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Tattoos of the Ancient World

Tattoos are among the oldest symbols of mankind, one that, like fire and complex weapons, sets our species apart from animals. The modern word “tattoo” derives from the Tahitian word tatu meaning “to make a mark” and dates back to the reintroduction of the tattoo to the Western world in the 18th century. Tattooing appears to have evolved independently in several locations around the world. Without written records, however, it is impossible to know where tattooing was first invented, and in many cases, how and when it spread to other cultures. Partly this is due to the scarcity of tattooed preserved remains, but also because many cultures were and continue to be extremely taciturn about the existence of tattooing within their own society.
It is assumed that at some indeterminate time in the prehistoric past, accidental injuries sustained by Stone Age man logically progressed to intentional scarification, tattooing, and other forms of artificial body-modification. The purpose of such body-modifications remains speculative. Clear evidence for tattoos from the prehistoric and ancient world is rare, since skin is preserved in only atypical cases due to natural or artificial mummification. Of the many thousands of mummies recovered from locations around the world, a mere handful of them are known to have tattoos. Since 2002, archaeologists have begun using infrared photography to reveal faded tattoos that are no longer visible to the naked eye. As this technology is expanded, previously unknown ancient tattoos will likely be revealed. Other evidence for ancient tattoos includes primitive tattooing apparatus, pictorial evidence on figurines, pottery, and paintings, as well as written descriptions by ancient writers.
The earliest archaeological evidence for tattooing may date as far back as the Upper Paleolithic period (c. 38,000-10,000 BCE) and there is some speculation that tattooing may have been practiced by Neanderthals as well as modern Homo sapiens. However, the most widely recognized evidence for prehistoric tattooing belongs to the Neolithic period (10,000 – 3,000 BCE). Tattooing artifacts take several different forms. Fine bone needles associated with charcoal and red ocher, naturally occurring pigments used by many prehistoric peoples, may be evidence for prehistoric tattooing. The world’s oldest “tattooing machine” is a disk made of clay and red ocher with holes in the top for bone needles. Needles were used to pierce the skin while the disk held the pigment (Fg.1). Human figurines and pictographs decorated with dots, slashes, and other marks may represent tattooed and/or painted individuals (Fg. 2 & 3).

Tattooed mummies and written records describing ancient tattoos are found on virtually every continent. The world’s oldest tattoos can be found on a Neolithic man known as “Otzi the Iceman” (c.3,300 BCE), whose naturally mummified body was found in the Italian/Austrian Alps in 1991 (Fg. 4-8). Otzi’s body contains 57 individual tattoos, mostly in the form of small dots and slashes on his right ankle, behind his left knee, and along the lumbar vertebral column on the lower back. X-Ray images indicate that Otzi had arthritis in these areas and scholars believe that the tattoos may be linked to acupuncture. It is also possible that the tattoos may have been ornamental, perhaps providing spiritual/physical protection or denoting tribal status.

The earliest civilizations known to practice tattooing were the desert cultures of ancient Egypt and Nubia (modern Sudan). Wooden and bronze tattooing tools have been found dating to c.3000BCE and c.1450BCE respectively, and are similar to traditional tattooing tools used in Egypt until the 19th century. Ancient Egyptians and Nubians were reticent about tattoos and there is only scattered evidence for the art form. The only written reference to tattooing in ancient Egypt can be found in a single line in the religious text Papyrus Bremner-Rhind (c.300 BCE). It reads: “Their name is engraved onto their arms as Isis and Nephthys”. The hieroglyphic for “mentenu” translated here as ‘engraved’, can also mean ‘inscribed’ or ‘etched’ and is thought by scholars to refer to tattooing. However, there is currently no evidence for tattoos depicting Isis or Nephthys, their names, or related symbols, in ancient Egypt. The earliest visual evidence for Egyptian tattoos are pre-dynastic clay female figurines decorated with geometric decorations believed to represent tattoos (c.4,000-3500BCE) (Fg. 9).

The most famous Egyptian tattooed mummy is that of Amunet (Dynasty XI, Middle Kingdom, c.2160-1994 BCE), a priestess of Hathor, goddess of beauty and sensual pleasure (Fg.10). Amunet’s body was found in an excellent state of preservation in 1891 during excavations in Thebes. Her tattoos consist of a series of abstract patterns of individual dots and dashes. An elliptical pattern of dots and dashes tattooed on her lower abdomen beneath the naval may be linked to fertility, sexuality and/or protection during childbirth. Parallel lines with a similar pattern can also be found on her thighs and arms. Other, poorly preserved mummy priestesses, have similar tattoos or scars mimicking Amunet’s abdominal tattoos. Egyptologists believe that the cult of Hathor used tattooing as an integral part of their worship. Female mummies in Nubia share similar abdominal tattoos, and it is unclear which culture was the inventor (Fg. 11). Other visual evidence for the prevalence of tattooing during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom are the faience figurines (c.2000 BCE) known as the “Brides of the Dead” (Fg. 12). The figurines are decorated with black dots which resemble the tattoos found on the priestesses of Hathor and Nubian women. These figurines were interred with the deceased purportedly to arose sexual instincts, and thereby rebirth into the Egyptian afterlife.

During the Egyptian New Kingdom, tattoos became more elaborate and included images of Bes, god of the household, sex and children, and Neith, goddess of warfare. Female dancers and musicians often wore tattoos of Bes on their upper thighs, possibly for sexual or protective purposes or to signify their trade. Images of these Bes tattoos can be found on murals and pottery throughout Egypt (Fg. 13 & 14). While ancient Egyptian tattoos were typically associated with women, a cache of male mummies found in the tomb of Seti I (r.1295-1279 BCE) had tattoos of the war goddess Neith. In Nubia, tattoos were worn by both men and women. Nubian male mummies have been excavated with tattoos thought to be related to sun worship.

Julie Abouzelof
Published December 1, 2010