With the growing proliferation of tattoo emporiums – and their companion tattoo-removal services – one would think that body art was a new fad. One would be wrong. An archeologist using infrared photography has found tattoos hidden on the skin of a number of female Egyptian mummies, proving the practice was common over 3,000 years ago. Were they flowers, names of their children or the first tramp stamps?
“The more people read about our new research on tattooing, the more I hope they reconsider the ways we view people with tattoos and the long history of tattooing across cultures. It is wonderful to bring international attention to the exciting and new research going on in Egypt as well as the excellent research and opportunities we have at UMSL.”
Anne Austin, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, was taking a new look at the skin of some old mummies from Deir el-Medina, an ancient Egyptian village where artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings during the 18th to 20th dynasties of the New Kingdom of Egypt (1550–1080 BCE) lived. Using infrared cameras, which can see wavelengths outside the range of human eyes, she searched their skin for something extremely rare that Austin specialized in – ancient tattoos. Up until now, only six Egyptian mummies have been found with tattoos, including one in 2014 by Austin herself. As she explained at the recent annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research, her infrared camera doubled the total.
Austin found a wide variety of tattoos on seven female mummies. (Pictures here.) One had her neck tattooed with images of seated baboons and a human eye – an ancient Egyptian protection icon. Another had 30 tattoos all over her body – cross-patterns, hieroglyphics and other images which suggested to Austin that these were not frivolous tattoos or signs of fertility or sexuality. Instead, she believes these women were healers and priestesses for the artisans of Deir el-Medina.
“It’s highly likely that with more evidence, we’ll find clearer patterns to the location and symbolism of these tattoos.”
These are not the oldest tattoos ever found – those belong to 5,250-year-old Ötzi the Iceman – nor are they the oldest found on Egyptian mummies – those belong to two at the British Museum in London which date back 5,100 years. However, the findings in Deir el-Medina show that the practice was more common than once thought and served a purpose to the wearers beyond mere decorations.
“Every one of my tattoos means something to me whether it has to do with my family or friends or a life experience. My only advice would be to not get one done when you’re drunk and to make sure it’s meaningful to you because eventually your body changes and it might not look as cool as it did ten years before.”
Or maybe 3,000 years before.