An unprecedented miniature portrait of a young, resolute, sexy Alexander the Great has emerged during excavations in Israel, archaeologist announced this week.
Engraved on a brilliantly red gemstone, the finely carved tiny head portrait is estimated to be 2,300-year-old, possibly dating to after the Macedonian king's death in 323 B.C.
Less than a half-inch long, the gemstone was found by a University of Washington student in the remains of a large public building from the Hellenistic period at Tel Dor, an archaeological site that once was a major port on Israel's Mediterranean coast.
Located about 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) south of Haifa, the village was indeed known to Alexander the Great, who passed through there in 332 B.C. on his way to Egypt. The people of Dor submitted to Alexander without resistance and remained a center of Greek culture in Israel for about two centuries, until it was conquered by Alexander Jannaeus, King of Judea, in 100 B.C.
A compelling evidence of exquisite Hellenistic minor art, the carving shows a head in left profile, with rather sexy features: wavy locks of hair, wide, deep-set eyes with an intense stare, high brows and fine-cut neck.
"The engraver portrayed Alexander without omitting any of the ruler's characteristics. The emperor is shown as young and forceful, with a strong chin, straight nose and long curly hair," Ayelet Gilboa, chairman of the archaeology department at Israel's University of Haifa, told Discovery News.
The distinct facial features of the work helped the researchers identify the subject as the legendary conqueror and emperor. But there was more.
"There is a diadem — a white cloth band tied around the head — which marks this portrait clearly as a Hellenistic ruler. Also, in the lower right hand corner, below the break, traces of a radiate crown can be seen," said Jessica Nitschke, the professor of classical archaeology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. who identified the engraved motif as a bust of Alexander.
"Only images of Alexander the Great (rarely) and the Ptolemies of Egypt (much more commonly) are known to have the radiate crown. However, the facial features of our example here do not conform to the many known images of the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt," Nitschke said.
The gem, which is probably carnelian, would have originally been set in a gold ring, and was probably intended for private ownership.
"Carnelian is a variety of crystalline quartz infused with iron impurities, which is found in antiquity in the deserts of Arabia and Egypt. The combination of the stone as well as the iconography, perhaps suggests that this piece originated in Egypt," Nitschke said.
According to Ayelet Gilboa, co-director of the excavations with Ilan Sharon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the discovery shows that not only leading members of the Hellenistic courts, but also local elites at places such as Tel Dor, on the periphery of Alexander's huge empire, could afford ownership of superior objects of art.
Although Alexander used his image as a propaganda tool, resulting in numerous portraits distributed throughout his empire, gem portraits of the Macedonian king are quite rare.
The most widely known gemstone portrait of Alexander is the Neisos gem, now located in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, which features a full-length portrait of the Macedonian king.
"The Dor gem is of equally high quality, and of course has more facial detail since it is of just the head," Nitschke said.
Moreover, it is one of the few portraits uncovered in a controlled excavation, and in a proper Hellenistic context.
"It didn't simply emerge on the antiquities market or auction house, and thus we can be sure of its authenticity," Nitschke said.