BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Severed Hands at Avaris

Counting enemies or punishing convicts?

In 2011, archaeologists excavating Avaris (modern Tell el-Dab‘a), in the eastern Nile Delta, made a gruesome discovery. In three pits just outside an ancient palace of the Hyksos kings of Egypt, they uncovered a dozen human hands. This being the only such find so far made in Egypt, its meaning is a matter of scholarly debate.

A relief from the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu depicting severed hands of defeated enemies. Asta, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A relief from the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu depicting severed hands of defeated enemies. Asta, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Writing for the Spring 2024 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Daniele Candelora presents her view in an article titled “Hands Off! The Severed Hands of the Hyksos Capital.” Her interpretation takes into account the location of the grisly find and the Asiatic background of the Hyksos, who ruled much of ancient Egypt from their palace at Avaris. Assistant Professor of Ancient Mediterranean History at the State University of New York at Cortland, Candelora seeks to answer whether the severed hands reflect a local Egyptian custom or were something introduced by the foreign Hyksos.


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Recounting other known instances of severed human hands from ancient Egypt, Candelora first introduces the better-known Egyptian practice of cutting off and counting the right hands of defeated enemies. This custom is well documented in Egyptian written records and monumental reliefs. As depicted in the relief above, Egyptians would collect and count hands of killed enemies at the edge of the battlefield as a way of tallying slain enemies to report to their commanders and, eventually, the king. In fact, the above example from the second courtyard of the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu (c. 1160 BCE) is part of a larger scene in which three different processions of the pharaoh’s administrators present him counted hands.

The only problem with connecting this widespread custom with the hands excavated at Avaris is that it appears only after the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt, during the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1069 BCE). “Indeed, there is no clear evidence that the Egyptians routinely severed hands before the time of the Hyksos,” writes Candelora. “Although the mutilation of enemy bodies is recorded as far back as the Early Dynastic period (on artifacts such as the Narmer Palette, dated to c. 3100 BCE), and some legal punishments from the New Kingdom included the severing of the criminal’s nose and ears, neither military nor judicial contexts record severing hands.”

At Avaris, in the eastern Nile Delta, archaeologists discovered three pits with severed hands. Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo and the Institute for Egyptology

At Avaris, in the eastern Nile Delta, archaeologists discovered three pits with severed hands. Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo and the Institute for Egyptology

The forensic analysis of the hands from Avaris revealed that 11 belonged to men but one may have belonged to a woman. In addition, the hands appear as if removed with surgical care, and they were apparently buried either before rigor mortis (i.e., within 6 hours after death) or after it had worn off (1 to 2 days). Possible scenarios of what might have transpired at Avaris, therefore, include amputation from both living and dead people, and a burial that took place either immediately or the next day.

Citing several West Asian legal traditions, including the Code of Hammurabi, Candelora prefers to interpret the severed hands from Avaris as a practice introduced by the Hyksos rulers of Egypt. “From the West Asian perspective, therefore, the Tell el-Dab‘a hands can best be explained as a criminal punishment for anything ranging from insubordination to rebellion. Given that the hands were clearly not deposited at the same time, we have evidence for at least two instances at Avaris when the king likely issued his judgment from the palace, the sentence was carried out, and the severed hands were buried in the courtyard.”

To further explore the ancient practice of severing and counting human hands, read Daniele Candelora’s article “Hands Off! The Severed Hands of the Hyksos Capital,” published in the Spring 2024 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full article “Hands Off! The Severed Hands of the Hyksos Capital” by Daniele Candelora in the Spring 2024 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
 
 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

 

Severed Hands: Trophies of War in New Kingdom Egypt

A Tomb in Jerusalem Reveals the History of Crucifixion and Roman Crucifixion Methods

The Expulsion of the Hyksos


 
 

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