A unique find: Archaeological excavations conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority on Hebron Road in Jerusalem recently revealed a grave containing the remains of a woman with a rare mirror next to her. The finding opens an unusual window into customs that were "imported" to the Land of Israel with the Hellenistic conquest - "escort woman" ("the taira" in ancient Greek). The study and its findings will be presented for the first time at the conference "Innovations in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Environs" of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which will take place on October 11-12 and is open to the general public.
Apparently, the deceased was a young woman of Greek origin who accompanied a senior member of the Hellenistic army or government on his journey through the country. The cave was discovered on a rock slope, not far from Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. Charred human bones were discovered in the burial chamber, identified by Dr. Yossi Nagar, the physical anthropologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority, as those of a woman.
Was the tomb of an "escort" (the taira) from 2,300 years ago discovered in Jerusalem? Photo: Emil Aljem/Israel Antiquities Authority
Dr. Guy Shtibel, from the Department of Archaeology and the Ancient Near East at Tel Aviv University: "This is, in fact, the earliest evidence in Israel of cremation – cremation – in the Hellenistic period." Several bent iron nails were also found alongside the bones, and to the surprise of the archaeologists, a burial offering was discovered alongside the woman – a folding bronze mirror, rare of its kind.
"This is only the second mirror of this type discovered to date in Israel. A total of 63 such sights from the Hellenistic period are known around the world," says Liat Oz, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. "The production level of the mirror is so high that it was preserved in excellent condition, and it looked like it was made yesterday."
"Only 63 of them in the whole world", Photo: Yuli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority
The mirror discovered, photo: Yuli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority
In a joint study by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority, led by Dr. Guy Shtibel of Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and the Ancient Near East and Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Liat Oz, the researchers suggest that the rare sight belonged to the deceased, who was less fortunate enough to die early, and was none other than the escort of a senior military official or the Hellenistic regime on his journey to Israel.
The tomb that was discovered dates to the late 4th or early 3rd century BCE. The researchers noted that this offering of folding mirrors in tombs and temples is familiar from the Greco-Hellenistic world, and is a clear sign of a gendered object associated with women in Greece. The mirrors were often decorated with engravings or magnificent reliefs of ideal female figures and goddesses – especially of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
The Mirror and the Mystery, Photo: Emil Aljem/Israel Antiquities Authority
The way to solve the riddle was not simple. "The most interesting question that arose from this discovery is what to do on the road to Jerusalem the grave of a woman of Greek origin far from any site or settlement of the period. The tomb particularly intrigued us, also in light of the fact that archaeological information about Jerusalem and its surroundings in the early Hellenistic period is almost zero," Dr. Shtibel describes.
The researchers had at their disposal several unique data that characterized the burial from Hebron Road, which together were woven into a single picture - the rare and precious mirror, the burial of opera (Cremzia) that is well known in the Greek world, and the iron nails found in the burial. With regard to the status of the woman, the researchers believe that she was probably an escort/cortisana (the taira) and not a married woman, since they stayed at home in Greece, managed the households and raised the children, and did not go on trips with their husbands.
"Bronze mirrors like the one found were considered an expensive luxury item, and they could be made available to Greek women in two ways – as part of their dowry for the wedding, or as a gift given by men to the taunras. As such, the mirrors symbolized, among other things, the connection, as well as the intimate relationship between him and her.
The unique mirror overview, photo: Emil Aljem/Israel Antiquities Authority
The hatiras were actually part of a Greek social institution, in which women, like geisha in Japan, provided social escort services, and not necessarily only, or primarily, sexual services. Some of them became common-law rulers of the Greco-Hellenistic world, military personnel and leading cultural figures, held literary salons, and served as muses for the most famous works of sculpture and painting, which were also exhibited in temples.
"It is likely that this is the grave of a woman of Greek origin who accompanied a senior member of the Hellenistic military and government apparatuses, during the travels of Alexander the Great, or, more likely, during the wars of the Diadoches (heirs)," the researchers concluded.
Eli Escozido, Director General of the Israel Antiquities Authority: "This is an example of archaeology and research at their best. The study of a seemingly simple object leads us to new knowledge and a story, and opens a window into an ancient forgotten and disappearing world. Right now, researchers are using additional technologies to extract more information, and perhaps we will be able to get to know more about this lady and her culture. In a future study, the researchers will focus on trying to more accurately characterize the location of the mirror's production in the hope of shedding more light on the woman's background, and perhaps even on the origin of the senior woman she was accompanying."
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