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2,300-year-old tomb found in Israel may contain remains of Greek courtesan

Sep 27, 2023, 11:01 AM | Updated: 2:57 pm

Archaeologists in Israel have discovered what they believe to be the remains of an Ancient Greek co...

Archaeologists in Israel have discovered what they believe to be the remains of an Ancient Greek courtesan. Mandatory Credit: Photo: Shai Halevi/Israel Antiquities Authority

(CNN) — Archaeologists in Israel have discovered what they believe to be the remains of an Ancient Greek courtesan.

The cremated remains of a young woman were found in a burial cave alongside a perfectly preserved bronze box mirror on a rocky slope close to Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, not far from Jerusalem.

The tomb is believed to date back to some time between the late 4th century and early 3rd century BCE, according to a joint study carried out by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).

Guy Stiebel, from the department of archeology and the Ancient Near East at Tel Aviv University, told CNN in a phone interview that the find is “very significant.”

“It’s almost like bringing back to life a woman who passed away 2,300 years ago,” he said of the research, which he compared to a “jigsaw puzzle or riddle.”

He and his team believe this could be the first discovery of the remains of a hetaira, as courtesans were known in Ancient Greece.

“If we are correct with our interpretation, it appears that this burial points to the very unique circumstances of what we call a hetaira, a Greek lady who accompanied one of the Hellenistic government officials, or more likely a high general,” he said.

In the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, the Hellenistic age refers to the period between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and the conquest of Egypt by Rome in 30 BCE. Stiebel told CNN that he and his team believe the woman would have been among the first Greeks to arrive in the region.

Liat Oz, the director of the excavation on behalf of the IAA, described the mirror found in the tomb alongside the remains.

“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,” she said in a news release about the discovery.

“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.”

Folding box mirrors such as this were documented in tombs and temples in the Greco-Hellenistic world, the researchers noted. They were usually decorated with engravings or reliefs of idealized female figures or goddesses.

Stiebel said a woman of high status might have received such a mirror as part of a dowry, but this was unlikely to have been the case in this instance as married women rarely left their homes in Greece.

Alternatively, he said, she might have been a courtesan, as they often received gifts from men. Likening the hetairai to Japanese geishas, Stiebel explained that the women were regarded as “muses.”

He said: “Women in society were breaking glass ceilings in very strict and male-oriented Greek society and we do know that they served not only as sexual escorts, but were similar to geishas and provided an element of culture. For that they were given gifts and part of the economy of gifts in Ancient Greece had to do with mirrors.”

The fact the remains were cremated also hinted at the woman’s origins, Stiebel said.

“Cremation is alien to this country and the religion,” he said, explaining that cremation is not only forbidden in Judaism but would not have been practiced by the Persian empire either, which occupied the region at that time.

“The tomb was found in the middle of nowhere, not near any village or farm or settlement, which suggests that she would have been connected with one of the military campaigns and dated to the time of Alexandra the Great or slightly later.

“We are suggesting that maybe she was with one of the generals.”

Stiebel went on to explain the significance of four iron nails found with the mirror and remains.

“Nails were used to protect the deceased and also to protect the living people from the dead. The bodies were literally nailed down to ensure they will not come back to the world of the living,” he said.

Stiebel told CNN that the team are continuing with further research in order to “zoom in” on the finer details of the mirror.

He said: “We hope to shed more light on the origin of the production of the art and maybe shed more light on the history of the owner of the mirror, the general who bought it or where she came from.”

The research will be presented for the first time at an Israeli archaeology conference next month.


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2,300-year-old tomb found in Israel may contain remains of Greek courtesan