The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Severing the Hand

Sometimes it seems like the people who work outside of California get all of the weird-ass sites.

So, in Egypt, pits have been found that contain the remains of hands.  Specifically, the remains of severed right hands.  In all, sixteen hands have been found, and some were located in areas where their burial pits in front of the throne room of a Hyksos* ruler by the tongue-twisting name of  Seuserenre Khyan (original paper available here, summaries available here and here). 

The Hyksos and Egyptians shared a practice of post-combat mutilation wherein a defeated opponent's right hand was severed (I have to wonder if, when a left-handed a opponent was defeated, a left hand would have been taken, but I don't know).  This served a few functions: 1) it disabled an opponent, reducing or even destroying their ability to fight again; 2) it was a way of taking an easy tally of the number of opponents defeated (count up the hands, and you have your total); 3) in cases where a bounty was given for defeated enemies, it allowed proof of the defeat.

In this case, Egyptian records make it clear that the severed hands of defeated enemies were  turned in to authorities for "the gold of valor" - that is, a bounty payment. 

When I first read about this, my initial thought was "weird, a bunch of severed right hands!  That's just bizarre!"

But, of course, it really isn't that bizarre.  Post-combat mutilation, whether to the bodies of enemies, or to the still-living enemies, is fairly common, likely even the norm in complex, hierarchical societies that engage in organized warfare.  The histories of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are replete with societies in which trophies were taken of the bodies of enemies, sometimes as proof of their defeat, sometimes for ritual purposes, sometimes for another reason altogether.  And this isn't something relegated to our "savage" past.  In the book Dead Mean Do Tell Tales, forensic anthropologist William Maples indicates that it was common enough for returning GIs to bring some rather grisly trophies back from the war, that when a skull that showed signs of being from a Japanese man was found, they initially assumed that it was the boiled-down remains of a decapitated Japanese soldier that had ended up in a U.S. soldier's grandchildren's attic.

The exact method used varies - sometimes it's a hand, sometimes it's an ear, or the head, or the scalp, or any number of other body parts.  But the intention remains the same - mutilate the enemy, and take a sign of their defeat.  Historically, this has backfired in some ways - there have been places where bounties offered for the removed body part have resulted in people taking the body part from other, innocent people, in order to collect - after all, who is to know whether the scalp came from an enemy soldier or your neighbor? 

In addition to the reasons outlined above, I often wonder whether this prescribed mutilation might serve another purpose.  We often fail to consider how the business of war screws with people's minds.  Indeed, there has long been a tendency in the western militaries to deny that killing and being shot at has much of an effect on your psyche.  But, throughout the world and throughout history, there have been practices geared towards directing the aggression and turmoil of soldiers.  The Bible tells of Hebrew rituals that likely served to help warriors put their acts into perspective, and Roman and Greek sources talk of things that soldiers were and were not allowed to do in and after combat in order to keep them disciplined but also sane; and I rather suspect that if I did a reading of the war practices of other cultures throughout the world, I would see more of the same.  In fact, when I read in the newspaper about U.S. soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan involved in the mutilation of bodies, as much as I may be disgusted, I am not shocked - they are doing something that humans have since the onset of warfare, that it doesn't happen more often is a tribute to the level of discipline in modern militaries.

In this sense, I have to wonder if the prescribed mutilations might serve as a way of directing people's post-combat violent tendencies to a particular, predictable goal and preventing them from acting out in even more destructive ways.  As distasteful as we may find these practices, I can not help but wonder if they served an important purpose. Regardless, archaeology has confirmed that Egypt was also home to this practice.  

*Fun fact - many a biblical literalist, when confronted with the fact that there is no archaeological evidence for the Hebrews having been held captive in Egypt, will claim that there is plenty o' evidence, but that they were known as the Hyksos.  This seems to come from a rather dubious claim made by the early historian Josephus Flavius, backed up by a misunderstanding of the etymology of the word Hyksos.  Despite the fact that both archaeological and historical investigation have proven that the Hyksos were not the Hebrews - and, what's more, were perfectly capable of holding their own militarily, not the subjugated slaves of Exodus - this claim is still frequently made by Biblical apologists.

No comments: