Gruesome cache of severed hands is evidence of trophy-taking in ancient Egypt

Gruesome cache of severed hands is evidence of trophy-taking in ancient Egypt<br />
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Apr 2023

There is evidence that ancient Egyptian soldiers would sever the right hands of foes and present them to the Pharaoh. That evidence comes in the form of tomb inscriptions of prominent warriors, as well as inscriptions and iconography on temple reliefs. Archaeologists have now discovered the first physical evidence of such a trophy-taking practice, according to a recent paper published in the journal Scientific Reports. The severed right hands of 12 individuals were excavated from pits within a courtyard of a 15th Dynasty palace in northeastern Egypt.

The 15th Dynasty (circa 1640-1530 BCE) rulers were known as Hyksos ("rulers of foreign lands"), although they did not control all of Egypt from their seat of power in the city of Avaris--the pharaohs of the 16th and 17th Dynasties ruled from Thebes during the same time period. Historians disagree about whether the Hyksos came to Egypt as invaders or gradually settled in the Nile delta before rising to power. But by the late 17th Dynasty, the Hyksos and the pharaohs were at war, leading to the former's defeat by Ahmose I, who founded the 18th Dynasty.

But the Hyksos nonetheless left their mark on Egyptian culture in the form of certain technological advances and customs, including the practice of presenting the severed right hands of defeated foes in a so-called "gold of honor" ceremony in exchange for a collar of golden beads. Per the authors, the Egyptians seem to have adopted the custom during Ahmose I's reign at the latest, based on a relief showing a pile of hands in his temple in Abydos. Tomb inscriptions and temple reliefs from the 18th to the 20th Dynasties "consistently depict hand counts on the battlefield following major battles," the authors wrote. However, there was no physical evidence of the custom beyond iconographic and literary sources--until now.

The recently discovered severed hands were excavated from a site called Tell El-Dab (ancient Avaris) in the courtyard of a palace that seems to have been occupied by the Hyksos Khayan (c. 1700-1580 BCE), judging by the seal impressions found in offering pits. A single hand was found in the smallest of three pits, while the other severed hands were recovered from two other pits, along with numerous disarticulated fingers. The authors believe the hands were those of 11 men and possibly one woman. Most of the hands were placed palm down, and several had the fingers splayed, although it was not clear whether this had been done deliberately, or whether soil pressure flattened them into the ground after burial.

Gruesome cache of severed hands is evidence of trophy-taking in ancient Egypt

Analysis of the remains revealed that no fragments of lower arm bones were still attached, nor were they found in the pits, suggesting that the hands had been severed precisely--perhaps by cutting the joint capsule and intersecting the tendons of the wrist joint, which was one of the more common methods. "If done correctly, there are no cut marks on the bone," the authors wrote, and indeed, this was the case with the 12 severed hands.

But were the hands severed from living people, perhaps as punishment, or from the recently deceased? "In both cases, the hands must have been soft and flexible when they were placed in the pit--that is, before rigor mortis sets in, or after it has resolved," the authors wrote. Since rigor mortis sets in roughly between six to eight hours after death, if the hands came from living victims, they must have been severed shortly before the offering ceremony. But the authors believe it's more likely the hands were cut off after rigor mortis had ended, i.e., between 24 and 48 hours after death. So the hands must have been collected and kept for a while before they were placed in the pits.

All of this is consistent with the severing being part of an accounting and reward system in the wake of military victories, per the authors, especially since all but one likely came from men, and the offering pits where they were found were located in a quite public courtyard in front of the throne room. Nor is there any evidence in Egyptian texts of severing hands as punishment, although there is iconography depicting body dismemberment and mutilation in the context of war, such as severed heads, ears, and genitals.