Treasures and Hoards

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Treasures and Hoards


Buried Treasure. Excavations by archaeologists throughout the Near East have uncovered many caches of precious metals and stones, either in raw or manufactured form, that were deliberately hidden away in antiquity for safekeeping, but never retrieved by their owners. The contents of some of these “hoards” or “treasures” include heirlooms, objects demonstrably sometimes centuries older than suggested by the contexts in which they were found. In several cases the materials, methods of manufacture, and styles of decoration of the objects in the hoards indicate that these objects were imports from distant lands. Today, such collections are important evidence for reconstructing patterns of ancient long-distance transportation and trade.

Hoards of Silver. Throughout most of Mesopotamian history, silver was the primary means of exchange and payment. The silver might be in the form of rings, wires, ingots, or pieces cut from ingots; all these various objects and fragments were weighed out to determine payment. Standardized coinage, although introduced into Mesopotamia in the later sixth century b.c.e. during the Achaemenid period, did not come into wide circulation until the Seleucid period (312-129 b.c.e.), during which silver coins, called staters, were still weighed when they were used for purchases. Hoards of scrap silver, perhaps representing an individual’s personal wealth or a jeweler’s stock of raw materials, were buried for safekeeping and not recovered until modern times. Such hoards are known from sites in northern and southern Mesopotamia that

date to the Early Dynastic and Akkadian periods during the latter half of the third millennium b.c.e.—as well as an Old Babylonian period site at Larsa (first half of the second millennium b.c.e.), a Neo-Assyrian period site at Nippur (first half of the first millennium b.c.e.), and a hoard of bracelets, rings, and earrings in a pot within the ruins of a Kassite period (second half of the second millennium b.c.e.) building on the island of Bahrain.

Treasure of Ur. From time to time, archaeologists have recovered ancient collections of other precious objects of diverse origins that seem to have been intentionally hidden away. A container unearthed beneath the floor of a courtyard at Mari on the middle Euphrates was first taken to be a funerary jar. Inspection revealed a pendant and beads of lapis lazuli, beads of carnelian and gold, seals made of shell, and figurines of copper alloy and ivory. The distinctive blue stone lapis lazuli had been mined in eastern Afghanistan while the bright orange carnelian likely originated in western India. Among the objects was a lapis-lazuli bead inscribed with the name of Mesanepada, founder of the First Dynasty of Ur (circa 2600 b.c.e.). This bead—together with other lapis-lazuli and carnelian beads, similar to those found in the Royal Graves at Ur—led an early investigator to suggest that the hoard was a gift from the king of Ur to his counterpart at Mari. But more-recent studies have suggested that at least some of the objects in the collection originated at sites in northern Mesopotamia, the Diayala River valley, and the middle Euphrates valley, including Mari itself. It remains an open question how the hoard came to be accumulated and buried as it was.

Tôd Treasure. Four bronze caskets, inscribed with the name of the Twelfth Dynasty Egyptian king Amenenhat II (circa 1901 - circa 1867 b.c.e.), were found within the temple of Montu at Tód, in Upper Egypt. They contained ingots of gold and silver, metal chains, and silver vessels, many crushed and folded, some showing Cretan parallels. There were also lapis-lazuli cylinder and stamp seals and amulets with stylistic connections to the Levant, north Syria, southern Mesopotamia, Iran, and possibly Bactria in Central Asia. The motifs and styles in which they were represented on the seals and beads indicate dates from as early as circa 2900 b.c.e. to as late as 1800 b.c.e. Although no one knows precisely how such a diverse body of material came to be assembled in Egypt, the general consensus of opinion holds that it represents a jeweler’s stock buried for safekeeping and never recovered.

Vase à la Cachette. Two large painted clay jars excavated at Susa in southwestern Iran contained vessels of carved alabaster; copper and bronze vessels, tools, and weapons; gold, silver, and copper rings; gold beads; a tiny lapis-lazuli bead in the shape of a frog; and cylinder seals. The contents of the jars, which had been deposited during the two and a half centuries following circa 2400 b.c.e., were made over a five-hundred-year span. Their varied styles suggest connections between Susa and Mesopotamia to its west, as well as eastern Iran, the Persian Gulf, and the Indus Valley. The vase à la cachette appears to have belonged to a merchant, who buried it for safekeeping and never retrieved it.

Oriental Seals in Thebes, Greece. In a room belonging to a Mycenaean Greek building destroyed circa 1220 b.c.e., excavators discovered a substantial hoard of lapis-lazuli cylinder seals and beads together with a large number of agate beads. Nearby was found a second hoard of gold beads, lapis-lazuli objects, and pendants made of a dark blue paste imitating lapis lazuli. Thirty-three of the seals were originally manufactured in Mesopotamia and included examples of Akkadian (circa 2340 - circa 2200 b.c.e.), Old Babylonian (circa 1800 - circa 1600 b.c.e.), and Kassite, Mitannian, and Middle Assyrian (circa 1450 -circa 1250 b.c.e.) styles; of these, four were recarved in a Cypriot style. There were also eight cylinder seals in local Cypriot styles and a single Hittite-style cylinder seal (circa 1350 - circa 1250 b.c.e.). Among these seals one, according to its inscription, belonged to Hammi-Darab, king of Yaraguttim, a land perhaps in Syria, while another seal belonged to a high-ranking official in the court of the Kassite Babylonian king Burna-Buriash II (circa 1359 - circa 1333 b.c.e.). It has been suggested that the Kassite seals might originally have been seized as part of the booty taken by the Middle Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I (circa 1243 - circa 1207 b.c.e.) from the temple of Marduk in Babylon. In an effort to counter hostile actions against Assyria by the Hittites in Anatolia and Syria, Tukulti-Ninurta may have attempted to establish relations with the Mycenaeans in Greece, who were also enemies of the Hittites.

Ur Coffin Hoard. Excavation of a plundered Persian-period grave (fifth to fourth centuries b.c.e.) at Ur revealed a clay coffin containing almost two hundred lumps of clay bearing impressions; most were from cylinder and stamp seals, but others were impressions of seal impressions on cuneiform tablets and of coins. The seal impressions included those of a seventh century b.c.e. Neo-Assyrian cylinder seal, eighth-fifth century b.c.e. Neo-Babylonian cylinder seals, fifth century b.c.e. Achaemenid cylinder and stamp seals, and fifth century Greek engraved gems and finger rings. Among the coin impressions was one of an Athenian tetradrachm, minted about 465-460 b.c.e., and those of coins from Aegae in Macedon (circa 485 b.c.e.) and Miletus (circa 500 - circa 430 b.c.e.). The presence of these impressions of Greek seals and coins in southern Mesopotamia demonstrates that Hellenism was already beginning to have an impact on the East well before the conquest of Alexander III of Macedon (331 b.c.e.). A recent opinion holds that the hoard, itself of no intrinsic value, had been accumulated by a seal engraver and represented designs he had chosen for study and perhaps inspiration, together with impressions of what might have been his own creations.


Agnès Benoit, “Vase à la cachette” and “Cylinder seal with a contest scene, from the vase à la cachette,” in Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, edited by Joan Aruz with Ronald Wallenfels (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003), pp. 302-306.

Nadia Cholidis, “The Treasure of Ur from Mari,” in Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, pp. 139-147.

Dominique Collon, “A Hoard of Sealings from Ur,” Archives et Sceaux du monde hellenistique: Archivi e Sigilli nel Mondo Ellenistico, Torino, Villa Gualino 13-16 Gennaio 1993, edited by Marie-Francoise Boussac and Antonio Invenizzi, Bulletin de Correspondence Hellénique, supplement 29 (1996): 65-84.

P. R. S. Moorey, Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1999).

Edith Porada, “The Cylinder Seals Found at Thebes in Boeotia,” Archiv für Orientforschung, 28 (1981): 1-78.

Porada, “Remarks on the Tód Treasure in Egypt,” in Societies and Languages of the Ancient Near East: Studies in Honor of I. M. Diakonoff, edited by M. Dandamaev (Warminster, U.K.: Aris & Phillips, 1982), pp. 285-303.

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Treasures and Hoards

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