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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  • 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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