Severed Hands: Trophies of War in New Kingdom Egypt

As published in Strata in the March/April 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review

Archaeological investigations have uncovered pits containing altogether 16 severed right hands. Photo: Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo and the Institute for Egyptology.

Excavations conducted in a Hyksos palace at Tell el-Daba (ancient Avaris) in Egypt have for the first time provided archaeological evidence for a gruesome practice previously known only from texts and temple reliefs.1 Archaeological investigations led by Manfred Bietak and Irene Forstner-Müller in the northern part of the palace, which in its late phase has been attributed to King Khayan of the 15th Dynasty (c. 1600 B.C.), have uncovered pits containing altogether 16 severed right hands.

A narrative found in the tomb of Ahmose, son of Ibana, at Elkab describes how after each battle against the Hyksos at Avaris and Sharuhen, the soldier presented an enemy hand as a trophy and was given as a reward the “gold of valor.” Among additional evidence from the New Kingdom are representations depicting severed right hands being counted and put into a heap.

Relief from the Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu depicting severed right hands being counted and put into a heap. Photo: Bettina Bader.

The finds from Tell el-Daba appear to match the textual and pictorial evidence for the practice of victors chopping off the right hands of their enemies to present to the king as evidence of their success. No such custom is known in northern Canaan, where the Hyksos likely originated. Preliminary conclusions therefore indicate that the practice was native to Egypt and adopted by the Hyksos.

The excavations were undertaken by the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo in cooperation with the Institute for Egyptology at the University of Vienna.
 


 
Read the Bible History Daily feature The Expulsion of the Hyksos and watch a full-length lecture by Tell el-Daba archaeologist Manfred Bietak online for free.
 

 

Notes

1. Manfred Bietak, “The Archaeology of the ‘Gold of Valour,’” Egyptian Archaeology 42 (Spring 2012), pp. 32–33.

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  1. Paul says

    In the biography of Ahmose, son of Ebana, the subsequent military campaigns he led in the service of Egyptian kings resulted in his acquiring pieces of land and slaves, in accordance with Ecclesiastes 5:8; “Thus the greatest advantage in all the land is his: he controls a field that is cultivated.”
    Now there’s evidence that a Hyksos king also resorted to extreme measures like Ahmose, son of Ebana, who also began his career by collecting hands and moved up in the world by collecting heads as trophies.
    I wonder if we see these historic events encryptically described in Genesis 4:2; “Abel became a shepherd of the flock, and Cain became a tiller of the soil.” The Hyksos, or Rulers of Foreign Lands were also known as the Shepherd Kings, according to Josephus who quotes Manetho. As the above article mentions, the Hyksos were believed to originated in northern Canaan, with the name of the Hyksos king Khayan being Amorite whose territory included northwestern Canaan. There was an ancient city called Ebla (Abel) in northwest Canaan that was destroyed around 1600 B.C.E., presumably by the Hittites, since we know the Hittites sacked the city of Babylon at this time. Coincidentally, Khayan (Cain) ruled Avaris at this time and his name was found in Hattusha, the capitol of the Hittite empire.

  2. Paul says

    Actually the heads recieved by Ahmose son of Ebana are slaves: “One captured Avaris; I took captive there one man and three women, total four heads, his majesty gave them to me for slaves.” Note the spoils of war given as a gift from the archruler; “One high official is protected by a higher one” (Ecclesiastes 5:7). So possibly the Hyksos king Khayan had his own officers who didn’t feel the need to be concious of the consequences of their actions since they would be rewarded. Khayan’s Egyptian name was Seuserenre which means “the one whom Re has caused to be strong,” and this reminds me of a sentence from “The Apocryphon of John.” In the convaluted Gnostic mythology of the Demiurge (who is conflated with God of the Old Testament), the Archgenerator begot authorities for himself (not unlike the god-incarnate Pharaoh); “The sixth one is Cain, whom the generations of men call the sun.”

  3. Paul says

    Genesis 48:22 records the blessing transmitted from Jacob to Joseph and his posterity; “As for me, I give you a portion (shechem) more than your brothers; the one I took from the Amorite with my sword and my bow.” The footnote in The Jerusalem Bible reads: “A play on words. Jacob is like the president of a feast or sacrificial meal handing the shoulder (shekem) to the sons of Joseph. According to 33:19, he had bought a field at Shechem.”
    Presumably this takes place while the Hyksos ruled northern Egypt, and is indicative of the various foreign entities dwelling in Egypt with ties to the land of Canaan and beyond. We have no evidence of Joseph’s existance in Egypt but there is another source in which an imprisoned slave is released and rises in Ecclesiastes 4:13-16. Perhaps this whole narrative about Joseph is fiction and is an attempt to project into the Hyksos era a gospel on good governance like the best intentions of providing the Pharaoh with funerary depictions of the afterlife that I imagine would have decorated Joseph’s sarcophagus (Genesis 50:26) that is like a time capsule projected into the void of space..
    We know from the Amarna texts that there was infighting among the Canaanite city-states, and this had the potential of effecting the political rivalry among the various Hyksos rulers in Egypt. Back in 1993 authorities arrested the Egyptian blind cleric Umar Abd al-Rahman for his involvement in numerous terror plots from his base in Brooklyn. He was Osama bin Laden’s instrument for waging a “jihad” in the U.S. The actual founder of Al Qaeda was a sheikh by the name of Abdullah Azzam who wanted to use funds to help persecuted Muslims abroad but Osama bin Laden had him killed in 1989 and through the Blind Sheikh (who also murdered the founder of the Jewish Defense League, Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1991) the usurper took over the organization’s office in Brooklyn with a view to wage global jihad and establish a caliphate.

  4. Paul says

    Correction: The Blind Sheikh facilitatted the murder of Rabbi Kahane in 1990. I think that in the context of the story of Cain and Abel,, the organization comprised of mujahidin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan was essentially hijacked by Osama bin Laden due to his wealth like Cain, allowing him to murder with impunity his own “brother” Abdullah Azzam who did not want to kill innocents. To me the organization of Al Qaeda and its ideology can be summed up in the statement Jesus made about Satan; “He Was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44).

  5. Mr. says

    There is a big question of chronology regarding the Hyksos rule of Egypt. What better opportunity than to do carbon dating on these bones! Edgar Cayce Foundation, where are you when we need you?

  6. David says

    This reminds me of King David collecting Philistine foreskins for a dowry to give to King Saul. It has two advantages there; you know they’re from the enemy, and you know it’s something they don’t give up unless they’re dead. Hands could come from anybody, but at least you know they won’t fight again.


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