An ancient royal discovery
A rare and surprising archaeological discovery at Tel Dor: A gemstone engraved with the portrait of Alexander the Great was uncovered during excavations by an archaeological team directed by Dr. Ayelet Gilboa of the University of Haifa and Dr. Ilan Sharon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Despite its miniature dimensions - the stone is less than a centimetre high and its width is less than half a centimetre - the engraver was able to depict the bust of Alexander on the gem without omitting any of the ruler’s characteristics” notes Dr. Gilboa, Chair of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. “The emperor is portrayed as young and forceful, with a strong chin, straight nose and long curly hair held in place by a diadem.”
A volunteer unearthed this tiny gem during excavation of a public structure from the Hellenistic period in the south of Tel Dor, excavated by a team from the University of Washington at Seattle headed by Prof. Sarah Stroup. Dr. Jessica Nitschke, professor of classical archaeology at Georgetown University in Washington DC, identified the engraved motif as a bust of Alexander the Great. This has been confirmed by Prof. Andrew Stewart of the University of California at Berkeley, an expert on images of Alexander and author of a book on this topic.
Alexander was probably the first Greek to commission artists to depict his image - as part of a personality cult that was transformed into a propaganda tool. Rulers and dictators have implemented this form of propaganda ever since. The artists cleverly combined realistic elements of the ruler’s image along with the classical ideal of beauty as determined by Hellenistic art, royal attributes (the diadem in this case), and divine elements originating in Hellenistic and Eastern art. These attributes legitimised Alexander’s kingship in the eyes of his subjects in all the domains he conquered. These portraits were distributed throughout the empire, were featured on statues and mosaics in public places and were engraved on small items such as coins and seals.
The image of Alexander remained a popular motif in the generations that followed his death - both as an independent theme and as a subject of emulation. The conqueror’s youthful image became a symbol of masculinity, heroism and divine kingship. Later Hellenist rulers adopted these characteristics and commissioned self-portraits in the image of Alexander.