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Leaving a Mark: Elaborate Tattoos Found on 3,000-Year-Old Egyptian Mummy

Leaving a Mark: Unique and Elaborate Tattoos on 3,000-Year-Old Egyptian Mummy

A bioarchaeologist studying mummies found in Deir el-Medina, Egypt has discovered a special kind of ancient tattoo. While most Egyptian mummies with tattoos only have patterns of dots and dashes, those present on the remains of a woman from 3,000 years ago are said to be the first example of a mummy from dynastic Egypt to depict actual objects.

The study comes from Anne Austin of Stanford University who presented her findings last month at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists . By using infrared lighting and an infrared sensor, Austin found that the mummy has over 30 tattoos – although many of them are not visible to the naked eye.

As the mummy's skin is distorted and covered in resin, it is difficult to see many of the tattoos, such as these Hathor cows, with the naked eye.

As the mummy's skin is distorted and covered in resin, it is difficult to see many of the tattoos, such as these Hathor cows, with the naked eye. ( Anne Austin )

And speaking of eyes, one of the symbols found on the woman are wadjet eyes, which an article in the journal Nature says are “possible symbols of protection against evil that adorn the mummy’s neck, shoulders and back.” As Austin told Nature, “Any angle that you look at this woman, you see a pair of divine eyes looking back at you.”

A blue faience Wadjet amulet with the sacred eye outlined in black.

A blue faience Wadjet amulet with the sacred eye outlined in black. (Harrogate Museums and Arts service/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Along with the wadjet eyes, Austin also found baboons on the mummy’s neck, cows on her arm, and lotus blossoms on her hips. Austin explained that the size and location of the designs (many not within her own reach), show that they held a special significance. She also said that the tattooing “would’ve been very time consuming, and in some areas of the body, extremely painful.” She added that the fact that the woman received such a quantity also demonstrates “not only her belief in their importance, but others around her as well”.

Specifically, the tattoos are thought to have a strong religious meaning. For example, the cows are associated with the goddess Hathor . According to Nature, “The symbols on the throat and arms may have been intended to give the woman a jolt of magical power as she sang or played music during rituals for Hathor.”

Hathor as a cow suckling a pharaoh.

Hathor as a cow suckling a pharaoh. ( CC BY NC SA 2.0 )

In the late 19th century several other tattooed female mummies related to Hathor were discovered in Deir el-Bahari, the site of royal and high status burials. The women have been called ‘ The Tattooed Priestesses of Hathor ’ and the most famous is Amunet, Priestess of the Goddess Hathor. The women have tattoos comprised of dots and dashes and it has been suggested that the markings were likely therapeutic in nature.

In comparison, Emily teeter, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute in Illinois, told Nature that she believes the tattoos on the mummy from Deir el-Medina could be a sign of the woman’s religious nature. As some of the marks are more faded than others, Austin agreed that that the woman’s religious status may have grown with age.

Teeter also revealed that the discovery left her and some other Egyptologists “dumbfounded”. She said , “We didn’t know about this sort of expression before.” While rare, the tattooed woman is not one of a kind, however, and Nature reports that Austin “has already found three more tattooed mummies at Deir el-Medina , and hopes that modern techniques will uncover more elsewhere.”

Anthropologist Ghada Darwish Al-Khafif uses infrared imaging to examine tattoos on the mummy's back.

Anthropologist Ghada Darwish Al-Khafif uses infrared imaging to examine tattoos on the mummy's back. ( Anne Austin )

Featured Image: The mummy's tattoos include two seated baboons depicted between a wadjet eye (top row), a symbol of protection. Source: Anne Austin

By Alicia McDermott

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