Tyre shekels prized for purity
Tyre shekels were struck in high purity silver, which made them ideal for functions both practical and sacred. Minor details aside, its design remained constant for nearly two centuries: the obverse showed the head of the god Melkart (equivalent to Heracles and Hercules) and the reverse showed an eagle with a palm branch over its shoulder, perched on the prow of a galley.
The design was modeled after the last tetradrachm/shekels struck at Tyre by the Seleucid King Demetrius II. That king’s portrait was replaced with an image of Melkart, and a few minor modifications were made to the eagle reverse.
The inscription on the reverse boasts of Tyre as being “holy” and “inviolable.” The fields around the eagle are decorated with an upright club (symbolic of Tyre) and at least one monogram, which presumably represented a civic official. Between the eagle’s legs are an alef or a bet, the first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet, which had an uncertain administrative function.
Also on the reverse is a date rendered in a formula of Greek letters that specified how many years had passed since Tyre had achieved its independence in 125 B.C. Thus, the Tyre shekels, half shekels, quarter shekels and eighth shekels can be dated precisely to a one-year period.
Most dates are represented
More than half of the possible years for half shekels are documented, whereas almost every date is known for shekels. At present just nine (or fewer) of the 191 probable dates for shekels are unknown, and it seems likely that over time those few gaps will be filled by newly recorded examples.
Indeed, one such shekel dated year 191 (equating A.D. 65 to 66 — possibly the last year of issue for Tyre shekels) was only just confirmed in February 2016, a coin submitted to the grading service I am affiliated with, Numismatic Guaranty Corp. Ancients.
Edward Cohen, an authority on Tyre shekels, confirmed that although year 191 already was known for the half shekel, it had not been reliably documented for a shekel until the emergence of this coin.
Certain mysteries about shekels of Tyre are under study by Cohen and other specialists. One of them is a slight dip in the purity of silver content that lasted three decades or more during the second half of the 1st Century B.C. Another is the addition of the apparent Greek letters Kappa, Rho and Alpha (KPA) in the field behind the eagle starting in year 108 (19 to 18 B.C.).
Beginning in Tyre year 113 (14 to 13 B.C.) the KPA monogram was shortened to KP, and it remained so for the duration of the shekel and half-shekel series.
The letters KP often are thought to represent the first two letters of the Greek word KPATO∑ (“kratos”), meaning “state.” Some also believe they indicate that the minting of the shekels and half-shekels shifted from Tyre to Jerusalem. However, the latter idea has not been widely accepted.