Severed Hands Discovered in Ancient Egypt Palace

A team of archaeologists excavating a palace in the ancient city of Avaris, in Egypt,  has made a gruesome discovery.

The archaeologists have unearthed the skeletons of 16 human hands buried in four pits. Two of the pits, located in front of what is believed to be a throne room, hold one hand each. Two other pits, constructed at a slightly later time in an outer space of the palace, contain the 14 remaining hands.

They are all right hands; there are no lefts.

“Most of the hands are quite large and some of them are very large,” Manfred Bietak, project and field director of the excavations, told LiveScience.

The finds, made in the Nile Delta northeast of Cairo, date back about 3,600 years to a time when the Hyksos, a people believed to be originally from northern Canaan, controlled part of Egypt and made their capital at Avaris  a location known today as Tell el-Daba. At the time the hands were buried, the palace was being used by one of the Hyksos rulers, King Khayan.  [See Photos of the Buried Hands, Below]

A severed right hand discovered in front of a Hyksos palace at Avaris (modern-day Tell el-Daba). It would have been chopped off and presented to the king (or a subordinate) in exchange for gold. This discovery is the first archaeological evidence of the practice. At the time they were buried, about 3,600 years ago, the palace was being used by King Khayan. The Hyksos were a people believed to be from northern Canaan, they controlled part of Egypt and made their capital at Avaris on the Nile Delta.

In two of the pits 14 right hands were discovered, while two other pits were found holding one right hand each. It’s not known whom these hands belonged to, they could have been from Egyptians or people in the Levant.

Two right hands found in a pit. It’s not known who started this gruesome practice of cutting off right hands in exchange for gold. There are no records of it being done in northern Canaan, where the Hyksos are believed to be from. It could have been an Egyptian practice that the Hyksos picked up, it could be vice-versa, or both sides could have gotten it from somewhere else entirely.

Ahmose, son of Ibana, was an Egyptian soldier who fought under several pharaohs, participating in campaigns against the Hyksos and Nubians. His tomb records that he received the “gold of valor” for chopping off the hand of a Hyksos soldier and presenting it as a trophy.

This image was created about 400 years after the Avaris hands were deposited. It shows the chopped-off hands of enemy soldiers being prepared for Ramses III, a pharaoh of Egypt, after a successful campaign.

The Narmer palette, dating back about 5,000 years to the time of Egyptian unification, shows decapitated prisoners and a pharaoh about to smash a man’s head. Although it predates the new Avaris evidence by more than a millennium, it shows, in graphic detail, the poor treatment of prisoners in ancient Egypt.

The right hand

The hands appear to be the first physical evidence of a practice attested to in ancient Egyptian writing and art, in which a soldier would present the cut-off right hand of an enemy in exchange for gold, Bietak explains in the most recent edition of the periodical Egyptian Archaeology.

“Our evidence is the earliest evidence and the only physical evidence at all,” Bietak said. “Each pit represents a ceremony.”

Cutting off the right hand, specifically, not only would have made counting victims easier, it would have served the symbolic purpose of taking away an enemy’s strength. “You deprive him of his power eternally,” Bietak explained.

It’s not known whose hands they were; they could have been Egyptians or people the Hyksos were fighting in the Levant.

“Gold of valor”

Cutting off the right hand of an enemy was a practice undertaken by both the Hyksos and the Egyptians.

One account is written on the tomb wall of Ahmose, son of Ibana, an Egyptian fighting in a campaign against the Hyksos. Written about 80 years later than the time the 16 hands were buried, the inscription reads in part:

“Then I fought hand to hand. I brought away a hand. It was reported to the royal herald.” For his efforts, the writer was given “the gold of valor” (translation by James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Volume II, 1905). Later, in a campaign against the Nubians, to the south, Ahmose took three hands and was given “gold in double measure,” the inscription suggests.

Scientists are not certain who started this gruesome tradition. No records of the practice have been found in the Hyksos’ likely homeland of northern Canaan, Bietak said, so could have been an Egyptian tradition they picked up, or vice versa, or it could have originated from somewhere else.

Bietak pointed out that, while this find is the earliest evidence of this practice, the grisly treatment of prisoners in ancient Egypt was nothing new. The Narmer Palette, an object dating to the time of the unification of ancient Egypt about 5,000 years ago, shows decapitated prisoners and a pharaoh about to smash the head of a kneeling man.

The archaeological expedition at Tell el-Daba is a joint project of the Austrian Archaeological Institute’s Cairo branch and the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

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