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Ancient Ink: Mummies and Their Amazing Tattoos
Tattoos have played a role in the lives of prehistoric and modern man alike. Societal status, art, religion, and medicine all create a tradition in tattoo design that spans across centuries and around the globe. Depending on the times and culture, body art was considered to be lowly and barbaric, or a signifier of very high, royal status. These age-old images were symbols of power, healing, magic, and were a reflection of the natural world.
The decorative markings were often made of dyes, soot or burned plant material.
Evidence of this ancient practice can be seen today preserved in mummies. We take a look at some mummies and their mysterious markings:
A Brief Tattoo History
We know that almost all cultures throughout history have subscribed to some form of body art or body manipulation, and for many, this included tattoos.
Over the last 150 years, archaeologists have unearthed several mummified remains marked with tattoos:
In 1991, the frozen, well-preserved body of a Siberian “Iceman” was discovered in the Alps. More than 5,000 years old, the body had 57 tattoos.
In 1948, a Russian archaeologist who was excavating a group of tombs found the mummy of a Scythian Chieftain. On the mummy’s right arm, there were tattoos of a donkey, a mountain ram, and two deer. As well, there were tattoos of four running rams that encircled his shin.
In 1891, archaeologists discovered the mummified remains of an Egyptian priestess named Amunet, who likely lived sometime between 2160 BC and 1994 BC. Her body had tattoos on its arms, legs, and below the belly button.
In Japan, scientists have discovered clay figurines—more than 3,000 years old—painted with markings that resemble tattoos.
During the time of the Old Testament, much of the pagan world was practicing the art of tattooing as a means of deity worship. This, of course, necessitated a negative response from Israel, which attempted to separate itself from the adoration of false gods:
“You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD.”—Leviticus 19:28
Biblical scholar M.W. Thomson suggests, however, that Moses favored tattoos. Thomson speculates that Moses introduced tattoos as a way to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. In his 1859 study, Thomson suggests that Moses believed the prohibition above applied only to heathen, pagan images.
Just before the birth of Christ, Roman writers such as Virgil, Seneca, and Galenus reported that many slaves and criminals were tattooed.
Early in the fourth century, when Constantine became Roman Emperor and rescinded the prohibition on Christianity, he also banned tattooing on the face, which was common for convicts, soldiers, and gladiators. Constantine believed that the human face was a representation of the image of God and should not be disfigured or defiled.
It is documented that a monk who lived in the late fifth century had a tattoo on his thigh that read: “Manim, the disciple of Jesus Christ.”
Procopius of Caesarea, who lived during the first half of the sixth century and wrote the number of official histories, once reported that many Christians were tattooed, on their arms, with a cross or the name of Christ.
Charles MacQuarrie, in his work, “Insular Celtic Tattooing: History, Myth, and Metaphor,” details how “marks” that are mentioned in the Life of Saint Brigit may have been tattoos. He also suggests that Celtic Christians approved of some, but not all, tattoos.
At the council of Calcuth in Northumberland, the 786 Report of the Papal Legates mentioned two types of tattooing: one of pagan superstition, which doesn’t aid any Christian, and another for the sake of God, which provides certain (unnamed) rewards.
Crusaders, arriving in the Holy Land, often tattooed a small cross on their hands or arms as a sign that they desired a Christian burial.
Tattoos on the Mummy of Amunet - History
Many traditional cultures also use tattoos on the flesh as a sort of passport to the world after death, although interestingly, with all the emphasis on the next world in ancient Egyptian culture, there is no indication that this was the case there.
Egypt is generally accepted as the cradle of tattoo art and by the Middle Kingdom tattoos seem to have been popular and culturally acceptable
2,000 BC to 3,000 BC
Several mummies have been recovered that date to as early as the XI Dynasty (2160-1994 BC) that exhibit tattoo art forms. One of the most famous of those early mummies is that of Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor, who was found at Thebes. This female mummy displayed several lines and dots tattooed about her body. The tattoo patterns and markings were still clearly visible on her flesh.
Several other female mummies from this period show similar tattoos in addition to ornamental scarring (cicatrization) which is still popular today in some parts of Africa across the lower part of the abdomen. The series of dots and dashes held protective and fertility promoting significance. The lozenges are connected to the primal female power of the universe - motherhood.
The traditional reasons for tattooing include:
• to connect with the Divine.
• as a tribute or act of sacrifice to a deity.
• as a talisman, a permanent amulet that cannot be lost.
• to provide magical or medical protection.
Certainly, the connection between tattoos and the divine existed in ancient Egypt.
Beyond the geometric designs that were favoured, other designs discovered were found that were intrinsically connected to religion. Mummies dating from roughly 1300 BC are tattooed with pictographs symbolizing Neith, a prominent female deity with a militaristic bent. These are the only tattoos that at this point seem to have a link with male bearers.
The God Bes
The earliest known tattoo with a picture of something specific, rather than an abstract pattern, represents the god Bes. Bes is the lascivious god of revelry and he served as the patron god of dancing girls and musicians. Bes's image appears as a tattoo on the thighs of dancers and musicians in many Egyptian paintings, and Bes tattoos have been found on female Nubian mummies dating from about 400BC.
Ancient Egyptian Tattoos -- Written records, physical remains, and works of art relevant to Egyptian tattoo have virtually been ignored by earlier Egyptologists influenced by prevailing social attitudes toward the medium.
Beauty Secrets of the Egyptians -- Tattoos in Ancient Egypt, this article is devoted to ancient and permanent body adornment.
History of Tattooing - View of Tattooing History
Tattoo is a type of body modification known for thousands of years. To create it, people insert ink into the dermis layer of the skin which changes color of the skin pigment and stays there for a long time. People tattoo themselves for many different reasons.
Practice of tattooing (a process of applying a tattoo on a skin) is very old. Oldest found evidence that people tattooed each other dates from Neolithic times. Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved natural mummy from the 4th millennium BC found in the Ötz valley in the Alps, has carbon tattoos in the shape of dots and lines. Mummy of Amunet from ancient Egypt and the mummies at Pazyryk on the Ukok Plateau in southwestern Siberia also have tattoos on them. There is also evidence that Pre-Christian Germanic, Celtic and other tribes from central and northern Europe also had tradition of tattooing. The Picts, peoples who lived in eastern and northern Scotland, were famous for their black and blue tattoos.
While other considered tattoos marks of pride, other saw them as barbaric. Ancient Chinese used to tattoo a symbol for “Prisoner” on the faces on convicted criminals and continued to do so until18th or 19th century. That didn't prevented tattooing to spread and create meaning of its own. Marco Polo found tattooing alive and well in Northern India and India, even today, has a tradition of making temporary tattoos with henna. Legend says that Yue Fei, a famous Chinese general during the Song dynasty, had a tattoo across his back that said "Repay the Country with Pure Loyalty" and that it was tattooed there by his mother.
Other civilizations also invented tattooing probably independently. Peoples of Philippines used tattooing as a marking of rank and accomplishment. In Egypt tattoos were mainly worn by women and these tattoos represented class, religious devotion they were worn as a method of healing, and as a form of punishment.
Tattoo waned in Europe under Christianity because it considered tattooing barbaric but it never disappeared completely. When the oceanic voyages and imperial conquests began in 16th century, travelers often brought home tattooed natives from the land they visited. When Captain James Cook made his voyages to the South Pacific he noted his observations about the indigenous body modifications and brought word “tattoo” into English and other languages. Tattooing, in the Old World and Americas, became popular among sailors and they were methods of self-expression as much as method of identification (in life as well as in death). By the 19th century, tattooing was popular among commoners and crowned heads alike. Although it was associated with lower classes in the 20th century it became mainstream again in the Western world in 1970s and is today common among both sexes, across all economic classes, and people of all ages tattoo themselves. There are tattoo parlors which tattoo people professionally and with great skill and people today wear tattoos that often tell much about them or are there as a memento of things they want to remember.
Soot is believed to be the ink that was used in these tattoos which was a dark black pigment entered into the skin after it was pricked. Other colors were also used in the later years for intricate details of pictures of gods and goddesses that were used as designs for tattoos.
The tools used for the purpose of tattooing are believed to be a set of prick points. A set of seven prick points were excavated during the 1880s among other artifacts. The use of these prick points is unclear, but some people believe that they were used to prick the skin before tattoo ink was inserted.
They hold a resemblance to modern tattoo needles and are widely believed to be the instrument specially used for the purpose of tattooing. The fact that the basic principle of applying a tattoo remains the same over the passage of thousands of years is fascinating.
The origins of tattoo culture in Africa
The origin of the word ‘tattoo’ is believed to have two major derivations the first is from the Polynesian word "ta" which means striking something and the second is the Tahitian word "tatau" which means ‘to mark something’.
The first evidence of tattoos leads back to the mummies in Egypt. The oldest tattoo was found on the mummy of Amunet, a priestess of the Goddess Hathor, during 2160-1994 BC. The mummy’s simple tattoos were parallel lines on her arms, legs, and an elliptical pattern below her navel. Interestingly, no male mummies found in Egypt had their body adorned with tattoos. Egyptologists, today, are of the opinion that these designs symbolized fertility and rejuvenation in women. However, male mummies that have been found in other parts of Africa, such as Libya, have tattoos of images relating to sun worship, on their body.
In the tomb of Seti I, dating back to 1300 BC, tattoos symbolizing Neith, a Fierce Goddess, who led warriors into battle, were found on men. The first known tattoo of a person was discovered on Nubian female mummies, dating to 400 BC. The tattoo image portrayed the God of Sex and overseer of orgies, Bes. Another form of early body ornamentation was ‘cicatrisation’. The word cicatrisation was derived from the French word, cicatrices, which mean ‘scar’. This form of body ornamentation was common among the darker-skinned people of Africa so that their original colour of skin would not show.
While contemporary tattoos involve puncturing the skin for inserting pigment, Cicatrisation involves cutting the skin severely to create wounds, which results in a decorative pattern of scar tissue.
This popular technique for scarring involves piercing the skin and then, rubbing the wound with ash. The latter step is primarily done to inflame the skin, which later heals to form a raised scar. This process used to be carried out on young boys who were about to hit puberty. It was continued until they entered the adulthood. Each tribe had its own individualistic style.
Other African body altering traditions involve extreme forms of body piercing. Lips are pierced and objects are implanted inside, causing the lip tissue to elongate and conform to the shape of the implanted object as the flesh heals.
African tribes are still seen with tattoos on their body. Available in different designs and form.
This helps them to recognize people of their group and also those that belong to other groups.
Eye of Horus was a popular Egyptian art tattoo. The Eye of Horus is a protection symbol. The symbol was used on ships, amulets, bracelets, etc. Horus was the god of the sky and looked like a falcon. The eye is the right eye of the falcon. The markings under the eye represent a teardrop.
In ancient Egyptian mythology, Anubis is the god of the dead. He has the body of a man and the head of a jackal. In one hand he wears an ankh cross, in the other a stick. Anubis tattoos symbolize protection from death.
2. Teeth Sharpering
One of the most intriguing body modification practices was the teeth sharpening ritual that prevailed in parts of Africa, particularly, central Africa, eastern and southern Africa in the early 18th century. Although they also modified the body with tribal marks, which is more popular in West Africa, for many ethnic groups in Central and southern Africa, tattooing and teeth sharpening were more prevalent with the latter being the most popular.
The teeth sharpening ritual is most popular among the Makonde people in southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique, the majority of ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo including the Bopoto and the Zappo Zap people. Some tribes in the Central African Republic, the Bemba of Zambia, and even the Yao of Malawi and parts of Zambia also practised the teeth sharpening ritual.
Egyptian Mummy’s Symbolic Tattoos Are 1st of Their Kind
These colors symbolized life, birth, resurrection, the heavens, and fertility. Although the color black in the modern day is usually associated with death and evil, in ancient Egypt it symbolized life and resurrection. Green was commonly used as a symbol of life and blue, among its many meanings, symbolized fertility and birth. The tattoo artists were most likely older women with experience understanding both the symbols and the significance of the colors. Female seers were commonplace in ancient Egypt, as Egyptologist Rosalie David explains:
In the Deir el-Medina texts, there are references to ‘wise-women‘ and the role they played in predicting future events and their causation. It has been suggested that such seers may have been a regular aspect of practical religion in the New Kingdom and possibly even in earlier times.
The word derives from a Tahitian word which means to strike. Tattoos have been made with boars’ tusk, sea turtle shells, or fine needles which are used to puncture the skin and inject dyes. In the nineteenth century Darwin found tattooed aborigines “from the polar regions in the north to New Zealand in the south.
The art of tattooing goes back millenia, however, and was practiced in ancient Egypt at least as early as the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE). In ancient cultures such as Greece and Rome the tattoo was worn as a cultic symbol dedicating one to a certain god.