Thursday, May 31, 2012


Martin Huth, Peter G. van Alfen (edd.), Coinage of the Caravan Kingdoms: Studies in the Monetization of Ancient Arabia. Numismatic studies, 25. New York: American Numismatic Society, 2010. Pp. vi, 602; 42 p. of plates, CD-ROM. ISBN 9780897223126. $250.00.

Martin Huth, Coinage of the Caravan Kingdoms: Ancient Arabian Coins from the Collection of Martin Huth. Ancient coins in North American collections, 10. New York: American Numismatic Society, 2010. Pp. xxiii, 162. ISBN 9780897223188. $150.00.

Reviewed by Peter Edwell, Macquarie University (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents for the first volume is listed below.]

These volumes make a very important and long-awaited contribution to our understanding of the numismatics, economy, culture and history of pre-Islamic Arabia. The first volume is a collection of 17 contributions from a range of scholars which explore in considerable detail the emergence and development of coinage in the kingdoms of ancient Arabia, especially in south Arabia and the Persian Gulf, but also in north-western Arabia. The coinage of the Nabataeans receives some updated treatment but the already detailed analyses of Nabataean coinage by Meshorer and Schmitt-Korte did not require repetition here.1 The assembled contributions in the first volume are written by some of the most reputable scholars in ancient numismatics and ancient Arabia and the driving force behind the project, Martin Huth, makes a number of important contributions to it. The second volume is designed to accompany the first volume and is a catalogue of the Arabian coins from Martin Huth's own collection. It is designed not only to complement the first volume but also to act independently as a reference volume for students, scholars and collectors of ancient Arabian coins.

The first volume contains an Introduction and four parts:Part One – Arabian Coinage: Background and Common Aspects; Part Two – The Levantine Coast and Northern Arabia; Part Three – Western and Southern Arabia; Part Four – Eastern Arabia. Martin Huth's introductory chapter sets out clearly developments in research on ancient Arabian numismatics since the nineteenth century. The introduction also provides a brief overview of the coinage in the main regions of Arabia, usually identified as the western (Red Sea) coast, south Arabia, the Gulf Region and Nabataea. From the introduction it is clear that the origins of coinage and monetization in ancient Arabia will be an important focus throughout the volume. The phenomenon of Athenian owl tetradrachm imitations in silver marking the commencement of coinage in the fourth century BCE in the ancient south Arabian kingdoms of Saba, Qataban, Hadramawt and the Minaean Federation is highlighted in the introduction and it is a phenomenon addressed in many of the contributory chapters to the volume. Similarly, the emergence of silver coinage in the gulf kingdoms and principalities in imitation of the tetradrachms of Alexander and early Seleucid rulers is highlighted for its significance.

Chapter 2 by D.T. Potts provides an excellent overview of the political, social and economic structures of the regions of the Arabian peninsula namely south-eastern Arabia, north-eastern Arabia, south Arabia, north-western Arabia and central Arabia from the 7th century BCE – 7th century CE. This analysis provides a useful context for the analysis of the coinage in the following chapters.

Chapter 3, also by Potts, investigates the circulation of foreign coins in ancient Arabia and evidence for Arabian coins found outside of the peninsula and gulf. Overall, there are few examples in either case but this is a useful chapter for its overall purpose as a catalogue. It also provides further evidence for how geographically widespread the Athenian tetradrachm of the fifth century BCE was and how it came to function as an international currency.

Chapter 4 by Martin focusses on two hoards probably from al-Jawf which contain coins originating in the Persian Gulf, Asia Minor and the Levant. A small hoard of 20 coins found in 2001 complements a much larger hoard of 247 coins found in 2002. Of particular interest here are 21 examples which appear to have originated in the Persian Gulf as Alexander and successor imitations which have been folded and restamped as Athena owl imitations in the third/second century BCE. This phenomenon suggests there was a distinctive preference in south Arabia for the Athena owl-types and it may be indicative of a political and cultural distinction between south Arabia and the Gulf as well. The presence in these hoards of genuine Athenian tetradrachms and Egyptian/Levantine imitations of them also provides an insight into the circulation of foreign coinage alongside local coinage in south Arabia from the fourth/third centuries BCE to the likely time of deposition of the hoard ca. 100 BCE.

Chapter 5, also by Martin Huth, investigates in some detail the predominant iconography of Athenian tetradrachm owls on north-western and south Arabian coinage in contrast with the Alexander imitations in the coinage of the Persian Gulf. This is contrasted also with Hellenistic influences on royal portraits on the Nabataean coinage. Huth concludes that local religious and imperial imagery on the coins of ancient Arabia is mostly confined to symbols and letters naming these kings and gods rather than in portraiture.

The final chapter of Part One deals with the very few examples of locally minted gold coinage in ancient Arabia. While some large numbers of foreign gold coins have been found in hoards, mostly dating to the Byzantine period, silver appears to have been completely dominant and gold coin production was largely experimental and ad-hoc.

Part 2 comprises three chapters which focus on the Levantine Coast and Northern Arabia. In chapter 7, Wolfgang Fischer-Bossert undertakes a detailed and impressive analysis of the coinage created in the Philistian harbour ports ca. 450 BCE. While arguably not within the strict confines of Arabia, this is an important chapter because it investigates the impacts of the Philistian coinage on the caravan kingdoms further south with which the Philistians traded. The port cities of Gaza, Askalon and Ashdod are of most significance to this discussion and their coinage demonstrates both the dominance of Athenian and pseudo-Athenian coinage and the development of a new coinage of non-Athenian types. There are also those in between which Fischer-Bossert refers to as "bastard coins". A feature of Philistian coinage is the extraordinary range of mixed images on it while limited circulation and modest output suggests that the Philistian coins were only intended for domestic circulation. This chapter also provides a new analysis of the metrology of Philistian coinage and challenges the notion that there was a common standard of Philistian coinage. Two appendices also form part of the chapter – one is a catalogue of Athenian and non-Athenian styled Philistian coinage and the other is of hoards containing Philistian coins.

Chapters 8 and 9 both deal with Nabataean coinage. Chapter 8 by Oliver Hoover and Rachel Barkay analyses Nabataean coins discovered since Schmitt-Korte's 1990 publication on Nabataean coinage which was itself an update of Meshorer.1 Chapter 9 is another of Martin Huth's contributions and provides a revised analysis of Nabataean coinage which essentially sheds more light on the Nabataean Royal family and the history of Nabataean coinage.

Part III comprises five chapters on western and southern Arabia. Chapter 10 by Martin Huth covers in more detail than in some of the earlier chapters the extraordinary phenomenon of Athenian owl imitations from the early fourth century BCE onwards in Asia Minor, the Levant, Egypt and as far even as Bactria. The northern Arabian coinage clearly contained these imports and began making its own imitations, especially from the third century BCE to the first century BCE while in the south there is especially early evidence (ca. 380 BC) of careful copying of Athenian tetradrachms. According to Huth, it is possible that the Sabaeans first minted coins in Arabia due to their crucial geographical significance to the incense trade making its way up the Arabian Peninsula towards the Mediterranean. Chapter 11 by Peter van Alfen is a detailed die study of the earliest Qatabanian and Sabaean coinages which concludes that while each kingdom influenced the other in numismatic terms, it is clear that the coins were minted separately by each authority. Van Alfen identifies an explosion in Athenian imitations from 350-320 BCE after which there were peaks and troughs in production. The chapter includes long and detailed appendices which act as full catalogues of the early coinage of both kingdoms. Chapter 12 by Peter Stein is an especially good contribution to the volume and undertakes as detailed analysis as the coinage and epigraphy allows of monetary terminology in ancient South Arabia. The chapter's predominant focus is on the Sabaeo-Minaean numismatic terminology from the fourth – second century BCE as this is where the surviving evidence is most plentiful. Stein concludes that there is different and changing numismatic terminology over time throughout the kingdoms of ancient South Arabia and cautions that there are considerable gaps in our knowledge of the systems in Qataban and Hadramawt.

Huth and Stein combine in chapter 13 to demonstrate that the legends on Sabaean coins of the Old and New Style were written in minuscule script rather than monumental script. This suggestion renders the enigmatic cursive legend of these coins as the name of a Sabaean ruler of the fourth or early third century BCE. The final chapter in this section is a translation by Martin Huth from the French text of Christian Robin. This chapter contextualises in historical and religious terms six Himyarite rulers who appear on coins and inscriptions and who ruled in the first and second centuries CE. An appendix to this chapter is a provisional publication of the Himyarite inscription Zubayri-al-awd I.

The fourth and final section of the first volume contains three chapters which focus on eastern Arabia. Olivier Callot's Chapter 15 builds on earlier work by Robin, Mørkholm, Arnold-Biucchi and Potts in an attempt to solve some ongoing questions of detail and precision regarding the chronology of the Alexander imitations of eastern Arabia. 2 The chapter reviews the coinage of north-eastern Arabia and the Oman peninsula and proposes a chronology of the coins and changes in them from the third century BCE to the beginning of the third century CE.

The final two chapters of the first volume, chapters 16 and 17, deal with the Abiel coinage of eastern Arabia. The two chapters are designed to complement one another with chapter 17 by Peter van Alfen undertaking a detailed die study of these coins. The study of the Abiel coinage in these chapters is based heavily on a hoard of Alexander imitations containing the Abiel legend found at Qalat al-Bahrain in 1970. Chapter 16 by Michael MacDonald is an epigraphic study of the Aramaic legends on the Abiel coinage. It is an exceptionally detailed study of these legends and draws some challenging conclusions, the most important of which is that Abiel was a female name and represents a series of female rulers of Persian Gulf kingdoms some time after the third century BCE. This chapter also includes an appendix which is a full catalogue of all the known Abiel coinage. Both of these chapters make important and thorough contributions to scholarship on the coinage of eastern Arabia.

The second of the two volumes is a catalogue of 478 coins from ancient Arabia in the collection of Martin Huth. This is volume 10 in the series Ancient Coins in North American Collections. The coins of the various ancient Arabian kingdoms are presented under four geographical headings: The Levantine Coast and Gaza, North West Arabia, Eastern Arabia and South Arabia. There is no interpretative and analytical material in this volume due to the extensive analysis in the first volume. The plates are all in Black and White and are of good quality. The same can be said of the plates in the first volume.

The only real criticism to be made of these important volumes is that the interpretative and analytical material in volume one concentrates heavily on the period from the fourth to the second centuries BCE. This is partly defensible due to the nature of the current corpus of ancient Arabian coinage. The period in which the Caravan Kingdoms of Arabia, particularly in the south and west, were perhaps at their most active, however, was in the Roman imperial period. There were opportunities in the first volume to investigate some numismatic issues related to the notable increase in trade originating in the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf bound for the Roman world. An especially poignant example is the Sabaean coinage imitating Roman denarii illustrated in the second volume on page 101. There is no analysis of this admittedly small but clearly intriguing group. This criticism aside, there is no question that these volumes together represent a major contribution to scholarship on ancient Arabian numismatics and on numismatics generally. The long labour of both contributors and editors of these volumes is most fruitful and will stand for a considerable period of time.

Table of Contents

1. Martin Huth and Peter van Alfen, "Introduction"
2. D.T. Potts, "The Arabian Peninsula, 600 BCE to 600 CE"
3. D.T. Potts, "The Circulation of Foreign Coins within Arabia and of Arabian Coins outside the Peninsula in the Pre-Islamic Era"
4. Martin Huth, "Monetary Circulation in South West Arabia between the Fourth and Second Centuries BCE: The al-Jawf Hoards of 2001 and 2002"
5. Martin Huth, "Gods and Kings: On the Imagery of Arabian Coinage"
6. Martin Huth, "The Gold coins"
7. Wolfgang Fischer-Bossert, "Notes on the coinages of Philistian Cities"
8. Oliver Hoover and Rachel Barkay, "Important additions to the Corpus of Nabataean Coins since 1990"
9. Martin Huth, "Some Nabataean questions reconsidered"
10. Martin Huth, "Athenian imitations from Arabia"
11. Peter van Alfen, "Die studies of the earliest Qatabanian and Sabaean Coinages"
12. Peter Stein, "The monetary terminology of Ancient South Arabia in light of new epigraphic evidence"
13. Martin Huth and Peter Stein, "The so-called cursive legend reconsidered"
14. Christian Robin, "Himyarite kings on coinage"
15. Olivier Callot, "A new chronology for the Arabian Alexanders"
16. Michael MacDonald, "The 'Abiel' coins of Eastern Arabia: A study of the Aramaic legends"
17. Peter van Alfen, "A die study of the 'Abiel' coinage of Eastern Arabia"


1.   Y. Meshorer, Nabataean Coins (Jerusalem 1975); K. Schmitt-Korte, "Nabataean Coinage – Part II. New coin types and variants", Numismatic Chronicle 150 (1990): 105-131.
2.   C. Robin, "Monnaies provenant de l'Arabie du nord-est", Semitica 24 (1974): 83-127; O. Mørkholm, "Greek coins from Failaka", Kuml (1960): 199-207; O. Mørkholm, "A Hellenistic Coin Hoard from Bahrain", Kuml (1972): 183-202; O. Mørkholm, "New coin finds from Failaka", Kuml (1979): 219-236; C. Arnold-Biucchi, "Arabian Alexanders", in W. Metcalf (ed.) Mnemata: Papers in memory of Nancy M. Waggoner (New York 1991): 99-115; D.T. Potts, The pre-Islamic coinage of Eastern Arabia (Copenhagen 1991); D.T. Potts, Supplement to the pre-Islamic coinage of Eastern Arabia (Copenhagen 1994).

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