected with the name of the correct Pharoah of that time. I am wondering why they showed only generic photo of a bunch of scarabs and/or beads rather than details of the specific beads which were claimed to carry this name.

“You should also keep in mind that ancient Egyptian scale weights were made of stone and bronze. The weights themselves did not have trading value (other than, perhaps as barter objects). Their single purpose to exist was to be used on balance scales to weigh quantities of precious metals.

“While there is a great deal that is not understood yet about systems of ancient weights and how they interacted and overlapped between countries and even localities, there is no controversey over the general way in which ancient scale weights were used.

“Hence there is little doubt that for some reason the article you mention is very definitely in error regarding the financial nature of these objects.”

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