A pair of prehistoric Egyptian mummies are changing the way we understand tattoos in the ancient world. One male and one female mummy were discovered almost 100 years ago and have been sitting on display in a British museum since then. No one seemed to notice the dark smudges on the males arm and females back. It wasn’t until recently that their bodies were analyzed using infrared imaging revealing tattoos that have been unseen for thousands of years.
Officially known as the Gebelein Man A and Gebelein Women, these tattooed mummies bring new evidence on how the prehistoric Egyptians used tattoos. In the findings published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the males tattoo features a barbary sheep and a wild bull on the upper arm. The female had a tattoo of an “S” shaped motif on her upper arm and shoulder that is reminiscent of other contemporary designs of the time. This is a particularly big deal because it overturns evidence on artistic records that suggested only females were tattooed in the Egyptian society of this time period and were mostly tattooed to represent fertility. The findings also push back evidence for tattooing in Africa by 1000 years.
These figurative tattoos are the oldest known tattoos of its kind and are changing the records on how we believe these ancient societies used tattoos. The lead researcher and curator of the British Museum, Daniel Antoine points out the that mummies lived between 3351 and 3017 BC based on carbon dating. This would place them during Predynastic Egypt, meaning it was the era before the pharaoh’s unified Egypt. Antonie explains that both of the horned animals tattooed on the male are most likely to be affiliated with social status and virility. The bull and the barbary sheep are common depictions in the Egyptian art of that time. Antoine also suggests that the horned animals tattooed on the man could also represent bravery or even mystic knowledge. He explains, “There’s no reason why their reasoning for having a tattoo on their body wouldn’t be as multifaceted as it is today.” An examination of the male mummy shows that he was probably between the ages of 18-21 when he died.
After further research, it was discovered that the tattoos were created in a similar way that they are today, most likely with a needle and some type of dye or soot poked under the skin. The lead researcher explains that since the people of that time were such fine craftsman that it makes sense they would be great tattoo artists as well.
Another case of ancient tattoos comes from the mummy known as Otzi, the Alpine Iceman that was discovered in the Italian Alps in the early 1990’s. Otzi shows off a collection of 61 tattoos throughout his body that depict geometric shapes, lines, and crosses. Oddly enough, carbon dating shows that Ozti lived in a similar time to the prehistoric Egyptian mummies around 3370 and 3100 BC. The significance and meaning of Otzi’s tattoos are still largely debated by the vast group of researchers that have examined the body. One of the main theories suggests that the tattoos were done as a type of therapeutic treatment to relieve joint pain according to the placement of the designs.
What makes the tattoos on the Gebelein Man A and Gebelein Women of the Predynastic Egyptian era so interesting is that they seem intended to be shown off. Based on the placement of the upper arm and shoulders they are highly visible areas whereas the most of the tattoos on Otzi would have been concealed by clothing.
This is what makes this new discovery so special: It provides evidence that people who lived over 5,000 years ago got tattoos as a form of body art. That they expressed themselves through things they saw around them with potentially complex meanings, similar to what we do today.
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