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Severed Hands Reveal Gruesome Trophy-Taking Practices in Ancient Egypt

Twelve severed hands have been discovered in Egypt, part of a gruesome “trophy-taking” practice that has just been revealed in a groundbreaking study. This finding marks the first known physical evidence of hand amputations in ancient Egypt, shedding new light on the dark side of the civilization’s history.

The 12 hands were buried in three pits within the courtyard of the Hyksos palace at Avaris/Tell el-Dab‘a in north-eastern Egypt. Constructed during the 15th Dynasty (1640 BC – 1530 BC) the Hyksos palace served as the capital of the Hyksos dynasty during the Second Intermediate Period. Previously, archaeologists have discovered severed hands depicted in Egyptian tomb inscriptions and temple reliefs from the New Kingdom onwards. But this is the first-time archaeologists have uncovered the actual amputated hands.

Anthropological reconstruction of the finding and details of the severed right hands found in the pits. (Gresky, J. et al 2023 / Nature)

Anthropological reconstruction of the finding and details of the severed right hands found in the pits. ( Gresky, J. et al 2023 / Nature )

Were The 12 Handless Dead Or Alive?

The new paper has been published in the journal “ Nature” by lead author Julia Gresky from the Division of Natural Sciences at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. The researchers said that it remains unclear whether or not the hands were taken from dead or living individuals. But what is known, however, is that after removing the connected forearm the 12 hands were placed in the ground “with wide-splayed fingers, mainly on their palmar sides.”

Furthermore, anatomical markers indicate that the hands are from “11 males and possibly one female,” and in conclusion, the researchers said their new analysis suggests the hands were part of “trophy-taking” practices in ancient Egypt.

Lopped Off or Carefully Sliced?

The scientists first considered that the 12 severed hands with splayed fingers, all facing palm side down, may have occurred through “taphonomic” reasons. Taphonomy is the study of bodies and body parts after death, in which the biology, geology, environments, and archaeological context is analyzed to assess preservation, decomposition, and fossilization processes. But the researchers have now considered that the hands might have been “deliberately placed.”

Out of the 12 hands studied, six were found to have intact proximal row carpal bones, which are the group of eight small bones in the wrist that connect hands to forearms. But because no fragments of lower arm bones were recovered from the pit, the researchers favor the idea that the hands “were deliberately amputated ,” having been sliced through the wrist joint capsule, then cut across the tendons that span the wrist joint.

Hands that were apparently amputated in a trophy taking practice in ancient Egypt. (Gresky, J. et al 2023 / Nature)

Hands that were apparently amputated in a trophy taking practice in ancient Egypt. ( Gresky, J. et al 2023 / Nature )

Ceremonial Amputations?

It was found that the 12 hands were still “soft and flexible” when they were deposited into the pit. This means the hands were either interred before the onset of rigor mortis , or after it had passed. Depending on various factors including temperature and humidity, the deceased individual’s age and physical condition, rigor mortis sets within a few hours after death, peaks at around 12-24 hours, and most often disappears over the course of 1-3 days. However, the scientists concluded that the 12 people were ‘dismembered during or shortly before a ceremony”.

In the ancient Celtic world, slain warriors were often decapitated during and after battles and their heads were later mounted on spikes as trophies of war. In this new study, it is believed that the practice of amputating the right hands of enemies, known as “trophy taking,” was introduced to Egypt by the Hyksos people around 50-80 years before the act was inscribed in Egyptian tombs.

Hyksos Trophy Taking

The Hyksos originated from western Asia and after invading Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period (1650 BC to 1550 BC) they established a ruling dynasty in Egypt from around 1650 – 1550 BC. Based at their capital city of Avaris, in the eastern delta, the Hyksos had developed advanced military tactics including the use of war chariots and bronze metallurgy. The paper says depictions from this time found at the temple of Seti I in Abydos , west of the Nile River in Upper Egypt, show “a stack of hands.”

Medinet Habu Temple, Egypt, piles of hands. (Steven C. Price / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Medinet Habu Temple, Egypt, piles of hands. (Steven C. Price / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

In the case of these 12 severed hands, the study says they were probably presented “as prizes during a public event held at the palace.” But before this new analysis, previously discovered amputated hands were most often associated with a form of punishment, where criminals had their hands amputated to deter others. Now that it has been established that severed hands were associated with trophy-taking practices, it can be speculated that like whole mummies, hands were believed to have magical properties that helped the deceased in the afterlife. And as such, hands were carefully severed from enemies and presented as offerings to the gods.

Top Image: A severed hand that was apparently amputated in a trophy taking practice by the Hyksos in Egypt. Source: Gresky, J. et al 2023 / Nature