Researchers from the Faculty of Archaeology at the University of Warsaw have examined thousands of coins discovered in the ancient city of Marea, located 45 kilometers southwest of Alexandria. Their findings are reshaping the established understanding in literature about monetary circulation in Egypt at the end of antiquity.

Marea, known as Filoksenite during the Byzantine period, was founded on the southern shore of Lake Mareotis in the late 5th century. Under the rule of Emperor Justinian, it gained impressive architecture and infrastructure, becoming a significant resting place for pilgrims heading to the tomb of Saint Menas, one of Christianity’s well-known martyrs, located in the Egyptian desert.

The Center for Mediterranean Archaeology Kazimierz Michałowski (CAŚ) at the University of Warsaw has been conducting archaeological excavations in Marea (Filoksenite) since 2000.

Currently, under the direction of Professor Tomasz Derda, excavations are underway in the extensive bath complex. Excavations also continue in the large basilica built during Justinian’s reign.

As part of a multi-year research project funded by the National Science Centre of Poland, a team of numismatists from the Faculty of Archaeology at the University of Warsaw, led by Dr. Piotr Jaworski, examined nearly 8,500 Byzantine and Umayyad coins.

Among them, various treasures were discovered, including remnants of bags (wallets) and thousands of coins lost by the city’s inhabitants or pilgrims visiting the city before the final stage of the pilgrimage route leading to Abu Mena.

The importance of our research in Marea cannot be overstated, as the material culture of this rich Byzantine city provides us with a clear insight into the most significant city in the region, Alexandria. The possibilities for archaeological research there, due to the rampant development of the city in the 19th and 20th centuries, are extremely limited, and the state of development of monetary findings is very insufficient, notes Dr. Piotr Jaworski.

The results of numismatic research in Marea (Filoksenite) are surprising, presenting a different image of monetary circulation in Egypt at the end of antiquity than what is known in the literature. Most existing publications focus on Byzantine coinage in Alexandria.

An important exception and fundamental reference material for Polish numismatists is the corpus of findings from the nearby Abu Mena, compiled by Hans-Christoph Noeske. Before the Umayyad caliphs took power, Egypt seemed to be part of an economic zone that extended far beyond the state’s borders, covering vast areas of the eastern Mediterranean. The closest similarity to the monetary circulation model can be found in present-day Israel.

The achievement of these significant findings was mainly possible by focusing on the most numerous group (approximately 75% of the total number of findings), albeit seemingly less attractive, of coins: the so-called “minimi,” with only a few millimeters in diameter.

The majority of “minimi” were stored in bags, numerous remnants of which were discovered at the site. These coins have been largely marginalized in scientific publications until now. However, numismatists from the University of Warsaw decided to examine each specimen, even the smallest and poorly preserved ones.

Thanks to this, they discovered that in the group of “minimi” found in Marea (Filoksenite), coins minted in Carthage by the Vandal kings predominated and, subsequently, after the recovery of Africa from the barbarians, by Justinian.

The researchers also identified small Ostrogothic coins, which, like the Vandals, began to circulate widely in the eastern part of the Mediterranean basin after Justinian eliminated the Ostrogothic kingdom.

Among the coins found in Marea (Filoksenite), there is a significant percentage of local Egyptian imitations, including coins inspired by the coinage of the Kingdom of Aksum and imitations of Byzantine coins minted in Alexandria.

A surprisingly large number of them are called “blanki,” that is, empty coin discs made of copper or lead that functioned as spare coins.


Uniwersytet Warszawski (Warsaw University)

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