Hand of Irulegi

What is it?

This 2,100-year-old piece of bronze sheet cut into the shape of a life-size right hand has been dubbed the ‘Hand of Irulegi’, after the site in Spain where it was found. The hand is 143mm tall, 128mm wide, and 1.09mm thick, and weighs about 36g. A perforation in the centre of the end near the wrist indicates that this object was once nailed to a soft support such as a door frame. On the back of the hand is an inscription in a palaeo-Hispanic script that appears to be a predecessor of the modern Basque language that is still spoken in the region today. The inscription cannot be fully translated, but it is thought to be connected to the object’s function as a protective amulet.

Photo: Aranzadi Science Society

Where was it found, and when?

The discovery was made in June 2021 by a team from the Aranzadi Science Society during excavations of an ancient settlement at the base of Mount Irulegi, near Pamplona, Spain. The ‘Hand of Irulegi’ dates to the last phase of the site’s occupation, in the early 1st century BC, when the Late Iron Age settlement was burned down and abandoned during the Roman–Sertorian wars. The bronze artefact was found on the threshold of a mud-brick house destroyed during the conflict, in a position consistent with it having been placed over the door for protection and good luck. The inscription was identified by a conservator in January 2022 and has since undergone further study.

Why does it matter?

This exceptional object provides an important insight into the literacy of the Vascones, the pre-Roman inhabitants of this region. It was previously thought that their written language was restricted to just a few words, and that a proper writing system was not present in the area until the arrival of the Latin alphabet with the Romans, but the ‘Hand of Irulegi’ proves that this was not the case. The inscription tells us more about the history of the Basque language, too, demonstrating that it was in use here in some form from at least the start of the 1st century BC.

The inscription consists of 40 characters, thought to make up five words, the first of which has been transliterated as sorioneku. This is extremely similar to a word in modern Basque: zorioneko, which means ‘good fortune’, further pointing to an apotropaic function for the object. The other four words have been transliterated as well, but their meanings remain unknown.

The technique used to create the letters is also interesting: the inscription has been made using ‘stippling’ – that is, marked out using small dots – but closer analysis has revealed that each letter was first scratched out on the bronze underneath. This process is unusual, not only in the engravings of this region, but in ancient epigraphy across the Western world.

The Hand of Irulegi is currently undergoing research – particularly into its epigraphic and linguistic aspects – at the Aranzadi Science Society.

TEXT: Amy Brunskill