26 February 2024 The Future is the Product of the Past

A courtesan ‘hetaira’ tomb was discovered in a burial cave during excavations in Via Hebron

During excavations in the Via Hebron in Jerusalem, a burial cave containing the tomb of a courtesan (hetaira in Ancient Greek) dating from the late 4th century – early 3rd century BCE was discovered.

In a press announcement by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the cremated remains of a young woman were discovered next to a rare, perfectly preserved box of mirrors in a burial cave in the Jerusalem area, a rare piece of evidence from the Hellenistic period.

The research was conducted by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority, under the leadership of Dr Guy Stiebel from Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archeology and the Ancient Near East and Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Liat Oz.

According to Dr. Guy Stiebel, from the Department of Archeology and the Ancient Near East at Tel Aviv University, “this is, in fact, the earliest evidence in Israel of cremation in the Hellenistic period”.

Charred human bones were discovered in the burial chamber, identified by Dr. Yossi Nagar, the Physical Anthropologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority, as the bones of a woman.

A number of bent iron nails were found next to the bones, and to the surprise of the archaeologists, a grave good was further discovered next to the charred woman’s bones – a rare type of a folding bronze mirror box.

“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,” says Liat Oz, the director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.” 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.”

Work in the burial cave. Photo: Photo: Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority
Work in the burial cave. Photo: Photo: Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority

The woman likely being a companion/courtesan known as a hetaira who accompanied senior military personal or a Hellenistic government official during Alexander the Great’s campaigns or more likely during the Wars of the Diadochi (Wars of Alexander’s Successors).

The researchers noted that this offering, of folding box mirrors, were documented in tombs and temples in the Greco-Hellenistic world, and is a clear indication of a gendered artefact, associated with Greek women.

The box mirrors were usually, decorated with engravings or magnificent reliefs of idealized female figures and goddess figures – particularly that of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

“The most stimulating 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, also in light of the fact that the archaeological information regarding Jerusalem and its surroundings in the early Hellenistic period is very scarce”, says Dr. Stiebel.

In order to solve this riddle, the researchers had at their disposal a number of unique data that characterized the burial from Via Hebron that shed light on a surprising narrative; the rare and expensive box mirror and the cremation which is well known in the Greek world, as well as the finding of the iron nails in the burial. Discussing the status of the woman, the researchers believe that she was probably a companion woman/courtesan (hetaira) rather than a married woman, since the latter rarely left their home in Greece, not to mention joining their husbands on military campaigns.

Dr. Guy Stiebel and Liat Oz with the rare mirror. Photo: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority
Dr. Guy Stiebel and Liat Oz with the rare mirror. Photo: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

The fact that there was no settlement near the burial cave, seemingly indicates that this is the tomb of a Greek woman, who accompanied senior military personnel or a Hellenistic government official and was buried on the roadside.

“Bronze mirrors like the one that was found were considered an expensive luxury item, and they could come into the possession of Greek women in two ways; as part of their dowry ahead of a wedding, or as a gift given by men to their hetairai. As such, the mirrors symbolized, among other things, the connection – as well as the intimate relations between the clients and the hetairai. The hetairai formed part of an Ancient Greek social institution, in the framework of which women – similar to, for example, Japanese geishas – provided social escort services, and not necessarily only, or mainly, sexual services. Some of them became common-law spouses of the Greco-Hellenistic rulers as well as of high-ranking generals and famous intellectuals. The hetairai held literary salons and served as muses for the most famous works of sculpture and painting, which were even displayed in temples.

In a near future follow-up study, the researchers intend to gain more pinpointed data regarding the origin of the mirror’s production in an attempt to shed additional light on the woman’s background, and perhaps even on the origin of the senior she accompanied.

Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA)

Cover Photo: The perfectly preserved bronze mirror. Photo: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

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