Cache of Ancient Severed Hands May Have Been Part of a Ritual

Twelve right hands found in an Egyptian palace courtyard were likely battle trophies that warriors exchanged for gold

Old hands buried in the ground
Researchers uncovered a cache of 12 right hands in the courtyard of an Egyptian palace in 2011. DAI / ÖAI under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

While excavating an ancient Egyptian palace, archaeologists made a macabre discovery: a cache of 12 severed right hands buried in pits in the courtyard. After the find in 2011, researchers were divided about the hands’ histories—whether they were cut off as a punishment or as part of a ritual, reports Andrew Curry for Science

Now, in a recent study published in Scientific Reports, researchers suggest these hands may have been battle trophies that warriors exchanged for golden beads during a ceremony called “gold of honor.” While the practice was documented in tomb and temple inscriptions, this is the first time scientists have unearthed physical evidence of it, per the study.

The Egyptian palace where the hands were found dates to about 1640 to 1530 B.C.E. and was in the ancient city of Avaris (now Tell el-Dab‘a), located in the country’s northeast. During that time, the Hyksos, a group of people with Asian origins, controlled the region. The Hyksos introduced Egyptians to several new technologies, including the horse and chariot, and likely introduced the gold of honor ritual, too, write the authors.

Certain details of the hands point to a ceremonial purpose: For one, they were found in three separate pits in the palace’s forecourt directly in front of the throne room. The authors write this placement likely “points to the widespread visibility conferred by the practice that generated the deposits as part of a public ceremony.” Additionally, the hands were removed cleanly, without cut marks or parts of the lower arm included. 

“No signs of cutting is a sign that they did it very carefully, not with an ax or something,” Isabelle Crevecoeur, a physical anthropologist at CNRS, the French national research agency, who was not involved with the study, tells Science. “It’s delicate work. That, for me, is a good argument they did it for a ritual.”

It is unclear whether the severed hands were taken from living or dead individuals, per the study, and because the bones lacked intact DNA, researchers have not determined who exactly the hands belonged to. But they suggest the gold of honor ceremony likely took place after the stiffness of rigor mortis ended, at least 24 to 48 hours after death. As for the location of the severings, it’s “rather likely that the hands were taken close to Avaris as they were intact when they were buried and most probably not mummified,” study lead author Julia Gresky, a scientist at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin, tells Live Science’s Owen Jarus. 

Researchers write the individuals who the hands belonged to were likely older than 14 to 21, but the absence of age-related degeneration suggests they were not elderly. Additionally, the team estimates 11 of the individuals were males, and one might have been a female, based on the length of the second and fourth fingers. Men usually have longer fourth digits, per the study. 

But that’s not always the case—women can also have a longer fourth finger, Sonia Zakrzewski, a professor of bioarchaeology and bioanthropology at the University of Southampton in England who was not involved in the research, tells Live Science.

“I think it’s a wonderful find and a great paper, even if I am unconvinced by the certainty of their sexing of the hands,” she tells the publication.

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