Imitative Owls



Because Athenian Owls were the first widely used international coinage, some of the peoples in the places where they were used in commerce began striking their own versions of them, typically imitating them in most but not all ways. Imitative Owls were the first coinage in many places, with cities or tribes afterward minting their own types. Among the peoples imitating Owls during the 5th and 4th centuries BC were the Persians, Baktrians, Phoenicians, Philistians, Judeans, Samarians, Egyptians, and Arabians.

Imitative Owls thus semi-circled Greece. As far as I know, no people north or west of Athens, including the Celts, Thracians, and Scythians, imitated Owls.

The production of imitative Owls peaked in the 4th century when the production of official Athenian Owls dropped off after the Peloponnesian War ended in 404 BC and the peoples who were using them still felt a need for them. Imitative Owl production declined after the ascent of Alexander the Great and the spread of his coinage, with few imitatives minted after c. 300 BC. One exception to this was South Arabia, where the Sabeans/Himyarites imitated New Style Owls well into the 1st century BC, with the obverses having evolved from the female Athena into a male figure, perhaps a local dynast.















Egyptian Imitative Classical Owl tetradrachm (17.1g), Egypt, c. 413-343 BC, SNG Delepierre 1457-1459, Buttrey/Flament Style X, van Alfen (2002) Plate 11 No. 1.

Unlike the Classical Owls on the first page of this site, this specimen is clearly not of Athenian origin. It features on the obverse a frontal eye, like 5th century Athenian Owls, but the owl on the reverse has coarser feathers, like 4th century Athenian profile-eye Owls. Athena's lips and the shape of her face are also very un-Athenian. This coin was minted during a period of Egyptian independence near the end of the great Pharaonic Age in Egypt that began c. 3100 BC. Persia reconquered Egypt c. 343 BC. I cover Egyptian Owls of this period in more detail at my page on Athenian vs. Egyptian Owls. Peter van Alfen of the American Numismatic Society covered the above type along with others in a series of five excellent articles on imitative Owls in the American Journal of Numismatics 12 (2000), the American Journal of Numismatics 14 (2002), and the American Journal of Numismatics 15/16 (2004/2005).















Arabian Imitative Classical Owl test-cut tetradrachm (14.6g), North Arabia, c. 4th century BC, cf. Sear 6130.

The Athena on this Owl is even more barbarized than on the previous coin. With Athena's strongly hooked nose, the coin looks Arabian in style, though I've yet to find a coin of exactly this variety in the literature.

Like many Owls minted in Athens and elsewhere, this piece was cut with a chisel in ancient times to determine whether the underlying metal was good silver or a base metal such as bronze or lead. The test cut on this coin chipped off part of the coin's edge.















Persian Imitative Intermediate Style Owl tetradrachm (15.9g), Babylon, c. 400 BC, SNG Cop. Supp. 1245, van Alfen (2004/2005) 64 (this coin).

This thick-flanned coin exhibits evocative styling, particularly Athena, with beautifully simplified lines and curves. The inscription features as the first letter a delta (triangle) instead of an alpha (A). This particular specimen has been overcleaned, but the frosty surfaces aren't unattractive.

This particular coin was part of a hoard documented by Peter van Alfen in his article "A New Athenian 'Owl' and Bullion Hoard from the Near East," in the 2004/2005 American Journal of Numismatics. It was sold to me before the article appeared by an expert in Middle Eastern coins as a Babylonian imitative Owl c. 393-300 BC, without a reference to a collection or other reference catalog. I've found this Owl imitative type only in one other reference thus far, the 2002 supplement of SNG Copenhagen, which also attributes it to Babylon but dates it c. 331-300 BC. Van Alfen dates these coins to the late 4th century BC.

If this and similar coins were issued in Babylon, they can probably be dated more narrowly and earlier. Babylon was producing Alexanders and Baal/lion silver coins during the period 331-310 BC, and unlike this coin they were minted without any change or degradation in classical style. Before 333 BC, Mazakes, the Persian satrap in Babylon, issued Owl imitatives there (including the coin immediately below), and though the style might be slightly rough, these coins also were more classically styled than the above piece.

Unfortunately, as frequently happens in ancient numismatics because of irrational laws in source countries, knowledge of find spots is suppressed. Van Alfen in his latest article said it was rumored the above and similar coins came from Arabia (a rumor of this type is best assumed to be self-protection on the part of finders or those they work with), but he felt these coins have a "Levantine character." No coin resembling the style of the above specimen, however, was documented in two recent books on Middle Eastern coins of the period, both of which deal with imitative Owls in detail, Haim Gitler and Oren Tal's 2006 book The Coinage of Philistia of the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC and Ya'Akov Meshorer and Shraga Qedar's 1999 book Samarian Coinage.

Van Alfen's pointed to the similarity of the imitative Owls in this hoard to those in two earlier hoards he documented, the 1973 Iraq Hoard and the 1989 Syria Hoard, indicating that the above coin and six others in this current hoard share similar styling and metrology (low weight) with groups in the other two hoards. His views on the origin of these and similar Owl imitatives have been changing. He indicated a preference for Babylonia in his 2000 article, Eastern Syria in his 2002 article, and the Levant in his 2004/2005 article.

Tellingly, van Alfen suggested that the consistently low weight may indicate that these coins adhere to the Babylonian double shekel standard (also used in the Levant) rather than the Athenian tetradrachm standard. Further, which he didn't fully address, there's a stylistic progression from the simply (barbarously) styled Owls, exemplified by the above specimen (van Alfen's Style Group III), to other imitative Owls in the Iraq and Syria hoards that are styled more slightly more classically and ending with those like the coin below in which the imported Greek inscription is replaced with a local Aramaic inscription. Coinage in ancient times evolved in both directions, representational to abstract and, as in the above case, abstract to representational.

Attributing the above and similar pieces to Babylon may make the most sense. Because of its style, it no doubt was among the earliest of these types of Owl imitatives, and it's not a great stretch to date it to the first half rather than the second half of the 4th century BC. Van Alfen suggested in his 2002 article that Babylonia didn't appear to have minted any coins before Alexander, but in his 2000 article he said, more accurately, that Babylonia before Alexander might not have been fully monetized. Mesopotamia like Egypt, the other location where civilization originated several millennia earlier, no doubt took its first tentative steps toward coinage in similar, though not identical, ways. I'd suggest that the above and similar coins were the first coins of the great, already ancient city of Babylon, then a capital of the largest empire that had yet existed, the Persian Empire, with Babylonia like Egypt, Arabia, the Levant, and Baktria issuing its first coins in imitation of the most widely circulating international coins of the day, Athenian Owls.















Persian Imitative Intermediate Style Owl tetradrachm (17.0g), Babylon, before c. 333 BC, Sear 6154v., Mitchiner 2033, van Alfen (2000) 79, Newell (1938) 44-47.

This darkly toned specimen gives itself away as an imitative by the replacement of Athens' inscription, ATHE, which is an abbreviation of "Athens" or more completely "Of the Athenians," with an Aramaic inscription of MZDK, which is an abbreviation of "Mazakes" or more completely "Of Mazakes" (the inscription is partly off the flan on this piece), plus a mint mark that's likely a fire altar symbol between the inscription and the owl. Mazakes was the Persian satrap of Babylon before being transferred c. 333 BC to Egypt, which he surrendered to Alexander the Great a year later. Consequently Alexander rewarded Mazakes by appointing him as a governor back in Babylonia.

Mazakes also minted imitative Owls during the year he was Persian satrap of Egypt (Sear 6233), scarcer today, which are more finely styled and have broad thin flans, in contrast to the thick, compact flan of the above coin. Michael Mitchiner in his 2004 book Ancient Trade and Early Coinage stated his belief that the above compact-flan variety was minted in Egypt, based on the fire altar symbol, which Sabakes, his predecessor in Egypt, also used. Edward T. Newell in his 1938 Numismatic Notes and Monographs article "Miscellanea Numismatica: Cyrene to India," argued convincingly that compact-flan varieties such as the above coin are Babylonian, despite having the fire altar symbol, based on their showing up in hoards in Babylonia but not Egypt. The above coin is most likely part of a continuation of imitative Owls minted previously in Babylon with the standard Athenian ethnic AQE, such as the previous coin on this page.

Most sources date coins of this variety to before c. 333 BC, when Mazakes was transferred by Darius from Babylon to Egypt, but Otto Mørkholm in his 1991 book Early Hellenistic Coinage: From the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamea (336-188 B.C.) dated them c. 325-315 BC, after Alexander the Great's defeat of the Persian Empire. He stated that there "can hardly be any doubt" that these coins were issued after Mazakes came from Egypt, rather than before he went there, though he didn't provide a reason.















Arabian Imitative Intermediate Style Owl tetradrachm (16.8g), Saba, South Arabia, c. 4th-3rd century BC, Sear -, Munro-Hay Type 1.0.4, Huth 1.

This imitative Owl was likely struck by the Sabeans/Sabaeans of South Arabia. It's among the first South Arabian coins and closely copies official Intermediate Owls. Athena's helmet, hair, and eye are styled more simply, Athena's nose is overlarge, the owl is squatter, and the AQE ethnic is more crudely styled than on official Athenian issues. A tiny coarsely engraved A countermark appears on this specimen to right of owl's left leg.

Saba is better known, from the Old Testament, as Sheba, which is today is part of Yemen. Sheba is the English equivalent of Sh'va which is the transliteration of the Hebrew word for Saba. Ethiopian tradition, however, places ancient Sheba across the Red Sea in current-day Ethiopia.

The story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba appears not only in the Bible but is also cited by various ancient Assyrian, Greek, and Roman writers. Hearing of the great Jewish king's wisdom, the queen from the South traveled north, probably around 950-930 BC, to test the king with "hard questions." The meeting was a success, and the two nations began trading heavily with one another. The Sabeans also traded heavily with the Greeks, hence their copying the famous Athenian Owl tetradrachms some 700 years later. Earlier, perhaps around 4000 BC, Yemen is thought to be where the Semitic people originated, and much earlier, around 110,000 years ago, Yemen was likely the locale that mankind reached first when migrating out of Africa.

Another possibility regarding the attribution of the above coin, as pointed out by Stuart Munro-Hay in his 2003 book Coinage of Arabia Felix: The Pre-Islamic Coinage of the Yemen and Martin Huth in his 1999 Swiss Review of Numismatics article "An Important Hoard of Early South Arabian Coins from the Kingdom of Qataban," is that it and similar coins are products of the neighboring kingdom of Qataban, which may have broken away from greater Saba in the fourth century BC.















Arabian Imitative Intermediate Style Owl unit (5.2g), Saba, South Arabia, c. 3rd century BC, Sear 6112, SNG ANS 1455-1456, Munro-Hay Type 1.1i, Hill 2, Knapp 19A, Tameanko 1.

This coin type, also an imitation of an Athenian Owl from South Arabia, is seen much more commonly seen than the larger and earlier tetradrachms such as the previous coin. When it was minted, it was likely the "unit" or largest standard denomination of the Sabeans/Sabaeans of South Arabia. It's more consciously distinguished from the Athenian prototype with a zigzag mark on Athena's cheek, which is the Sabean letter N. Athena has an overlarge large nose and the AQE ethnic is crudely styled in the same manner as with the above tetradrachm.

I bought this specimen on eBay from a seller in Lebanon infamous for his misattributions, halting English, and occasionally really good buys. He described the coin merely as an Owl. These coins appear frequently on the market, and given the documentation of a large number of modern cast fakes in the Bulletin on Counterfeits Vol. 18 No. 1 (1993), it probably makes sense to buy from a safer source.















Arabian Imitative New Style Owl unit (5.5g), South Arabia, c. 1st century BC, Sear 6125, SNG ANS 1475-1478, Munro-Hay Type 1.13i, Mitchiner 1325, Sayles VI p. 125, Head (1878) 7.

This thinness of this piece, accounting for its low weight despite the broad flan, is characteristic of this class of imitatives of Athenian New Style Owls struck by the Sabeans or Himyarites of South Arabia. Athena has been replaced by a head, likely a male head representing a local dynast, with long braided hair and a laurel wreath. Instead of a beaded border, the head is surrounded by a more elaborate wreath border. The owl, as on New Style Owls, is standing on an amphora (jar) that's lying on its side. Two monograms appear on either side of the owl. The Sabean letter N (looks like a backward Z) appears in the left field. A curving spear and crossbar in the right field face what may be a bucranium (ox head). All is enclosed within a border consisting of amphoras that on this specimen is mostly off the flan.

These coins are traditionally attributed as Himyarite, per SNG ANS, BMC, etc., with Himyar being the dominant kingdom in South Arabia during the first century BC. But Munro-Hay argued for their being issues of Saba, not Himyar, based upon the Sabean letters and symbols used on them and the lack of Himyarite symbols, an argument that Oliver D. Hoover supported in his Summer 2004 American Numismatic Society Magazine review of the book. In his 2004 book Ancient Trade and Early Coinage, Michael Mitchiner also attributed these coins to Saba. The monograms have uncertain meaning but may refer to a royal name, mint, and/or mint magistrate. The letter N is almost certainly a denomination marker, in this case for the largest denomination. The specimens in Munro-Hay depict to the lower right of the reverse just a crossbar (sometimes referred to as a curved sign).

Himyar was a country in South Arabia, becoming the dominant force there after conquering neighboring Saba c. 25 BC and continuing as the dominant force in Arabia until c. 525 AD when the region was defeated by Ethiopia. South Arabia was later governed by Persia before being absorbed into the Islamic Empire c. 632. The Greeks and Romans referred to the more habitable regions of Arabia as Arabia Felix, or "Fortunate Arabia," in contrast with the bleaker desert regions.

When the above coin was minted, the Sabeans and Himyarites were heavy traders with the Mediterranean world, exporting frankincense and myrrh and also acting as an intermediary linking East Africa and Rome, with this trade consisting largely of ivory.





























Other pages of mine on coins copying Athens, Alexander the Great, Lysimachos, Parion, Thasos, Constantine the Great, and other coins can be found at my site on Ancient Imitative Coinage.













Other glomworthy coins:

Oldest Coins

 Athenian Owls

Alexander the Great Coins

Medusa Coins

Thracian Tetradrachms

House of Constantine

Draped Bust Coins

Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles

Coin sites:
Coin Collecting: Consumer Protection Guide
Glomming: Coin Connoisseurship
Bogos: Counterfeit Coins

© 2014 Reid Goldsborough

Note: Any of the items illustrated on these pages that are in my possession are stored off site.