Jewish Coins - Council for Study of the Shroud of Turin

Go to content

Main menu:

Image 1: Pontius Pilate Lituus lepton coin, self-dated to A.D. 29.
Image 2: Shroud of Turin image on right eye, enlarged.
Image 1: Lituus lepton coin, close-up, A.D. 29.
Image 2: Shroud of Turin image on right eye, further enlarged.
Image produced on linen by corona discharge from lepton, by Sheuermann.
Two button-like objects, one over each eye, are visible on the Shroud; it was suggested they might be coins which had been used to keep the eyes of the dead closed, a practice common to many peoples for many centuries. British historian Ian Wilson mentioned several coins from the time of Pontius Pilate which would correspond to the size of the “buttons,” about fifteen millimeters or five-eighths of an inch in diameter.

The coin on the right eye has as its main motif a “shepherd’s crook,” actually an astrologer’s staff or lituus. On very minimal evidence (three very short curving lines that seem to spread away from each other from a common source) suggests that the one over the left eye is also a Pontius Pilate lepton, which was struck only during a six-month period in A.D. 29 in honor of Julia the mother of Tiberius Caesar.

On the right Shroud eye image, the letters you can see are UCAI, while if they came from a Pontius Pilate lepton, they should have been UKAI. Although lepta of Pontius Pilate were Jewish coins struck in a Roman province, the inscriptions of the Emperor’s name were in Greek, TIBERIOUS KAISAROS (Of Tiberius Caesar). When our research started, despite these coins being crudely struck with frequent misspellings, no coins had ever been found with the Emperor’s name misspelled in such a way.

However on this coin, Tiberius Caesar is spelled “TIOUCAI”. The astrologer’s staff and letters “UCAI” are very clear. The “C” on the coin is a misspelling that has now been found on a few lepton coins. Preliminary forensic analysis revealed seventy-four points of congruence on the coin over the right eye and seventy-three over the left eye.

For the right eye, there is a clipped edge on the one side of the lepton coin that matches a clipped edge on the Shroud image. The letters, which are about one and on-half millimeters high, match remarkably: about half of the letter U, which actually is the Greek letter upsilon and shows the tail looking like a Y; all of the letter C; two-thirds of the letter A; the lower half of the letter I; as well as parts of other letters. On the coin there is a circular die defect at the base of the letter A; the same die defect can be clearly seen on the Shroud. The coin is badly worn but is an exact die-mate of the one on the Shroud.

Then came another exciting development. Until this time, it had been though that the lituus lepta were struck only in the years A.D. 30-32. Dating was according to the regnal year of the Emperor rather than by the calendar year. Greek letters were used to represent numbers. Looking at the reverse side of the lepton coin, we compared the coin’s reverse features with History of Jewish Coinage, and of Money in the Old and New Testament. Three tiny letters can be seen: L (signifies that the letters following have numerical value), I (number value of ten), and a letter called Stigma that looks something like a rounded number five that was at time becoming obsolete (number value of six). Thus the coin was dated to the sixteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, which is A.D. 29.

By examining the area over the right eye at high magnification, a clue can be seen to the image formation. Image had come off the high points and rough spots of the coin, not the smooth areas. This is characteristic of a high-energy phenomenon known as electrostatic radiation and corona discharge. In a corona discharge, ionizing electrical energy first spreads over the surface of any object in the electrical field, whatever it may be—flesh, hair, cloth, leather, metal, etc. The sparks or ions then tend to be discharged as streamers which may be two inches or more in length. And they are discharged from irregular or elevated areas rather than from smooth surfaces. Experiments have been completed to show corona discharge from a coin on linen. The corona discharge off coins and medals yield images on cloth that are remarkably similar to those on the Shroud.

Some find it difficult to accept findings of coins over the eyes because the letters and the lituus are not as clear in later photographs as compared to 1931 large scale photographs taken by Enrie. We compared the photographic images thread by thread. We were able to show that the letters and lituus are indeed present in the recent photographs, but that certain threads had been pulled or rotated slightly, thus making the letters less complete. A check of photographs of the Shroud taken each time it was brought out during the intervening years revealed that during a brief display in 1973 it was mounted in such a way that there was a marked upward distortion of the Shroud face image through the right eye.

Some do not accept the coins-over-the-eyes findings because they do not think that Jews would have placed coins over the eyes of the dead. Certainly, the placing of coins with the dead would not have been done for religious reasons, as it was with the Greeks, who placed a coin in the mouth as payment to the ferryman Charon for passage over the River Styx. Actually, there is little archaeological evidence regarding the use of coins as part of Jewish burial practices, since almost all burials from the first century B.C. to the third century A.D. that have been excavated are secondary burials. That is, after the body had lain in the tomb for about a year so that only the bones remained, the bones were gathered and placed in a small stone box called an ossuary or in a common receptacle.

Coins have been found scattered on the floors of Jewish tombs of this time period. Very occasionally, a coin or two has been found inside an intact skull. To find out whether coins might fall into the skull as the body decays we experimented by placing lepta coins in the eye sockets of a number of skulls in the anatomy laboratory. About half the time, the coins would drop through the openings in the back of the eye sockets on both sides into the skull. Occasionally, a coin would fit through one side only; and sometimes the openings on both sides were too small to admit the coins at all. Some have suggested that the coins found inside the skull might have gotten there by being originally placed in the mouth. They overlook the fact that coins placed in the mouth would eventually wind up on the vertebrae of the neck region. Hence, if coins are to fall into the skull, it is necessary that they be placed over the eyes and not in the mouth.

We do not know how frequently Jews may have placed coins over the eyes, but we do know that it was customary among them to close the eyes of the dead. If a person dies with eyes open and the eyelids are then closed, they often open again, and it may be necessary to place small objects on the eyelids to keep them closed. And we know that coins have been the customary choice for this purpose among many peoples from ancient times to the present.

The coins over the eyes then, provide evidence about the dating of the Shroud image. While they do not date the Shroud images precisely, they do indicate the general time frame, since the further away from A.D. 29 the less likely it would be that someone reaching in his or her purse or pocket in an unplanned situation would find two coins struck in that year. The coin images also give important evidence about location and about how the images were formed (at least in part by corona discharge) and about the burst of energy required.

Back to content | Back to main menu