Whether for statuary or prosthetics, humans have been replicating their body parts for millennia. When we have the privilege of discovering some of these pieces, it can be difficult to determine their original purpose. In the case of a recent discovery, experts are still unsure whether what they discovered was meant to be worn, held, or just admired.
Currently, the world’s oldest known prosthetic is a 3,000-year-old wood and leather big toe found in a tomb in Egypt. For ceremonial use, cultures around the world have made use of various animal parts, incorporating them into headdresses, jewelry, staves, and countless other things. What about human body parts?
A recent discovery in Europe has archaeologists and historians scratching their heads as they try to determine the former use of a decorated bronze hand. The hand, along with a skeleton and several other artifacts, was found in a grave in Bern, Switzerland.
An age of bronze
Radiocarbon dating places the metal hand at around 3,500 years old, during the Bronze Age. The hand is decorated with a golden cuff that was glued in place using natural adhesives. On the bottom of the piece, there is a small socket where researchers believe a pole or stick may have been inserted, turning the had into a sort of wand or possibly making it usable as a ceremonial piece.
The discovery of the hand isn’t the only odd thing about the gravesite. It is unusually well-stocked for a Bronze Age burial site, and the contents have archaeologists baffled.
During the Bronze Age, burial sites were often multi-person graves, either in the form of a burial mound called a cairn or a stone-lined hole called a cist, one sometimes containing the other. More importantly, the graves typically contained very few other objects. Occasionally, an urn containing an offering for the spirit of the deceased might be included in the burial, but metal objects were very rarely interred with the dead.
Was this the grave of someone of note? Unfortunately for scientists, the tomb had been broken into by looters before they had gotten to it. As a result, we don’t know how the hand had initially been arranged with the body. Even still, the discovery of the peculiar burial site has given us more in-depth insight into how Bronze Age people lived and died.