Arabian bronze hand

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This bronze hand was given as an offering to the god Talab Riyam in a temple in pre-Islamic Yemen. The right hand was traditionally a symbol of good luck and an inscription on the hand indicates it was offered in exchange for well-being. Parts of the hand are very realistic and it may have been modeled on the man who dedicated it, Wahab Talab. The fact that Wahab shares a name with the god suggests he was a person of important status.

What was Arabia like before Islam?

Before the arrival of Islam in AD 622, Arabia was ruled by a confederation of tribes known as the Himyarites. They dominated the trade route between the Roman Empire and India and grew rich on the export of the 'perfumes of Arabia' - frankincense and myrrh. When this hand was made paganism was already declining due to the popularity of Judaism and Christianity. Islam largely purged Arabia of its pagan past and objects like this are all that remain of this lost religion.

Offering replicas of body parts at shrines was widespread - they've been found in Greek temples and medieval pilgrim sites

Carefully crafted and quite beautiful

I’m sure this is a human hand, but there are certain things that are slightly odd about it. The scooped, or ‘spoon-shaped’, nails are really indicative of someone who might have anaemia. The fingers are really thin and spindly and also there is this deformity of the little finger, which I think is probably traumatic, which means the finger has probably been broken at some stage at the end of it.

What they have done so carefully is the impression of the veins, which would probably go against it being some form of amputation because if the hand was amputated the veins would be empty, because obviously the blood drains out. And these are very carefully crafted and really quite beautiful.

I think someone has actually drawn some skin markings in over the metacarpal phalangeal joints – over the knuckles at the base of the fingers. I don’t think that’s indicative of any form of disease or anything like that, but it’s just slightly odd.

I suppose being a hand surgeon I don’t actually regard it as being quite so disquieting as someone who isn’t used to this sort of thing, but a cut off hand has eerie sorts of features about it; and one has a slight concern that it might move!

Jeremy Field, consultant orthopaedic and hand surgeon

Comments are closed for this object


  • 1. At 15:45 on 4 June 2010, SG wrote:

    We are so lucky to have a series like this, a great amalgamation of two ique uninstitutions. Why no book to accompany it?

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  • 2. At 17:11 on 7 June 2010, David Prudames wrote:

    SG - Thanks for your kind words. While we hadn?t originally intended to produce a book of the series, public demand has been such that the British Museum and BBC are currently in discussions with a view to publishing one.
    David Prudames, British Museum

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  • 3. At 12:27 on 8 June 2010, Peter Mathews wrote:

    This is perhaps one of the most intriguing objects to date for a number of reasons. Writing is a uniquely human attribute. I was told that the (classic) Arabic for the right hand is the writing hand. The object embodies writing on the right hand. The measure of a true Muslim is to hold the Qur'an in the right hand - an example of a ritualistic definition. Were the object to have been produced by the writer the writer would have been left-handed. This is highly unlikely for a variety of reasons.
    While no image of the prophet Mohammed is permitted in Islam, the (right) hand of Fatima, one of the prophet's wives is. I have also been told that the hand of Fatima - sometimes with an inscribed 'evil' eye can be traced back to India.

    I have two questions: is the writing right to left or left to right? and what was/is the meaning of the Arabic root tlb, since it also occurs in the modern label Taliban?

    I have two questions:

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  • 4. At 21:25 on 17 June 2010, Aishajunejo wrote:

    @ Peter MAthews, Fatima was daughter of Prophet muhammad , I don't think its image of Fatima.

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  • 5. At 13:18 on 23 June 2010, vagabondus hibernicus wrote:

    An interseting detail not mentioned in the show is that the meaning og the word Yemen, the country where the hand was found is "Right hand side". Everything to do with the right hand was considered auspicious in the semitic cultures of this time. (And many other cultures including our own of course.) If one stood in Arabia and observed the rising sun the land of Yemen was on the right hand side. ( the side on which the sun travelled!!)
    Another example: Benjamin
    Jacob's youngest son (Gen. xxxv.18), from Heb. Binyamin, lit. "son of the south," though interpreted in Genesis as "son of the right hand," from ben "son of" + yamin "right hand," also "south" (in an East-oriented culture). Cf. Arabic cognate yaman "right hand, right side, south;" yamana "he was happy," lit. "he turned to the right." The right was regarded as auspicious
    The Greeks and the Romans translated this auspicios nature of the country as the "Happy Arabia" Greek: Eudaimon Arabia and Arabia Felix.
    Many thanks to the BBC and The British Museum for great use of the internet!

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  • 6. At 16:00 on 30 June 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    But why oh Why? Why was he giving his right hand away anyway?? And how much was this little ceremony costing him? Or quite possibly more to the point how much was he obliged to pay not to give his right hand up? A large lump of bronze cannot have been cheap in those days. You would want quite a lot of good luck for a lump of brass that expensive. Perhaps the custom of chopping a thiefs hand off was suspended in war times and the bronze equivalent was needed to make a sword for his own use? And now I come to think about it, maybe his real hand had to have the same words etched onto it as a mirrored reminder of some kind? Something like, ?Do well fighting or loose your head as well??
    Anyway I agree, it is certainly mind boggling. Thank you for sharing,

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  • 7. At 13:53 on 4 November 2010, David Prudames wrote:

    @Peter Matthews - the writing on the hand is right to left, and there is no connection between the Arabic root tlb and the modern label Taliban.

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2nd-3rd century AD


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