A tattoo on an Egyptian mummy's arm.

New Finds on Old Egyptian Skin Reveals Symbolic Tattoos Were In Use 5,000 Years Ago

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A bull and sheep, strange ‘S’ motifs, and a curved line mark the skin of two Predynastic Egyptian mummies in the British Museum’s collection. The man and woman lived over 5,000 years ago, making their inked skin the oldest known examples of figural tattoos in the world. The technology used to reveal the designs will likely spur more research and similar studies, so that may soon change.

National Geographic reports the mummies were two of six found in Gebelein in 1900. The two identified tattooed individuals lived sometime between 3351 to 3017 BC. Their skin ink was applied at the thicker dermis layer of the skin with some carbon-based pigmentation.

A British Museum press release relates the man was inked on the upper arm with “two slightly overlapping horned animals”, which researchers have tentatively labeled as a bull and a Barbary sheep. Both of these animals have been previously identified on contemporary art and British Museum curator Daniel Antoine suggests they were symbolic choices.

He says , “The sheep is quite commonly used in the predynastic [Egyptian period] and its significance is not well understood, whereas the bull is specifically to do with male virility and status.”

Researchers found the image of a wild bull and Barbary sheep inked on the arm of an ancient Egyptian mummy.

Researchers found the image of a wild bull and Barbary sheep inked on the arm of an ancient Egyptian mummy. ( British Museum )

The female mummy tattoos are the oldest known examples of female tattoo art in the world. They differ from the man’s, but also seem to have been symbolic in nature. Instead of animals, four small ‘S’ motifs were identified across her right shoulder. This pattern was also found in multiples on Predynastic ceramics.

A linear design was also found on the woman’s right arm. That hooked line resembles objects held by figures in ritual predynastic pottery and it possibly denotes power or status. Some suggestions for the object’s purpose are as a crooked stave, throw-stick, or baton used in ancient Egyptian ceremonial dances.

Detail of the of S-shaped tattoos ( Trustees of the British Museum ) and stick-shaped tattoos on the Predynastic female mummy from Gebelein.  ( British Museum )

Antoine hesitates in providing the meaning behind her tattoo designs, by stating,

“I don't think there's a good explanation at the moment. It's meant to emphasize things, but I'm not sure why. It was maybe to draw attention to a crooked stave below. It's an era before writing, so we can only draw parallels.”

A ritual scene painted on a Predynastic pottery jar depicts multiple S-shaped motifs and a man holding a curved implement similar to the tattoo designs found on the woman.

A ritual scene painted on a Predynastic pottery jar depicts multiple S-shaped motifs
and a man holding a curved implement similar to the tattoo designs found on the woman. (
British Museum )

To the naked eye, the mummy tattoos are only seen as smudges on the skin. The use of infrared technology brought the skin smears into clearer focus. They were discovered during a new conservation and research project at the museum which is looking at signs of body modification. Antoine explained the importance of the study,

“The use of the latest scientific methods, including CT scanning, radiocarbon dating and infrared imaging, has transformed our understanding of the Gebelein mummies. Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals. Incredibly, at over 5,000 years of age, they push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium.”

The recent study demonstrates that ancient tattoo designs went beyond the simple lines found on slightly older Ötzi the Iceman. The Iceman’s tattoos date to about 3370 BC and may have served a therapeutic use . The symbolic tattoo designs found on ancient Egyptian mummy skin tell a different story.

Two tattooed bands can be seen around Ötzi's wrist.

Two tattooed bands can be seen around Ötzi's wrist. ( radiolab.org)

This discovery provides examples of a couple of “firsts” for ancient tattoos : the first indication that both men and women got inked in ancient Egypt (it used to be considered a female only practice) and the first known example of tattoo motifs mirroring contemporary art. It’s also the oldest example of female tattoos in the world.

The results of the study are now published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Top Image: A tattoo on an Egyptian mummy's arm. Source: Trustees of the British Museum

By Alicia McDermott

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