A cave containing the remains of a young woman who was likely a courtesan during the Hellenistic period has been discovered near Hebron Road in Jerusalem, along with a well-preserved, rare bronze mirror, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced on Wednesday.
The tomb, discovered in a cave on a rocky slope near Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, dates from the 4th or 3rd century BCE.
The small hand “box mirror,” one of 63 of its type known to have survived, is what led researchers to the conclusion that the remains were probably that of a hetaira, as courtesans were known in Greek.
“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,” said Liat Oz, the director of the IAA excavation.
“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,” the researchers noted.
“The hetairai formed part of an Ancient Greek social institution… 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.”
The courtesan’s remains — charred human bones — were identified as those of a woman and, according to Dr. Guy Stiebel of the Department of Archeology and the Ancient Near East at Tel Aviv University, are the “earliest evidence in Israel of cremation in the Hellenistic period.”
The most probable conclusion is that the tomb was that of a hetaira who accompanied a high official during Alexander the Great’s campaigns or the subsequent wars of succession, died during travel and was buried along the roadside. Married women in the ancient Hellenistic world rarely left their homes in Greece or accompanied their husbands on military adventures.
A presentation on the results of the study, and a showing of the rare mirror, is to take place at a conference on New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and Its Region, to be held October 11-12, in conjunction with the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University of Jerusalem.