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Treasure hoard of sixth-century coins discovered in Russia

Russian archaeologists have discovered a cache of coins dating back to the sixth century, at Phanagoria along the Black Sea. The 80 coins, known as copper staters, were found in a layer of rubble from a fire that destroyed much of that city.

“Treasures are not often found,” explains Vladimir Kuznetsov, head of the Phanagoria archaeological expedition of the Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “As a rule, they are evidence of catastrophic events in people’s lives, as a result of which the one who hid money or valuable items was unable to return and use their savings. A rare find made by archaeologists in July this year is associated with a dramatic and mysterious page in the history of medieval Phanagoria – the capital of one of the earliest Christian dioceses in Russia.”

This was the third season of the Phanagoria expedition of the Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The archaeologists are examining when the city was destroyed in a fire, which may have taken place as the result of an attack by Huns or Turks. Residential buildings, wineries, public buildings perished in the fire, and a large amount of ash, soot, fragments of burnt wooden floors of buildings, broken dishes and the remains of burnt grain in amphoras speak of a significant scale of the disaster. Finds associated with this event include a broken marble countertop and a baptismal font, which bear witness to the destruction of an early Christian basilica nearby.

In previous years, a gold coin of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (527 – 565) was found in the layer of fire. It made it possible to establish the date of the catastrophe: the second or third decades of the 6th century. Not far from this find, in a layer of conflagration, the treasure of copper coins of the 2021 season was found.

Copper staters found in 2021. Photo courtesy the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Archaeology

“The very context of his find speaks of the extraordinary circumstances under which he was hidden, of the sudden attack of enemies,” said said Vladimir Kuznetsov. “In a hurry, a resident of Phanagoria hid a bundle with 80 coins in the throat of an old broken amphora that had turned up under his arm and covered the hole with earth. Similar events took place elsewhere. For example, in the neighboring town of Kepy, the owner of one of the houses managed to hide the treasure in the hearth, but he himself was killed by an arrow near it. And at the settlement “Volna1” the treasure of gold was wrapped in a rag and thrown into a utility pit, its owner managed to put part of the coins under a stone, and spilled the other on the floor of the house. In the city of Kitey, on the opposite side of the Kerch Strait, the stater treasure was hidden in a home stove.”

Phanagoria was part of the Bosporan Kingdom, a Greco-Scythian state located in eastern Crimea and the Taman Peninsula in the Black Sea region. The kingdom lasted for about 800 years before declining at the end of the fourth century AD.

As the researchers explained, according to the composition of the treasure, one can determine what money was in use in the internal market of the Bosporus in the 6th century. These are copper staters of the Bosporan kings of the late III – first half of the fourth century. The last issue of the Bosporan coin was carried out in 341; later, no money was minted in the Bosporan. However, a huge mass of staters made of cheap copper-lead alloy continued to circulate in the Bosporus for several centuries. The role of “expensive” money was played by Byzantine gold: that is why the treasure of copper coins and the solidus of Justinian were found almost nearby.

Expansion of the Bosporan Kingdom from the 5th century BC to the 1st century AD. Wikimedia Commons

Researchers believe that the unique finds are associated with turbulent historical events in the Bosporus in the sixth century when the Bosporus cities voluntarily became part of the Byzantine Empire. The transition of the Bosporus from the rule of the nomadic Huns to the rule of Byzantium took place during the reign of Emperor Justin I in 518-527. Perhaps the first mention of the episcopal see in Phanagoria in 519 is connected with this event: the Phanagorian bishop John put his signature on the documents of the Patriarchal Synod in Constantinople, to which the Phanagorian diocese was directly subordinate.

The Byzantine writer Procopius of Caesarea noted that Kepa and Phanagoria were “taken and destroyed to the ground by the barbarians who lived in neighboring lands.” It is customary to associate these events with one of the two fires of the 6th century, traces of which archaeologists have identified in Phanagoria.

Who and when destroyed Phanagoria in the 6th century? Some researchers associate the events described by Procopius of Caesarea with the nomadic Huns. They defeated the Byzantine garrison in the city and killed the military leader (tribune). At the turn of the 520s and 530s, Emperor Justinian I dispatched a mercenary army, reinforced by the Goths. The city of Bosporus (Kerch) was returned to the rule of Byzantium. Perhaps at the same time, Kep and Phanagoria returned under the rule of Byzantium.

According to another version, the destruction of the cities of Kepa and Phanagoria, as reported by Procopius of Caesarea, took place already in the middle of the 6th century, when the Avars who fled under the pressure of the Turks approached the Bosporan Kingdom: a message about this event is found in Evagrius Scholastica’s “Church History”. The Turks themselves appeared in the region in the 570s.

In Phanagoria, as in other nearby cities, archaeologists have discovered two layers of 6th century fires. The first, early layer of the conflagration, in which shells from throwing machines were found, testifies that in the first half of the 6th century Phanagoria was devastated and destroyed. These events are associated with the revolt against Byzantium of its vassal – the Hunnic leader Gord (Grod) in 528 or 534. The second layer of the fire in Phanagoria dates back to the end of the 6th century and is associated with the events of 576 – the campaign of the Turks against the Bosporan Kingdom, when most of the fortresses and small towns of the Kerch and Taman peninsulas were damaged.

“The gold coin of Justinian I found two years ago in Phanagoria serves as proof that the new treasure is associated with the second, late fire of the 6th century. But who exactly – the Avars or the Turks – destroyed the capital of the Phanagorian diocese remains unknown so far. The new treasure from Phanagoria is an invaluable evidence of historical events and the economy of the early Middle Ages” added Kuznetsov.