2,300-year-old grave in Israel contains remains of Greek courtesan who may have accompanied Alexander the Great's army

The newly discovered bronze mirror is decorated with a simple pattern of concentric circles. (Image credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

A roadside burial discovered in Israel may hold the cremated remains of an ancient Greek courtesan who accompanied Alexander the Great's armies on their campaigns.

The woman, who was buried with an ornate bronze mirror, was laid to rest 2,300 years ago on the road to Jerusalem and far from any settlement, suggesting she may have been a professional escort, or "hetaira," traveling with military men — the first discovery of its kind, archaeologists said in a statement shared with Live Science.

"It is most likely that this is the tomb of a woman of Greek origin who accompanied a senior member of the Hellenistic army or government," the researchers said in the statement. Her client may have fought in one of Alexander the Great's campaigns, they added, or in a series of conflicts called the Wars of the Diadochi, which saw Alexander's generals battle to succeed him after he died in 323 B.C.

The woman was 20 to 30 years old when she died, researchers told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and her remains indicate she was cremated before being buried alongside a "very precious" bronze mirror and four iron nails.

Related: Did Alexander the Great have any children? 

The mirror is enclosed in a folding box of a type previously found in Greco-Hellenistic burials, hinting at the woman's Greek origin. While these accessories often feature engravings or reliefs of idealized female and goddess figures, the newly discovered object is decorated on the outside with a simpler pattern of concentric circles.

"This is only the second mirror of this type that has been discovered to date in Israel," Liat Oz, an archaeologist who led the recent excavation in Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in the statement. The hetaira may have received it as a gift from her powerful client, the researchers said.

Women also acquired bronze mirrors as part of their dowry — but married women at the time seldom left their homes in Greece, let alone joined their husbands on military campaigns, the researchers added.

Historic records indicate courtesans were present during Alexander the Great's campaigns, the researchers told Haaretz. They provided sexual services, but were also literate and entertained their clients with poetry, dance and acting performances.

This is only the second bronze mirror of this type discovered to date in Israel. (Image credit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority)

"We know that some joined generals or rulers on their campaigns — famously, the hetaira Thaïs joined Alexander on the road and he didn't like her to be far," Guy Stiebel, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University who participated in the recent excavation, told Haaretz. 

The iron nails discovered in the roadside grave were likely credited with "magical powers," he added, such as warding off the evil eye and preventing the deceased from rising again. Nails are frequently found in ancient Greek and Roman graves, as well as in Jewish burials from the time.

The researchers hope that a more detailed analysis of the bronze mirror will reveal clues about the woman's background, as well as about the man she accompanied.

Sascha Pare
Trainee staff writer

Sascha is a U.K.-based trainee staff writer at Live Science. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Southampton in England and a master’s degree in science communication from Imperial College London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and the health website Zoe. Besides writing, she enjoys playing tennis, bread-making and browsing second-hand shops for hidden gems.