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A tiny Athenian imitation leads me on an unexpected path


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While I was on vacation, I noticed this coin pop up and it immediately intrigued me. I'm a sucker for "unknown coins with Aramaic inscriptions" and I snatched it up immediately. The day after I came back, it arrived. Below is the dealer's attribution, which I'm pretty sure is not correct.


Eastern imitation of Athens, Circa 250 BC, Silver Tetartamorion
.14g, 6.5mm
Helmeted head of Athena right.
Owl standing left, Aramaic text to left. "LSTK?"


The first thing that I zeroed in on was the inscription. If I solved that, then I'd have a much better idea. The style itself certainly reminded me of Hezekiah, but there are a number of important differences.


JUDAEA, Macedonian Period. Hezekiah
Circa 332-302/1 BCE
AR Half Gerah – Ma’ah 8mm, 0.27 g
 Facing head of male
Owl standing right, head facing; HPḤH (in Phoenician) to left, YḤZQYH (in Phoenician) to right
MCP YHD 24, dies O9/R11; Meshorer 22; Hendin 6069; HGC 10, 450; Bromberg 319; Shoshana II 20048; cf. Sofaer 20; Spaer 22
Ex Bes Collection


One thing that I'd come to realize is there were many different "styles" of Aramaic at the time. This has made it a major pain to make out the inscriptions, so I started a simple database of letters taken from coins. It was very instructive in that it made things painfully clear to me how the Aramaic script varied from Egypt to Samaria to Mesopotamia. However, to my annoyance, I still had difficulties deciphering it. There was just no good match.

I made a "mini-breakthrough" from one of the few numismatic books I own. Just before I left on vacation, I ordered a copy of Meshorer & Qedar's Samarian Coinage, because I have a number of Samarian coins on the way. Although I've just started reading it, I quickly learned two things.


Not only do some of the coins bear Paleo-Hebrew letters, but the mixed nature of the inscriptions is evident. BDYH, one of the governors of Samaria, has his name written on one of his coins in Paleo-Hebrew script, but on others in Aramaic script.

The other thing is on pages 78-79 they have a nice table of Aramaic letters found on Samarian coins, which has removed the need for me to take my letter database much further.

However, the user of paleo-Hebrew intrigued me. I was aware of it from Hasmonean coins, but I had no idea it was used on some 4th century BCE coinage. I was even less aware that it was intermixed with imperial Aramaic at the time. So, upon looking up the paleo-aramaic alphabet, I found that my coin was a decent match. The letters appear to be either GSRK or GSDK. The letters R and D are very similar and I'm not as certain about the K, but the G and S are pretty clear.

Given that the inscription certainly resembles proto-Hebrew, I next wondered how widespread was it at the time. Obviously it was used in Judea and Samaria, but could it have been in use further? My search brought me to an extremely interesting paper.

HUTH, MARTIN, and SHRAGA QEDAR. “A Coin from North Arabia with an Aramaic Inscription and Related Coins of the Incense Road.” The Numismatic Chronicle (1966-), vol. 159, 1999, pp. 295–98.

What caught me was the top of plate 27.


Yup! That was my coin! So, at the very least I'd managed an attribution. Next, I was curious what Huth & Qedar had to say about it.


Apart from these North Arabian coins and the abundant coinages in imitation of Athenian types from Palestine and South Arabia there are two more groups of Athenian imitations from the Arabian peninsula that can be placed in a chronological and economic context with the other coinages of the incense road. We know of four silver 'drachms' which share a certain similarity in style with the coin we described at the beginning of this paper. The first known piece of this group was illustrated by de Morgan (who had acquired it in Mascat) and subsequently by BMC Arabia (PL 27, 7). It, too, shows a 'crest' of annulets on Athena's head, and the way in which the owl
is depicted with only a few dots and strokes is very similar. But this and the other three coins of this group are distinctly different in that the owl is rendered in incuse and bordered by inscriptions in an undeciphered script which is neither Aramaic nor South Arabian (PI. 27, 8-9). The technique of rendering an image partly in incuse was employed during the early period of the coinage of the Phoenician city-states during the fifth century BC. In view of the provenance of de Morgan's specimen and the similarities with the coin reportedly found in southern Jordan, we attribute this group of Athenian imitations very tentatively to northern Arabia. 

For now, I will label the coin as "North Arabia", but I'm still not entirely sure. The designs are similar, but I'm not sure the script is the same. If mine is Paleo-Hebrew, or some close variant of it, perhaps it originated closer to Judea?

However, my fun wasn't over, because it didn't take me long to notice coin number 6 on the plate. I had to do a double take. This was definitely a coin I knew!


North Arabia
5th-2rd centuries BCE
15mm 4.0g
Helmeted head of Athena left / Owl standing left, head facing; olive spray to right.
Huth Qedar 1999 27-6


I've been trying to attribute this coin for ages and posted a summary last year where I thought it may have come from Axum. Per the article, their example came from either southern Jordan, northern Saudi Arabia, or the Sinai. They're uncertain about the time frame, but feel "they are likely to have been minted until as late as the second century BC." They mention a single coin that sold in Hess-Leu 1968 lot 336 and was then resold in Lanz 26, lot 300. 

I'll continue to research both coins. My drachm I now fully believe it's from North Arabia, while the tetartamorion (or quarter-gerah?) I'm still unsure about, though investigating it has been quite fun.


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  • Benefactor

Very interesting coins and good sleuthing!  

There are indeed many script styles of Aramaic and others, such as Phoenician.  I must say that it all becomes rather intimidating based on my relative lack of knowledge.  

I share your fascination of these imitations, Athenian and others, a prime focus of my collecting efforts for several years now. 

Also, that North Arabia drachm is a wonderful example!  These regional attributions are about the best we can make right now.  Possibly new coins might appear that shed more light on these enigmatic imitations.

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Posted · Supporter

An intriguing coin, and some great detective work! It's always satisfying to make an unexpected breakthrough in a tough attribution challenge, especially with such an enigmatic series of coins.

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5 hours ago, robinjojo said:

Also, that North Arabia drachm is a wonderful example!  These regional attributions are about the best we can make right now.  Possibly new coins might appear that shed more light on these enigmatic imitations.

The funny thing is I was pissed at myself when I bought it. The auction house listed it as Edom, which caught my attention because that city was very high on my list. I knew immediately it wasn't from Edom, but it caught my fancy so I bid on and won it anyways. At the time I was upset that I didn't focus and stick to target coins.

Since then, I've acquired an actual Edom example, but I've spent a lot more time with this coin. Easily one of my best numismatics purchases based on hours spent researching.

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