A Hoard of Greek Coins from an Automatic Holy-water Machine in Egypt?

Mechanical inventions seem to have been quite popular among the elite Greek [and later] Roman populations of Egypt. During the time I was working at the Phoebe Hearst Museum at Berkeley, I came a cross a hoard of Greek coins – from the Tebtunis finds of Grenfell and Hunt – that had not been properly cataloged or recorded.

ps308925_l BM  pot-hoard from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos

ps308925_ BM pot-hoard from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos

A library search revealed a type of machine used at a temple that would allow a certain amount of holy water to be given in exchange for a coin. The hoard may well have been part of  such a machine at the Fayum in Egypt.

The pneumatics of Heron of Alexandria 21. Source -

The Pneumatics of Heron of Alexandria 21. Source – Pneumatics

The Greek coins, part of the finds of Grenfell and Hunt in their excavations in the Fayum,  were associated with literally thousands of manuscripts – some of which – as seen in the following picture – had been reduced to a confetti size:

A suitcase full of parchment pieces, Fayum 1931. Source -

A suitcase full of the cellar papyri, Fayum 1931. Source – tebtunis.berkeley,edu

An extraordinary cache of papyri, apparently dumped as rubbish with a few objects (coins, statuettes, etc.), in some priests’ rooms along the western side of the enclosure wall, was uncovered in stages, first by Grenfell and Hunt, then perhaps by Rubensohn, then by sebakhin, and lastly in 1931, when the Italian expedition cleared out the two underlying cellars. [Suitcase A of the cellar papyri]

The cache comprised thousands of documents, most of which are still unpublished. The upper layers consisted mainly of private and administrative documents concerning the affairs of the priests and temple (like those cited above), of the first to mid-third centuries AD.

The lower layers contained mostly religious, literary, scientific and reference texts in Greek, demotic, hieratic and hieroglyphic, mainly of the same period, but including some ‘antique’ documents. These texts must have come from the temple library, the ‘House of Life’, or from the priests’ own collections …

Source – Dominic Rathbone, A Town Full of Gods: Imagining Religious Experience in Roman Tebtunis (Egypt)

Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Souirce - Wiki

Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Source – Wiki


The first keyboard musical instrument and the ancestor of the modern church organ, the hydraulis was invented by Ctesibius of Alexandria in the 3rd Century B.C.

This video tells the story of the ancient hydraulis and its modern reconstruction and includes a performance of this remarkable instrument.

Source – The Ancient Hydraulis

Picture below is a reconstructed hydraulis – the only example of the Roman instrument.



From ancient times, several texts have survived that contain technical descriptions of the Roman water organ. Heron of Alexandria describes in his book ” pneumatics “a simple organ type with a piston pump and a register. Julius Pollux, who lived in the second half of the 1st century AD, distinguishes between small organs that are operated with bellows and large instruments that use water. 

Source – The Roman Hydraulis

THE PNEUMATICS OF Sacrificial Vessel which flows only when Money is introduced. Source - HERO OF ALEXANDRIA

THE PNEUMATICS OF Sacrificial Vessel which flows only when Money is introduced. Source – HERO OF ALEXANDRIA

Here are several links to performances – from here, I’m having trouble with them, perhaps you can link to at least one; the first is quite nice:

Ginsberg-Klar, Maria E. 1981. “The Archaeology of Musical Instruments in Germany during the Roman Period“. World Archaeology 12, no. 3

12th Olympia International Film Festival for Children and Young People and 9th Camera Zizanio, opening ceremony, December 5, 2009 at Apollon theatre, Pyrgos, Greece.
Hydraulis, the earliest organ.

Source – You Tube link


Web links: (http://www.archaeologychannel.org/ )

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
Image | This entry was posted in Egypt-Ancient, Fayum, Hydraulis, Ptolmaic and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s