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Has a tomb of an "escort woman" (the Taira) from 2,300 years ago been discovered in Jerusalem?

A grave in which the remains of a woman were discovered with a rare mirror next to her opens an extraordinary window into customs that were 'imported' to Israel with the Hellenistic conquest * It seems that the burial was a young woman of Greek origin, who accompanied a senior member of the Hellenistic army or government on his journey through Israel * The research will be presented for the first time at the conference "Innovations in the study of the archeology of Jerusalem and its surroundings" of the Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which will be held on October 11-12.10 and is open to the public

The rare sight. Photo by Emil Eljam, Antiquities Authority
The rare sight. Photo by Emil Eljam, Antiquities Authority

A tomb of an "escort woman" (the taira - in ancient Greek) dating from the end of the 4th century - the beginning of the 3rd century BC, was discovered in excavations by the Antiquities Authority on Derech Hebron Street in Jerusalem. In the tomb - which is a rare testimony to the Hellenistic period in the Jerusalem area, the remains of a woman whose body was burned were discovered, along with a rare mirror in a perfect state of preservation. On Wednesday, 11/10, a study on the subject will be presented for the first time, at the conference "Innovations in the study of the archeology of Jerusalem and its surroundings" of the Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The cave was discovered on a rock slope, not far from Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. Charred human bones were discovered in the burial chamber and identified by Dr. Yossi Nagar, the physical anthropologist of the Antiquities Authority, as the bones of a woman. according to Dr. Guy Stibelfrom the Department of Archeology and the Ancient Near East at Tel Aviv University, "This is, in fact, the earliest evidence in Israel of cremation - burning bodies - in the Hellenistic period." A number of bent iron nails were found next to the bones, and to the surprise of the archaeologists, a burial offering was also discovered next to the woman - a folding bronze mirror, rare of its kind.

"This is only the second mirror of this type that has been discovered to date in Israel, and in total, 63 such mirrors from the Hellenistic period are known around the world," she says Liat Oz, director of the excavation on behalf of the Antiquities Authority. "The production level of the mirror is so high that it was preserved in excellent condition, and it looked as if it was made yesterday."

In a joint study by Tel Aviv University and the Antiquities Authority, led by Dr. Guy Stibel from the Department of Archeology and the Ancient Near East at Tel Aviv University וAntiquities Authority archaeologist Liat OzThe researchers suggest that the rare mirror belonged to the deceased, whose luck did not favor her and she died at an early age, and who was none other than an escort of a senior member of the army or the Hellenistic government on his journey to Israel. The researchers noted that this offering, of folding mirrors in tombs and temples, is known from the Greek-Hellenistic world, and is a clear sign of a gender object associated with women in Greece. The mirrors were often decorated with engravings or magnificent reliefs of ideal female figures and goddess figures - and especially of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

"The most interesting question arising from this discovery is - what is the grave of a Greek woman doing on the main road 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 about Jerusalem and its surroundings in the early Hellenistic period is almost zero," says Dr. Stibel.

In order to solve this puzzle, the researchers had at their disposal a number of unique data that characterized the burial from the Hebron road, and which - together, were woven into one picture: the rare and expensive mirror, the burial of the opera (cremation) which is well known in the Greek world, and also the finding of the iron nails in the burial. With regard to the status of the woman, the researchers believe that this is most likely an escort woman/courtesan (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. The fact that there was no settlement near the burial cave, probably indicates that this is the grave of a non-local woman, a Greek, who accompanied senior military or Hellenistic government officials and was buried on the road.

"Bronze mirrors like the one 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 for the wedding, or as a gift given by men to the brides. As such, the mirrors symbolized, among other things, the connection - as well as the intimate relationship between him and her. The tairites were actually part of a social-Greek institution, within the framework of which women - similar to, for example, geishas in Japan - provided social escort services, and not necessarily only, or mainly, sexual services. Some of them became known to the public of the rulers of the Greek-Hellenistic world and of leading military and cultural figures, held literary salons, and served as muses for the most famous works of sculpture and painting, which were also displayed in temples.

Hellenistic figurine of a woman looking at a folding mirror. Photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Photo by Liat Oz, Antiquities Authority
Hellenistic figurine of a woman looking at a folding mirror. Photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Photo by Liat Oz, Antiquities Authority

"It is likely that this is the grave of a woman of Greek origin who accompanied a senior member of the Hellenistic army and government, during Alexander the Great's travels, or - more likely, during the wars of the Diadochi (successors)," the researchers conclude.

"This is an example of archeology and research at their best," he says Eli Escozido, director of the Antiquities Authority. "The study of a seemingly simple object leads us to new knowledge and a story, and opens a window to a forgotten and vanished ancient world. These days, the researchers are using additional technologies to extract more information, and maybe we will be able to get to know that lady and her culture better."

In future follow-up research, the researchers will focus on trying to more accurately characterize the production location of the mirror in the hope of shedding additional light on the woman's background, and perhaps even on the origin of the senior she accompanied.

The results of the research, and the mirror itself, will be presented at the 'Innovations in the Archeology of Jerusalem and its Surroundings' conference of the Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The conference will be held on Wednesday-Thursday -12-11.10 in Jerusalem and is open to the public. Details On the website of the Antiquities Authority.

One response

  1. It doesn't sound likely that in the fourth century BC they knew how to solder a flat piece of metal to the metallic round body, as you can see in the pictures. The round metal body is too symmetrical compared to the Hellenistic vessels. You should think about the story again...

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