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Study shows osteological evidence of severed hands in Ancient Egypt

In a new study published in the journal Springer, the severed right hands from 12 individuals have been analysed osteologically, revealing trophy-taking practices in Ancient Egypt.

The severed right hands were discovered by archaeologists in three pits in the courtyard of the Hyksos palace at Avaris/Tell el-Dab‘a in north-eastern Egypt.

The palace dates from the 15th Dynasty (1640–1530 BC), during which time the Lower and Middle Egypt up to Cusae was ruled by the Hyksos kings, marking the first period in which Egypt had foreign rulers.

Although the practice of placing severed hands is documented in tomb inscriptions and temple reliefs from the New Kingdom onwards, this is the first example of an osteological analysis using physical evidence.

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Anatomical markers indicate that the hands are from at least 12 adults, belonging to 11 males and possibly one female. Once the attached parts of the forearm were removed, the hands were deposited in the pits with the fingers wide-splayed, primarily on their palm-facing sides.

The positioning of the hands on their palmar surfaces with splayed fingers may have been caused by taphonomic reasons, or they may have been due to their deliberate placement.

Out of all the hands found, only six have intact proximal row carpal bones, and there are no indications of cut marks or any removal of soft tissue. Since no fragments of lower arm bones were recovered from the pit, it suggests that these hands were deliberately detached from the lower arms.

One way to amputate hands is to slice through the joint capsule and then cut across the tendons that span the wrist joint. If done correctly, there will be no visible marks on the bones. However, if done unskilfully, cut marks may be present.

Mutilating people without regard to their survival is often done by severing the arm at any anatomical position. This method is faster and easier, but it leaves a section of the lower arm attached to the hand. If this was the case with these hands, the people offering them, or those in charge of the ceremony, cared enough about their proper presentation to detach parts of the lower arm.

In either scenario, it is likely that the hands were still soft and flexible when they were deposited into the pit. This suggests that they were either placed there prior to the onset of rigor mortis or after it had dissipated. Rigor mortis in the hands typically commences 6-8 hours after death. Thus, it is probable that living individuals were dismembered during or shortly before the ceremony.

According to the study: “Taphonomic and biological analyses carried out on the bones reveal information regarding the act of mutilation and preparation of these body parts, as well as about the individuals to whom they originally belonged.”

While it is not possible to identify the particular ethnic or cultural group to which the hands belong, it is believed that the practice of severing the right hands of enemies was introduced to Egypt by the Hyksos roughly 50-80 years prior to the appearance of inscriptions and images depicting the practice. The Ancient Egyptians adopted this during the reign of King Ahmose, as evidenced by a depiction of a stack of hands at his temple in Abydos.

The placement, handling, and potential arrangement of the amputated hands provide evidence against the theory that these actions were carried out as punitive measures by law enforcement. When viewed through a transdisciplinary lens that considers archaeological and historical sources, the bioarchaeological data presented indicates that the severed hands were presented as prizes during a public event held at the palace.


https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-32165-8

Header Image Credit : Stefanović, D

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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