Skeletal remains of a right hand found in front of palace at Tel el-Daba, current name for ancient Avaris. (Credit: Axel Krause/Austrian Archaeological Institute)

And David commanded his young men, and they killed them and cut off their hands and feet and hanged them beside the pool at Hebron. But they took the head of Ish-bosheth and buried it in the tomb of Abner at Hebron.—2 Samuel 4:12 (ESV)

First the knuckles and joints appeared and then the long, strong finger bones. Workers with the Austrian Archaeological Institute brushed away the remaining soil, revealing the calcified skeleton buried in front of a palace in ancient Egypt. Only the right hand, though. It had been severed from its body around 3,500 years ago.

Recently, workers actually discovered two right hands, each buried in a separate pit and each probably with separate ceremony. Before the dig was done, they unearthed another 14 right hands in two pits outside the palace compound. These were probably buried later than the first two, surmised the team leaders.

[Video – Reconstruction of Palace at Tell el-Daba]

It was the first physical evidence of a ritual described in Egyptian hieroglyphs and practiced in other countries around the Mediterranean—that of cutting off the hands of a vanquished opponent. In Egypt, the reward for delivery of a severed right hand to the proper authority was gold.

One ancient story, written about in Live Science, offers this account by an Egyptian fighting against the Hyksos, invading people from western Asia. “‘Then I fought hand to hand. I brought away a hand. It was reported to the royal herald.’ For his efforts, the writer was given ‘the gold of valor’ (translation by James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Volume II, 1905).”

“Our evidence is the earliest evidence and the only physical evidence at all,” said Manfred Bietak referring to this practice and the 16 severed hands his team recently retrieved. Project and field director of the excavations at ancient Avaris, Bietak’s interview with the periodical Egyptian Archeology was quoted in Live Science.

While gold as a reward for proof of an enemy’s defeat is primarily Egyptian lore, the practice of cutting off the hands of an opponent can be found in other countries of the ancient world. For instance, Israel’s King David ordered men guilty of treason to suffer mutilation after their deaths.

A second “right hand” was found in a single pit on the palace grounds at Avaris. Tradition has it that the hands of a dead foe could be exchanged by victorious warriors for a golden reward. (Credit: Axel Krause/Austrian Archaeological Institute)

Besides two hands in two pits in front of the palace, archeologists found a total of 14 more right hands in two pits elsewhere on the palace grounds. (Credit: Axel Krause/Austrian Archaeological Institute)

And David commanded his young men, and they killed them and cut off their hands and feet and hanged them beside the pool at Hebron.  – 2 Samuel 4:12 (ESV)

Cutting off the right hand not only publicly shamed the deceased, it sent a strong message not to follow in his footsteps. Perhaps in the minds of the living, it also prevented any nefarious action by a foe in the afterlife.

“You deprive him of his power eternally,” Bietak explained.

The relevance of Avaris

It is interesting that the discovery of these skeletal remains occurred in the archeological digs at Tell el-Daba, the modern-day name for the site of a buried ancient city at the center of a hotly debated question: Did Israelites actually live in and leave Egypt?

Field Director Manfred Bietak at the Tell el-Daba excavation site. (© 2002 Patterns of Evidence, LLC)

Archeologist Bietak and others have concluded that there is little evidence they did. Disputing this conclusion, Egyptologist David Rohl believes there is plenty of evidence in the excavations of Avaris to conclude that Israelites were there.

“Most scholars say if you look at the city of Ramesses, there are no Asiatics there. There are no Semites . . . ,” says Rohl in the book Patterns of Evidence: Exodus. Rohl is referring to the more recent city at that location. He continues, “But dig down a little deeper and you do find a city full of Asiatics.” That city is Avaris and the Asiatics he believes are Israelites. NOTE: Both Ramesses and Avaris were located in the land of Goshen, mentioned in the Bible as having been given by Pharaoh to the Israelites.

Settle your father and your brothers in the best of the land. Let them settle in the land of Goshen… – Genesis 47.6 (ESV)

This is Pharaoh speaking to Joseph, an Israelite and his second in command.

The problem is, many archeologists, including Manfred Bietak, think that any evidence of the Israelites will be found in the City of Ramesses at a time when the 19th Dynasty ruled Egypt–a period known as the New Kingdom.

Rohl and other scholars argue that the Israelites arrived, multiplied, became slaves, and were led out of Egypt hundreds of years earlier—during the 12th and 13th dynasties of Egypt. This period is known today as the Middle Kingdom.

Reconstruction of the city of Avaris during the 13th Dynasty. From a scene in the documentary film Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus, which based all their animations on archaeological dig reports. (© 2015, Patterns of Evidence, LLC)

At Avaris, the evidence shows a small group of settlers from the Canaan/Syria area settled on virgin ground, rapidly grew to a huge population, fell on hard times (consistent with enslavement), before evacuating the site quickly at the same time that Egypt’s power fell drastically.

This is all matches the Bible’s Exodus account. The archaeology then shows that Egypt fell into the Second Intermediate Period, when their society was very weak and fragmented. It was this weakness that seems to have allowed the Hyksos to invade Egypt from the north, and dominate most of Lower Egypt for more than a century before the New Kingdom arose. However, this pattern of evidence cannot be linked to the Israelites as long as scholars insist that the Israelites lived hundreds of years later in time. They believe any apparent similarities must just be coincidences.

There were two main phases seen at Avaris; the earlier phase that Rohl associates with the Israelites, and a later phase when the Hyksos, a people group from the Canaan region, took over the mostly abandoned city. The second group was eventually ruled by a rich merchant class, whose occupation began after the Israelites left in Rohl’s construction. Could the Hyksos have been forced out of Canaan because of Joshua’s conquest 40 years after the Exodus, only to invade a still devastated Egypt? David Rohl’s research has uncovered several significant factors that support this idea.

Does Rohl believe the pits at Avaris contained the remains of Israelite hands or hands of their foes? He does not.

“These were found in the level associated with the immediate post-Hyksos expulsion,” he states. Rohl refers to the time at the end of the Hyksos occupation when the rising power of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty finally thrust the Hyksos out of Egypt.

Hopefully new finds at Avaris will continue to piece together the puzzle of the different phases of occupation at the site. Most spectacular would be the discovery of ancient inscriptions from the early levels of the city. So far, only about 5% of the site has been excavated.

For a deeper discussion of the archeological proof and argument that Israel did indeed occupy the ancient Egyptian city of Avaris in Goshen, visit

…and above all, keep thinking!