- Museum number
Copper alloy right hand; life-sized; lost-wax casting; six-line dedicatory inscription indicating that it was set up as a carefully made votive offering inspired by a human hand.
- Production date
Height: 18.50 centimetres
Weight: 979.70 grammes
Thickness: 3.60 centimetres
Width: 11 centimetres
- Curator's comments
The right hand is traditionally regarded as a powerful symbol of good fortune and thus is not only depicted as trophies (Simpson StJ 2002a, cat. 26) but also as an apotropaic motif on dedicatory inscriptions (Simpson StJ 2002a, cat. 31) and, indeed, emphasised as a gesture of worshippers in their dedicatory statues and stelae (see Simpson StJ 2002a, cats 24-5, 124-5). The same function probably explains a small number of uninscribed bronze and plaster model hands in other collections (e.g. Calvet and Robin 1997a, 246, no. 171; Seipel 1998a, 335-6, nos 279-82). The form of dedicatory inscription on this object is typical of bronze inscriptions, yet this is the first example to be discovered on part of the body, a practice that is nevertheless attested in South Arabian inscriptions. This hand was dedicated to the god Ta'lab Riyam in the city of Zafar (see also Simpson StJ 2002a,cat. 29) and the inscription reads:
Wahab Ta'lab, son of Hisam, the Yursamite, subject of the Banu Sukhaym, has dedicated to their patron Ta'lab Riyam this right hand in his memorial dhu-Qabrat in the city of Zafar, for his well being. (Robin 1985a)
The hand is very realistic and may have been modelled on an actual hand, perhaps of the dedicant. Examination within the Department of Scientific Research indicates that this object was made of leaded bronze, containing some traces of silver and nickel.1 The object was cast using copper chaplets to hold the core, most of which was subsequently removed, however, sufficient remained for thermoluminescence testing to confirm the purported age of the piece. The remains of two casting sprues are present at the wrist which indicate, firstly, that the metal was poured into the mould with the fingers pointing downwards and, secondly, that this is not a piece broken from a larger casting. There is evidence of work done on the surface after casting, including the addition of the inscription, which partly cuts a chaplet.
1 Unpublished report (R.L. File No. 4943).
Robin, C., 1985. "L'offrande d'une main en Arabie pre-islamique. Essai d'interprétation", 'Mélanges linguistiques offerts à Maxime Rodinson par ses élèves, ses collegues et ses amis' (Robin, C., ed.), 307-20, Paris: Paul Geuthner.
Antonini suggest that the hand may have been fixed upright on a base (Antonini 2007: pp. 156).
Bowers catalogue entry:
Inscribed hand dedicated to the god Talab
2nd - 3rd century AD
Length 18.5 cm, width 11 cm, thickness 3.6 cm; 979.7 g weight
ANE 1983-6-26,2 = 139443
Purchased from Spink & Son
The right hand is traditionally regarded as a powerful symbol of good fortune and thus was widely illustrated in ancient South Arabia as an apotropaic motif on dedicatory inscriptions and, indeed, emphasised as a gesture of worshippers in their dedicatory statues and stelae. The same function probably explains a small number of uninscribed bronze and plaster model hands in other collections. The form of dedicatory inscription on this object is typical of bronze inscriptions, yet this is the first example to be discovered on part of the body, a practice that is nevertheless attested in South Arabian inscriptions. This hand was dedicated to the god Talab Riyam in a place called Zafar, although this appears to be different to the later Himyarite capital of the same name in the Yemeni highlands. The inscription reads:
“Wahab Talab, son of Hisam, the Yursamite, subject of the Banu Sukhaym, has dedicated to their patron Talab Riyam [this] right hand, in his memorial dhu-Qabrat in the city of Zafar, for his well-being”.
Its provenance is unknown but it is said to have been first offered for sale by a sheikh from the Sanaa region to a British engineer working in Yemen. The inscription suggests that it may have originally been placed in a sanctuary belonging to a tribe believed to be from the Yemeni highlands north of Sanaa. The hand is very realistic and may have been modelled on an actual hand, perhaps even of the dedicant himself. Scientific analysis indicates that this object was made of leaded bronze, containing some traces of silver and nickel. The object was cast using copper chaplets to hold the core, most of which was subsequently removed although sufficient remained for thermoluminescence testing to confirm the purported age of the piece. The remains of two casting sprues at the wrist indicate, firstly, that the metal was poured into the mould with the fingers pointing downwards and, secondly, that this is not a piece broken from a larger casting. There is evidence of work done on the surface after casting, including the addition of the inscription, which partly cuts a chaplet.
Comments made by Jeremy Field (Orthopaedic and hand surgeon, Cheltenham General) in connection with the choice of this object as part of the BBC/BM radio programme series entitled "A History of the World in 100 Objects", text received 29th January 2010
"I think it is a human hand, I think that there are various characteristics of it that make me think it’s a human hand, although there are some characteristics of it that doubt that view really but the major thing is the fact that the thumb is quite long and that there appears to be a cascade of the metacarpophalangeal joints, starting with the slightly shorter index one, the slightly longer middle one and then the slightly shorter ring one and an even shorter little one. Those other joints at the bases of the fingers that join the fingers to what are called the metacarpal bones which are the broad basis of the palm and the back of the hand.
I’m sure this is a human hand but the fingers are very spindly and narrow and look rather odd, but they are swollen over the joints, normally you see fingers swollen over the joints but certainly the skin appears quite tight, or what would be skin, appears quite tight over them. The nails are slightly spoon shaped and that can be a associated with various things, anaemia probably being the most common cause of that. But the veinous distribution, the veins and marks on the back of the hand, are very much like the marks and veins on the back of my hand and I think they are fairly human. Unfortunately turning it over, as I’ve seen a picture of this before I came down here but I’d not actually been able to hold the wonderful thing in my hands, but turning it over there are no markings whatsoever on the palm side of the hand or fingers which is a bit of a shame because that would actually help a little bit with determining, confirming, whether it was a human hand but I certainly do think it is a human hand. The little finger is somewhat curved and it’s what we call hyper extended, and it looks as though it’s hyper extended at what’s called the distil interphalangeal joint, which is the sort of in knuckle of the finger and I think that’s probably caused by trauma- there’s no congenital deformity that I know of that gives you that deformity.
It looks like this is a fairly accurate mould of an individual’s hand. It’s quite small so I suppose it would perhaps be more likely female than it is male but I would think it is an individual’s hand. But it’s interesting the fact that they’ve moulded the back of the hand not the palm surface.
I think I’ve mentioned the fact the nails are somewhat spoon shaped so this could be a person who has anaemia and I suppose the most likely people that have anaemia are elderly people rather than younger people. So this deformity of the little finger which is slightly hyper extended I would think is a traumatic injury to the finger which again would perhaps promote it for being more likely an older person rather than a younger person. The fact that it’s small, one could say well it might be a young person but it just doesn’t look like a small hand, here the size of the veins on the back of the hand are much bigger than you would see in a young hand and so I think this is probably an elderly female hand. Now whether the thing has been amputated or not is an interesting one. Obviously this is from the 2nd or 3rd century so it’s pre-Islam, so it would not be a religious amputation and religious amputations would be of the left or the ‘inverted commas ‘dirty’ close inverted commas’ hand so it’s no an Islamic amputation and also interestingly the Islamic amputations are at a more distal level i.e. you wouldn’t see so much of the wrist as you would do in this specimen.
In amputated hands, certainly in religiously amputated hands, you would have less of the wrist here so it would be a shorter hand, the hand would be amputated at the carpometacarpal joint which is basically the further most aspect of the wrist and the amputation would be along the base of the thumb. But the base of the specimen here just looks as though it might of been amputated, it has a fairly defined edge but with slightly ragged bits on either side i.e. what we would call the radial side which is the side of the thumb and also on the little finger side which is called the ulnar side of the hand.
As a doctor, everybody is taught to examine the hand first. They pick up the hand in order to hopefully introduce yourself . . . so it’s a way of introducing yourself to the patient. But you look at the hand for all sorts of reasons; looking for nails and the creases and the colour of the palm and that sort of thing. So it is very much that.
There are certain things that are odd about it. The nails, the scooped nails or spoon shaped nails, are really indicative of someone who potentially might have something like anaemia for some reason. The fingers are really thin and spindly and also there is this deformity of the little finger which is probably traumatic, the finger’s probably been broken at some stage at the end of it. The cast has been made and I think they’ve made some little additions because although, if you look at your fingers, at the end joints of your fingers on a flat surface, you see transverse skin wrinkles. If you look at the second knuckle down from the end you see transverse skin wrinkles. If you look at your main knuckles, which are sort of the base of the fingers at the back of the hand, you don’t really see many skin markings and I think someone has actually drawn some skin markings in over the metacarpophalangeal joints i.e 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. What they’ve done so carefully is the impression of the veins which would probably go against it being some form of amputation because if a hand was amputated the veins would be empty, because obviously the blood drains out. These are very carefully crafted and really quite beautiful.
I suppose being a hand surgeon I don’t actually regard it as being quite so disquieting as someone you know who isn’t used to this sort of thing but a cut off hand has eerie sort of features about it and one has a slight concern that it might move".
- On display (G53/dc2)
- Exhibition history
2019 15 May-9 Sep, Hong Kong Heritage Museum, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2018 19 Apr-22 Jul, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2017 28 Jun-08 Oct, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2017 1 Mar-31 May, National Museum of China, Beijing, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2016-2017 08 Sep-29 Jan, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2016 13 Feb-18 Jun, National Museum of Western Australia, Perth, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2015 20 Sep-2016 11 Jan, Kobe City Museum, Kobe, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2015 14 Jul–6 Sep, Kyushu National Museum, Dazaifu, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2015 18 Apr–28 Jun, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2014 13 Dec-2015 15 Mar, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2014 23 Apr-01 Aug, Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2010-2011, London, BM/BBC, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2007- 11 Jun-, G53/South Arabia/2
2005 25 Jun-11 Sept, Washington, Smithsonian (Arthur M Sackler Gallery), 'Caravan Kingdoms: Yemen and the ancient incense trade'
2004 17 Oct-2005 13 Mar, California, Bowers Museum, 'Queen of Sheba: Legend and Reality'
2002 5 Jun-13 Oct, BM, 'Queen of Sheba: Treasures from ancient Yemen'
2000 26 Sept-2001 7 Jan, Torino, Palazzo Bricherasio, 'La Regina di Saba, Arte e Leggenda Dallo Yemen'
2000 4 Apr-30 Jun, Rome, Fondazione Memmo, Palazzo Ruspoli, 'Nel paese della Regina di Saba'
1999 7 Jul-2000 9 Jan, München, Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, 'Im Land der Königin von Saba' Not displayed
1998 9 Nov-1999 21 Feb, Vienna, Künstlerhaus, 'Jemen. Kunst und Archäologie im Land der Königin von Saba'
1997 20 Oct-1998 28 Feb, France, Paris, Musee de L’Institut du Monde Arabe, Yemen, Pays de la Reine de Saba
- Complete; some old scratches to the palm of the hand
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- BM Report of Trustees 1981-84, pp.60-61, fig. 18
- Middle East
- BM/Big number
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: Robin 1 (According to Robin C 1985a)