|25 September 2018
The mysterious bronze hand found in Switzerland
In October 2017, a pair of metal detectorists made an extraordinary discovery near a Swiss lake: a sculpted bronze hand with a gold cuff dating back some 3,500 years. Archaeologists have never seen anything quite like it, and are at a loss to explain its purpose or function. And in an unfortunate turn, the hand is now at the center of a criminal investigation.
The bronze hand and its thin gold cuff, along with a bronze dagger and a human rib bone, were discovered near Lake Biel in the Bernese Jura, about 45 km from Bern (Switzerland). The items were handed over to specialists at the Ancient History and Roman Archeology Department in the Bern Archaeological Service one day after the discovery.
The hand of Prêles, as it's now called, is slightly smaller than an adult hand and was cast from about a pound of bronze. Radiocarbon dating of the organic, vegetable-based glue used to adhere the gold band to the hand's wrist places the artifact to between 1,400 and 1,500 BCE, back during Europe's Middle Bronze Age. The archaeologists studying the hand, a team led by Andrea Schae, say it's doubtful the hand was worn; a socket inside the hand suggests it was mounted on a staff of some kind.
Schae's team returned to the site in the Bernese Jura to conduct further excavations. They discovered that a grave, possibly a tomb, that unfortunately "had suffered significant damage as a result of recent work." There are indications that some objects were stolen from the site and a spokesperson for the Canton Archaeological Service of Bern confirmed that "a criminal investigation is currently underway in this matter."
Despite this, the researchers managed to uncover more items at the site, including the bones of a middle-aged male, a long bronze pin, a bronze spiral likely worn as a hair ornament, more bits of gold foil (likely from the hand), and one of the sculpture's missing fingers. The archaeologists say the hand was likely buried with the man, of whom we know virtually nothing.
Beneath the grave, the researchers uncovered a stone-based structure. Apparently, "The man and the bronze hand were deliberately buried over this older construction. He must have been a high-ranking character," wrote the researchers. "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 hand of Prêles is now the oldest bronze piece representing a part of the human body. It is therefore a unique and remarkable object," they added.
A formal research paper to describe the findings is forthcoming, but the researchers are still trying to figure out if the items were manufactured nearby or imported from afar. They're also struggling to understand the purpose of the sculpted bronze hand. "We do not know either the meaning and the function attributed to it," the authors wrote. "Its gold ornament suggests that it is an emblem of power, a distinctive sign of the social elite, even of a deity. The hand is extended by a hollow form that suggests that it was originally mounted on another object: it was perhaps part of a scepter or a statue."
Edited from Canton de Berne PR (18 September 2018), Gizmodo (25 September 2018)
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