Researchers beat looters to rare coin from Judean Desert

The "Eleazar the Priest" coin as discovered in the desert.(Photo: Oriya Amichay/Israel Antiquities Authority)

A team of researchers surveying the Judean Desert as part of a mission to thwart the pillaging of ancient treasures by antiquity looters have unearthed a number of rare coins dating back to the Bar Kokhba Revolt, a large-scale armed rebellion against the Roman Empire by the Jews of Judea which began in 132 CE.

The coins were discovered in the Mazuq Ha-he'teqim Nature Reserve by a team of archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority Prevention of Archaeological Theft Unit, conducting the Judean Desert Cave Survey, working in cooperation with the Ministry of Heritage and the Archaeological Office for the Military Administration of Judea and Samaria.

In addition to three coins bearing the name 'Simeon', the trove included a particularly significant find — a rare coin inscribed on one side with a bunch of grapes surrounded by the text 'Year One of the Redemption of Israel', and bearing the name of 'Eleazar the Priest' on the other.

The researchers believe it may refer to Rabbi Eleazar Hamod'ai, a pupil of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai who played a significant religious role at the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Eleazar is referenced in Talmud and lived in the town of Beitar—the location where the revolt was headquartered.

Teams of archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority Prevention of Archaeological Theft Unit have been surveying the Judean Desert since 2017 in a race to uncover priceless antiquities before looters can pillage them.

Their previous discoveries include scroll fragments of the Twelve Minor Prophets and Roman iron swords—one still in its sheath. The team also uncovered the earliest complete basket ever found.

The public has been invited to take part in the current excavation season, joining the team at their camp in the desert for ten days. As well as attending lectures and other activities, volunteers will get the opportunity to assist researchers at the dig and play their part in this important work preserving and protecting Biblical history.

"We invite the public to join us in the seventh excavation season in the desert, to help save the Judean Desert archaeological finds, endangered by antiquities theft," says Eli Escusido, Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

"The Judean Desert excavations do not cease to amaze us, and we hope that in this season we will also be able to report important finds."