Archaeologists in Egypt have uncovered the first direct evidence of a gruesome practice known as the “gold of honor” ceremony, which involved the public dismemberment of enemy warriors. Though the bloody tradition is well documented in Egyptian tomb inscriptions, the discovery of 12 severed hands at an ancient palace has allowed researchers to study amputated “trophies” up close for the first time.
Describing their grisly find, the study authors explain that the hands were deposited in a courtyard that lay in front of the throne room of a palace that was built by the Hyksos between 1640 and 1530 BCE. Originating from western Asia, the Hyksos established a ruling dynasty in Egypt around this time and are credited with introducing the custom of severing the right hands of enemy soldiers.
Future dynasties are thought to have maintained this heavy-handed tradition, and the researchers say that later tomb inscriptions “consistently depict hand counts on the battlefield following major battles.”
That only right hands were discovered at the palace, therefore, fits in nicely with the theory that they were removed during a “trophy-taking” ritual, rather than as punishment for a crime. The study authors also say it’s unlikely that the hands were taken from captives, “since this would limit their potential as future slaves”.
Based on the size of the hands, the researchers believe that 11 had been cleaved from the right arms of adult males while one appears to have belonged to an enemy woman. This, they say, “may indicate that women and warfare were not worlds apart”.
While it’s unclear if the victims were alive or dead at the time of the amputation, the researchers note that all of the hands were deposited palm-down and “with wide-splayed fingers”. Whether or not they were deliberately placed in this position or merely ended up that way thanks to 3,500 years of soil pressure is currently uncertain.
However, based on the precision of the cut marks and the fact that the hands were found directly in front of the palace’s throne room, the study authors are confident that they “were offered as trophies as part of a public event that took place in the palace”.
“Although this kind of practice is known from tomb or temple inscriptions and reliefs from the New Kingdom onwards, this is the first time that physical evidence has been used to learn more about the procedure and the individuals whose hands were taken,” they write.
The researchers go on to explain that corporeal integrity was considered “vital for survival in the Ancient Egyptian view of the afterlife”, and that amputating enemies, therefore, left them eternally handicapped. For this reason, tomb inscriptions depicting ancient Egyptian warfare often feature “piles of severed heads, ears and genitals”.
Ultimately, the study authors say their findings “provide the first direct bioarchaeological evidence for the ‘gold of honor’ ceremony performed in front of the king’s palace and contribute significantly to the debate over the reconstruction of this ceremony”.
The study is published in Scientific Reports.