High-Class Hellenistic Escort Remains Found At Roadside
The body of a Greek Hellenistic woman has been discovered in a shallow grave beside the highway to Jerusalem. Laid to rest with a rare box mirror, this was no ordinary female, as she was a highly-educated, sexually-skilled, Hellenistic escort.
Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced the latest discovery in a Facebook post. A burial cave containing the tomb of a Greek “courtesan” was found during excavations in the Via Hebron in Jerusalem and the tomb was dated to some time between the late 4th century and the early 3rd century BC.
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The researchers found the cremated remains of a young Hellenistic woman. Buried beside her, they unearthed “a rare, perfectly preserved box mirror.” This luxury item was most often given as a gift by high-ranking army officers and civic officials to their hetairai, or high-class, well-educated escorts.
Terracotta statuette of a woman, much like the Hellenistic escort, looking into a box mirror. (Public domain)
A Mirror So Rare, It’s Only the Second of Its Type Ever Found
The cremated human bones recovered from within the burial chamber were identified as being female by Dr. Yossi Nagar, a Physical Anthropologist at the IAA. Dr. Guy Stiebel from Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archeology and the Ancient Near East said that the discovery represents “the earliest evidence in Israel of cremation in the Hellenistic period.”
Beside the charred bones, bent iron nails were found, while next to them “a rare type of a folding bronze mirror box” was unearthed. Dr. Liat Oz, the director of the IAA excavation, said the mirror is one of only 63 mirrors that have been dated to the Hellenistic period. Furthermore, it represents only the second of its type that has ever been discovered in Israel.
Archaeologists at work in the burial cave of the Hellenistic escort. (Shai Halevi / Israel Antiquities Authority)
Hellenistic Escort’s Mirror: Gazing at the Goddess of Love
Featuring a polished mirror side with a decorated handle, box mirrors were popular tools in ancient Greece between the 5th to 1st century BC. These small handheld makeup mirrors were generally cast from bronze, and they were used for grooming and enhancing one’s appearance. The IAA announcement said box mirrors were most-often engraved with “magnificent reliefs” depicting “idealized female figures and goddess figures – particularly that of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.”
The rarity of this particular mirror is enhanced by its production quality. Dr. Oz said the manufacturing skills behind the mirror are so high that “it was preserved in such an excellent condition, that it looked as if it was made yesterday.”
The IAA scientists knew box mirrors are most often discovered in Greco-Hellenistic temples and tombs associated with Greek women. Who then, was the woman buried with this box mirror. Was she perhaps associated with the goddess of love?
Dr. Guy Stiebel and Liat Oz with the rare mirror that once belonged to a Hellenistic escort. (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority)
Hellenistic Escort Was “Laid” On the Roadside
Dr. Stiebel said the “most stimulating question” arising from the discovery of the Greek Hellenistic woman’s charred remains is “why was the tomb located on the highway to Jerusalem, far from any site or settlement of the period?” The IAA archaeologists are considering several scenarios to account for the placement of the buried women.
It might be the case that she was the companion or courtesan [ hetaira] to a travelling Hellenistic government official, or military officer, during Alexander the Great’s campaigns. However, the researchers think it is more likely that she lived during the Wars of the Diadochi (Wars of Alexander’s Successors) when, after the great leader’s death, a series of land grabs and conflicts broke out among his former generals. It is being postulated that the Hellenistic escort died on campaign and was buried at the roadside as a result.
A Hellenistic escort, or Hetaira, playing kottabos, a drinking party game where men flicked the dregs of their wine at a target, from the Greek Getty Villa Collection. (Dave & Margie Hill / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Hellenistic Escort’s as High-Class Stimulating Distractions
Dr. Guy Stiebel said bronze box mirrors were “expensive luxury items” and that Greek women generally came to own them in two ways. Most often, they came as part of their wedding dowry [inheritance], but they were also gifted by men to their Hellenistic courtesans and symbolized “the intimate relations between the clients and the hetairai.”
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The researchers are sure the woman was a hetaira, rather than a married woman, because while the former adventured and travelled alongside their husbands the latter almost never left their homes in Greece. The idea that married women sometimes joined their husbands on military campaigns in foreign lands is inconceivable, according to the researchers.
Before we wrap this up, you should know that Greek hetairai were an upper-class of woman who associated themselves with high-ranking generals and famous intellectuals. Essentially, hetairai were high-class prostitutes, but setting their sexual prowess aside, they were equally valued in Hellenistic society for being highly-educated, witty, charming, intellectual and deeply-artistic. A most perfect distraction for army generals weighed down in their tents by the pressures and brutalities of war.
Top image: The perfectly preserved bronze mirror found in a shallow grave alongside the Hellenistic escort. Source: Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority
By Ashley Cowie