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Ancient 3,500-Year-Old Bronze Hand Is A Mystery To Archaeologists

Need a hand, archeologists?

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Tom Hale

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Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

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Ancient Bronze age objects found in the tomb of Prêles: a dagger blade, a brooch, and a spiral serving as a hair ornament, all in bronze.

The set of objects found in the tomb of Prêles: a dagger blade, a brooch, and a spiral serving as a hair ornament, all in bronze. The pieces of gold plate probably come from the hand. Image credit: ©Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne/Philippe Joner

Back in 2017, archaeologists in Switzerland come across a truly baffling, yet potentially very important, discovery buried within an ancient grave: a 3,500-year-old bronze hand with a gold cuff around the wrist.

It was the first and only time an object like this has ever been unearthed in this part of Europe, so the researchers were unsure what they were dealing with. It appears that the ornate object was a symbol of power, but it’s unclear whether it was once part of a larger sculpture or if it's the top ornament of a staff.

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The Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern carried out a detailed scientific analysis of the curious object. Their preliminary carbon dating determined that the hand dated between 1,500 and 1,400 BCE, around the Middle Bronze Age of Europe

This dating suggests that it's perhaps the world’s oldest bronze piece representing a part of the human body. If it is indeed a sculpture, it might even be the oldest bronze sculpture in Europe.

"To the knowledge of Swiss, German, and French specialists, there has never been a comparable sculpture dating from the Bronze Age in Central Europe,” the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern said in a press release.

“It is, therefore, a unique and remarkable object.”

Bronze-age prothestic hand found in ancient tomb of Prêles:

The mystery hand is only slightly smaller than life-sized. Image credit: ©Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne/Philippe Joner


The so-called “hand of Prêles” was first discovered near Lake Biel in the western province of Bern in the fall of 2017, alongside a bronze dagger blade and a human rib. 

Then, in the summer of 2018, archaeologists working on the site discovered the skeletal remains of an adult man that appeared to be buried over a much older stone construction. His tomb also contained a bronze brooch, a bronze hair ornament, and remnants of gold plate, perhaps also once part of the bronze hand.

By uncovering the identity of this mysterious man, the researchers believe they might be able to decipher the meaning behind the unusual bronze hand.

“He must have been a high-ranking character,” added the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern.

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“It is still too early to determine whether the hand was made in the Trois-Lacs region or in a more distant region. We know neither the meaning nor the function attributed to it. Its gold ornament suggests that it is an emblem of power, a distinctive sign of the social elite, even of a deity.”

An earlier version of this article was first published in September 2018. 


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