Severed right hands reveal trophy-taking ceremony

Bioarchaeological analysis of a dozen human right hands found at Tell el-Daba, Egypt, in 2011 has uncovered gruesome details of the ancient Egyptian practice of taking hands as trophies. The practice was known from inscriptions and reliefs on tombs and temples, but this discovery was the first physical evidence of hand amputation on the Egyptian archaeological record. The research has now been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The severed right hands of 12 individuals (plus six additional digits for a maximum of 18 possible right hands), 11 men and one woman were unearthed at the ancient Hyksos capital of Avaris. They were in three pits dug in the forecourt of a Hyksos Period Middle Bronze Age-style palace (c. 1640–1530 B.C.). The hands belonged to 11 men and one likely woman between the ages of 14 and 21. Eight of them were buried palm-down, three palm-up. Their fingers had been deliberately splayed before burial to give an exaggerated angle between thumb and forefinger.

There is no evidence of cut marks or soft tissue removal, but there are no fragments of lower arm bones whatsoever in the pit. This indicates the hands were severed from the lower arm by cutting through the joint capsule via the tendons of the wrist joint. If performed carefully by an expert, this method does not leave cut marks. Either the people who severed these hands to use as offerings or the temple staff were skilled and committed enough to see that the lower arms were detached without leaving a mark. Had they been hacked off in the heat of battle or as a judicial mutilation, no such care could have been taken.

Two main distinctions can be made regarding the procedure of hand detachment: collecting them from the recently deceased or mutilating living people. In both cases, the hands must have been soft and flexible when they were placed into the pit. That is, either before rigor mortis sets in or after it has resolved. Rigor mortis of the hands commonly begins 6–8 h after death (there are different times for different body parts). This means that living victims were mutilated during or shortly before the ceremony. It seems, however, much more likely that the hands were placed after rigor mortis ended, between 24 and 48 h after death. This indicates that the hands were collected and kept for a period of time before being placed in the pit. The hands were buried while they were still intact, at least with the tendons and ligaments holding the skeletal elements in their original place and remaining supple enough to flex passively under appropriate stress. This capacity is affected by surrounding environmental factors like humidity and temperature.

It was the Hyksos who introduced the severing of the hands of enemies to Egypt, and it seems Egypt repaid them in kind, severing the hands of the Hyksos after their defeat and carefully curating their preparation arrangement in a public ceremony at the palace where they had once ruled. In heavy-handed (sorry!) symbolism, the pits where the mutilated hands were buried were in the forecourt of the palace right in front of the throne room.

The hands are unlikely to have been cut off of captives, as that would have made them worthless as sale commodities. These were probably the right hands of enemy fighters. The act of mutilation ensured they’d never fight again and asserted the victor’s dominance over the vanquished.

There may also have been additional incentives behind the practice. In the New Kingdom, a pharaoh who wished to single out his most deserving officials for honors would favor him with a collar of gold beads called a shebyu. The gold collar features in Egyptian iconography from the 18th Dynasty onward first as a gift to officials, then later worn by deities and kings. It was so significant an honor that the ceremony in which the king bestowed it was recorded in hieroglyphic inscriptions and tomb reliefs. The gift was dubbed the “Gold of Honor.”

One of the tombs dotting the sandstone hills of Elkab is dedicated to Ahmose, son of Ebana, who died around 1500 B.C. Although it was hewn out of the sandstone like the other tombs and contains all the authentic elements of a tomb, including a funeral pit, Ahmose was not actually buried there. This was a chapel dedicated to him by his grandson Paheri, who commissioned a full biography of his grandfather engraved on the walls and columns. He served in the military under 18th Dynasty pharaohs Ahmose I, Amenhotep I, and Thutmose I, starting as a humble foot soldier and rising to the rank of naval captain by the end of his service.

When the pharaoh confronted the Hyksos invaders at Avaris, Ahmose distinguished himself on the battlefield and in subsequent battles against the Hyksos, killing and capturing many and receiving the Gold of Honor five times. This is the only primary account of the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt on the archaeological record.

From the inscription (written in the first person as if it were Ahmose speaking):

Then one [aka Pharaoh Ahmose I] fought on the water in the canal of Avaris. Then I made a capture
and I brought a hand, which was reported to the king’s herald.
Then one gave to me gold for bravery.
Then fighting was repeated in that place,
then I repeated capturing there
and I brought a hand;
then one gave to me gold for bravery again.

Perhaps some of the hands he presented to the pharaoh and got those gold collars for were used in the ceremonial burial.