We’ve been tattooing our bodies for millennia. Tattoos have been around for at least 5,300 years—the approximate age of Ötzi the Iceman, the oldest tattooed person on record, who used them for medicinal purposes—but their history likely starts before even then. Yet, apart from Ötzi, we know very little about the ancient history of tattoos. A new discovery of hidden tattoos on Egyptian mummies may offer some insight, though.
Archaeologist Anne Austin of the University of Missouri, has spent the past three years conducting research at Deir el-Medina in Egypt, where she and her team found tattoos on seven 3,000-year-old mummies.
As Austin reported at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research on November 22, she used infrared imaging to identify hidden tattoos on each body. Through this process, one of the mummies was found to have an impressive 30 unique designs consisting of cross-shaped patterns and hieroglyphs, according to Science News.
The mummies are currently unidentified but are thought to have been artisans and craft workers who helped construct and decorate nearby tombs in the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens (where, notably, Tutankhamun and Ramses II were buried). The meaning behind their tattoos remains unknown, but per the abstract from Austin’s research paper, she believes that the purposes of the tattoos likely differed from person to person, and were for both “religious practice and to forge permanent, public identities.”
The tattoos Austin found were also exclusively worn by women, but this doesn’t mean that only women were tattooed in ancient Egypt. To date, 13 tattooed Egyptian mummies—including one male—have been discovered by research teams. And in her paper, Austin wrote that she suspects, at least in Deir el-Medina, “many more individuals were likely tattooed.”
What’s especially interesting about the tattoos on Egyptian mummies is how distinct they are from the tattoos worn by Ötzi. The Iceman’s ink consists exclusively of vertical and horizontal line drawings, while the mummies have more detailed designs: eyes, animals, and hieroglyphs, for instance. So, while Ötzi is the oldest known tattooed person, Egyptians are the world’s oldest known people to decorate themselves in figurative pieces—designs inspired by real life. The oldest figurative tattoo wasn’t found by Austin’s team, however. It was discovered in 2018 by Oxford professor Renee Friedman, who was also using infrared imaging, on a 5,000 year old mummy.
While we still don’t know much about the rituals surrounding tattooing in ancient Egypt, discoveries like Austin’s and Friedman’s are the first step in finding out. With more discoveries like theirs, perhaps one day we’ll have a much better understanding of when tattoos first emerged and how they went from a medical practice to a mainstream form of self expression that has therapeutic benefits, inspires fashion, and is beloved by celebrities and regular folks alike.
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