It looked like any other 2,000-year-old coin on the day they dug it up.
Covered in two millennia's worth of rock and soil. Shrouded in mystery from a time so long ago that the Romans hadn't yet fully built their empire.
In other words, really, really dirty. So dirty that the person — most likely a college student — digging last summer at the Israeli site of a longtime University of Nebraska at Omaha archaeological dig couldn't see the famous faces on the coin. So dirty that the digger never realized she was, in fact, holding a tiny, priceless nugget of ancient civilization in the palm of her hand.
“We weren't amazed at all until we cleaned the coin and looked at it,” says Rami Arav, the University of Nebraska at Omaha professor who has led the Bethsaida Excavations Project in Israel for the past 27 years. “I looked at the face and then I knew — I was looking at a face from the history books.”
The face staring back at him: Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt, the mother of two Roman leaders' children and one of the most powerful women in the history of the world.
He flipped it over, and there was Marc Antony, the Roman politician who happened to be one of Rome's two most important rulers at the time the coin was minted.
The Lovers' Coin, as its known, turns out to be as rare as Cleopatra herself.
Three were known to exist in the world, according to Dr. Greg Jenks, an Australian theologian and archaeologist who has worked at Bethsaida.
Now, thanks to an unknown student digging at the UNO site, there are four.
“Something like this, we have never seen it before,” Arav says. “And we've been at this a long time.”
The discovery of the Lovers' Coin marks one of the biggest finds in the history of the Bethsaida project.
The project itself is historic: In 1987, a team led by Arav solved an archaeological mystery by discovering the lost city of ancient Bethsaida, a place Jesus may have visited.
Bethsaida, mentioned frequently in the New Testament, is also believed to be the hometown of several of Jesus' disciples.
Arav has directed a dig at the site each summer since 1987. This May, 120 students from all over the world worked in two-week shifts on the 20-acre dig.
The project's 27 years have featured one stunning discovery: Bethsaida is built on the ruins of an even more ancient city, believed to be the capital of Geshur, a kingdom mentioned in the Old Testament and the hometown of one of King David's wives.
Archaeologists discovered the older city's main gate and think it was erected several centuries — maybe 1,000 years — before Jesus is said to have visited the area.
Bethsaida, where thousands of ordinary shards of pottery and plates and coins are discovered every year, has also revealed its share of smaller treasures.
In 2010, a West Virginia University student unearthed a gold coin that features the image of Antoninus Pius, the 15th Roman emperor who took the throne in the year 138 A.D.
That coin, which is 98 percent gold, is believed to be one of only three of its kind in existence. It is now housed in an Israeli museum.
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The Lovers' Coin, which was authenticated by the Israel Antiquities Authority, now takes its place alongside those finds as one of the most exciting discoveries during the project's history. Experts say the coin was minted in Ptolemais, an ancient town 50 miles from Bethsaida, and put into circulation around 35 B.C., the year Marc Antony decided to move himself and a power center of the Roman Empire to Egypt.
As you may have heard, that didn't work out so well. Octavian, Antony's partner-turned-enemy, defeated Antony's and Cleopatra's troops in and around Greece. Then he invaded Egypt.
Antony killed himself with his sword. Legend has it that Cleopatra then committed suicide by allowing an asp — also known as a cobra — to bite her, though modern research suggests that she did the deed by poisoning herself.
The famous couple died, but the coin featuring their faces lived on, buried in the rubble of an ancient house for centuries until a college student dug it up.
“No other known coin is 100 percent the same as this example,” writes Jenks, who is currently working in Israel.
Neither Jenks nor Arav would venture a guess as to the coin's value, but let me give you a hint: a whole lot.
Not that it matters. The coin, now in possession of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, will most likely make its home at one of the country's prestigious museums.
Arav thinks the students who work at Bethsaida every summer gain something far more valuable than even a golden coin. Various groups of students have been at it for almost three decades. Despite that, only three percent of the 20-acre site is explored.
“Young people sometimes think the world was born with them,” Arav says. “When you find something that's 2,000 or 3,000 years old, you find that you are part of a long chain of history. You are a part of the development of something. And that — that is important.”