Ancient Egyptian police and punishment

Stab wounds found on Ancient Egyptian skeletons suggest corporal punishment was used at the New Kingdom site of Amarna.

The excavations in the desert at Amarna. Image: Jerry Rose

Analysis of bones from the non-elite South Tombs Cemetery show sharp-force trauma injuries on the shoulder blades of at least five adult males, probably caused by a spear or similar-shaped weapon. The injuries show signs of healing, meaning the victims survived the trauma.

Researchers Gretchen Dabbs, of Southern Illinois University, and Melissa Zabecki, from Parkin Archeological State Park, suggest this could be physical evidence of corporal punishment. Zabecki told CWA, ‘These kinds of wounds have not been seen before in Egypt. We have no idea who these people were or what they did to deserve this punishment, but papyri show that there were any number of punishable crimes, from stealing, to adultery, to tax fraud.’ Historical sources that refer to physical punishments indicate they were well established before, during, and after the Amarna period, and many mention blows to the back of the body. We also know from the presence of the tomb of Mahu, the ‘Chief of Police’, at the South Tombs that a force of Mejay (desert police) was present at Amarna.

A pair of scapula from Individual 233, showing stab wounds. Image: Melissa Zabecki

Amarna was the capital city of Ancient Egypt under the rule of the ‘heretic king’ Akhenaten during the 18th dynasty (see CWA 63), and the South Tombs Cemetery is providing an unprecedented look at the life of its inhabitants. The remains of more than 400 individuals buried at this cemetery show high levels of general, nutritional, and workload stress, with evidence of broken collar- bones, prevalent arthritis, and healed long-bone fractures all pointing to a combination of corporal punishment and hazardous working conditions.