Photo Credit: Emil Eljam, Israel Antiquities Authority
The rare box mirror.

A tomb of a Hetaira, a Greek term meaning a prostitute who also served as an artist, entertainer, and conversationalist, dating from the late 4th century to the early 3rd century BCE, has been discovered during excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority on Hebron Road in Jerusalem.

In this burial cave, which presents a rare find from the Hellenistic period in the Jerusalem region, the cremated remains of a young woman were found, along with an exceptionally well-preserved box mirror. The results of this discovery will be presented for the first time on Wednesday, October 11, at the “New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and Its Region” conference organized by the IAA, Tel Aviv University, and the Hebrew University.

Hellenistic figurine of a woman looking at a folding mirror (Metropolitan Museum, New York). / Liat Oz, Israel Antiquities Authority

The burial cave is located on a rocky slope not far from Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. The bones found in the burial chamber were identified as belonging to a woman by Dr. Yossi Nagar, the Physical Anthropologist of the IAA. Dr. Guy Stiebel, from the Department of Archaeology and the Ancient Near East at Tel Aviv University, noted that this discovery represents the earliest evidence of cremation in Israel during the Hellenistic period. Additionally, several bent iron nails were discovered alongside the bones, and to the surprise of the archaeologists, next to the charred woman’s bones, a rare folding bronze mirror box.

Liat Oz, the director of the excavation on behalf of the IAA, commented, “This is only the second mirror of this type that has been discovered to date in Israel, and in total, only 63 mirrors of this type are known around the Hellenistic world. The quality of the production of the mirror is so high that it was preserved in excellent condition, and it looked as if it was made yesterday.”

The bronze mirror was found in a perfect state of preservation. / Yuli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

In a collaborative study by Tel Aviv University and the IAA, led by Dr. Guy Stiebel and Liat Oz, the researchers suggest that this rare mirror likely belonged to the deceased, who was possibly a companion of a senior Hellenistic military staff member or a Hellenistic government official during a campaign through the Land of Israel. The researchers noted that folding box mirrors like this one have been documented in tombs and temples in the Greco-Hellenistic world and are clear indications of gender-specific artifacts associated with Greek women. These box mirrors were typically adorned with engravings or magnificent reliefs of idealized female and goddess figures, notably Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

Dr. Stiebel added, “The most intriguing question arising from this discovery was: what is the tomb of a Greek woman doing on the highway leading to Jerusalem, far from any site or settlement of the period? The tomb particularly intrigued us because the archaeological information regarding Jerusalem and its surroundings in the early Hellenistic period is very scarce.”

Liat Oz at the entrance to the burial cave. / Yotam Asher, Israel Antiquities Authority

To unravel this mystery, the researchers analyzed several unique aspects of the burial at Hebron Road. These aspects shed light on a compelling narrative, including the rare and expensive box mirror, the cremation practice common in the Greek world, and the discovery of iron nails in the burial. Considering the woman’s status, the researchers believe that she was likely a female companion rather than a married woman. Married women seldom left their homes in Greece, let alone accompanied their husbands on military campaigns. The absence of a settlement near the burial cave suggests that this tomb likely belongs to a Greek woman who accompanied a senior military or government official and was buried on the roadside.

“Bronze mirrors like the one that was found were considered expensive luxury items, typically acquired by Greek women either as part of their dowry before a wedding or as gifts from men to their hetairai,” explained Dr. Stiebel. “These mirrors symbolized, among other things, the connection – as well as the intimate relations – between the clients and the hetairai. The hetairai were an integral part of Ancient Greek society, offering not only social escort services but also intellectual companionship. Some of them became common-law spouses of Greco-Hellenistic rulers, high-ranking generals, and famous intellectuals. They hosted literary salons and served as muses for the most renowned sculptures and paintings, some of which were even displayed in temples.”

The researchers concluded that this tomb most likely belongs to a woman of Greek origin who accompanied a senior member of the Hellenistic army or government, possibly during Alexander the Great’s campaigns or, more likely, during the Wars of the Diadochi, Alexander’s successors.

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