Severed Hands Discovered In Ancient Egyptian Palace Ruins

Archaeologists from the Austrian Archaeological Institute and the Austrian Academy of Sciences excavating a palace in the ancient city of Avaris, Egypt (today  Tell el-Daba) unearthed four pits with skeletons of 16 ancient severed hands.   All the hands were right hands, there were no left hands.

“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 ancient city of Avaris was the capital of Hyksos Egypt.

The hands are about 3,600 years old and date to when Hyksos controlled parts of Egypt.

The Hyksos period is still very obscure from historical point of view, but the long going excavation of the Austrian team has contributed to a series of corrections in its historiography. The population originated most probably from Lebanon and northern Syria, as the newly discovered palace and the pottery shows. They were people with an urban background and came originally in the late 12th Dynasty (Middle Kingdom) as shipbuilders, sailors, soldiers and craftsmen to the country where the pharaohs settled them in a harbour town in the north-eastern Delta, the later city of Avaris. In a time of political weakness they were able to establish a small kingdom there and soon afterwards were able to control the Delta and Middle Egypt until their former vassals in Upper Egypt, particularly king Ahmose defeated them and founded the New Kingdom.  BiblePlaces

The palace is believed to have to have belonged to King Khayan of the Hyksos.  The ancient city of Avaris on the Nile Delta was the capital of Hyksos Egypt.

It was there in this outer space of the palace [forecourt] that two pits with altogether 14 cut off right hands were found.  Two more pits [believed to be the throne room of a palace] with one hand each were found under the four-columned building just at the front enclosure wall of the palace.

The pit of severed hands uncovered at Avaris, Egypt. (Australian Archaeological Institute/Excavation Report)

Right Hands

This is thought to be the earliest find and only physical evidence that soldiers presented the cut-off right hands of enemies in exchange for gold.

Manfred Bietak, project and field director of the excavations, “Our evidence is the earliest evidence and the only physical evidence at all. Each pit represents a ceremony.”

Warriors would remove the right hand from enemy soldiers they had killed and then present them to the king or representative official in exchange for “gold of valor.” In this case, once the severed hands were redeemed for gold, they were ritually buried.

Cutting off the right hand of your enemy also had a symbolic and religious purpose: it removed a warrior’s strength, his means to wield a weapon, and left him defanged and crippled in the afterlife.  HistoryBlog


Inscribed on the tomb of Ahmose,  about 80 years later than the time the 16 hands were buried is a description of a warrior securing his gold of valor.

“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. LiveScience

Four hundred years after the Avaris hands were buried the practice continued.

Massive reliefs on the outer pylons of Rameses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu depict officials emptying out baskets full of severed hands to tally the dead in the Libyan War and then presenting them to Rameses. HistoryBlog

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. LiveScience

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