A wall carving from Ancient Egypt makes a straightforward case for brutality, by entailing the punishment for stealing animal hides – ‘100 lashes and five wounds’. For long, researchers were confused about the literal nature of such a severe punishment. But now, it seems many of such harsh disciplinary and retributive actions were actually undertaken during the rules of the Pharaohs – as is evidenced from the human remains inside a modest cemetery, in the ancient Egyptian capital of Amarna. These skeletons belonged to five middle-aged men, and their analysis clearly show stab wounds along the shoulder blades (probably by a spear). And the odd part was – these were not fatal wounds; on the contrary, the gashes were made in such a manner so that the worker could return to his laborious endeavor after a brief respite.
Now objectively, such intentional-yet-not-fatal stabbings do make practical (albeit discriminatory) sense, since legions of laborers were seen as collective ‘commercial assets’ for infrastructural developments of huge settlements and religious structures. In fact, many of the workers were kept in unsanitary conditions and fed with inadequate diets – while they were expected to labor hard all throughout the day. One apt example would relate to the city of Amarna itself. Designed as a grand settlement with its imposing stone temples and palaces, the entire city was constructed in a very brief time period, and that too inside a desert region – all under the harsh orders commanded by Pharaoh Akhenaten.
As for the wounds made in this case, the archaeologists (from Southern Illinois University) noticed how the ‘strategic’ slot-shaped gashes in the skeleton blade couldn’t have been made during the heat of any battle or even during accidental falls. Simply put, the injuries were made from behind, with the assailant aptly positioned to inflict the wound. Now reverting to literary evidences, mentions of such punishments do exist. For example, a thief charged with stealing an oxen was supposedly punished with 100 blows and five wounds. Similar punishments also existed for higher ranked official and overseers who supervised major construction projects. On the other hand, the tax evaders were forcibly laid face-down on the ground and then unceremoniously flogged or beaten.
However, things also took a more dark turn, with capital punishments reserved for rare crimes. For example, tomb robbers were immediately sentenced to death, while other criminals had their ears and noses cut off so as to send a message to the public. There also also more oddball rules, like the one that entailed death by stabbing when caught for the crime of killing a cat (a creature sacred to the Egyptians – according to Herodotus).
Simply put, all of these punishments existed partly because the Ancient Egyptians did have the concept of jail-time. As for the brutal punishments given to the workers in question here, the actions were intentionally taken so as to maintain an air of discipline for mitigating potential revolts. In any case, the bigger answer might very well lie in the often overlooked skeleton-blade specimens found in different parts of Egypt other than just Amarna.
The article was originally published in our sister-website Realm of History.