The Archaeology of Tattoos

In modern culture, tattoos are extremely common and popular as both a form of self expression and a permanent reminder of significant life and cultural events. Archaeology can help us understand both how and why tattoos have become such an important part of human identity. 

Tattooing is a practice that has been around for more than 5,000 years. The oldest known human tattoos come from the mummified remains of Otzi the Iceman. Otzi’s tattoos, which appear on his lower back, behind his knee, and around his ankle are believed to be medicinal as they appear to be an early form of acupuncture. Science Magazine reports, “Ötzi was covered with 61 tattoos including dotlike points around joints, which some researchers believe may have been used as pain treatment akin to an early form of acupuncture. ” (Rapp Learn 2018) These tattoos help explain where the practice of tattooing comes from, as they were used medicinally to increase blood flow and relieve tension in a similar manner to modern acupuncture.

A diagram showing the location of Otzi the Iceman’s Tattoos 


In contrast to the very practical uses of Otzi the iceman’s tattoos, 2,000 years later the tattooing practices of the Polynesian cultures were symbolic and ritualistic. Tattoos were reflections of both the individual  and the society’s cultural history as a whole. Tattoo artists were almost exclusively young males who were highly trained in both the art of tattooing and the meanings of different motifs and their placements. It was the job of the tattoo artist to decide what design and placement a person would get, as well as when a person could get a tattoo. Since getting a tattoo was such an important part of Polynesian culture that tattoo artists were regarded in high esteem by all members of society including the nobility. One interesting note about Polynesian tattooing designs is that one of the only surviving designs, the armband, is not actually a traditional Polynesian design. Instead it is actually a “souvenir” that was created in the 1970s for the American Peace Corps workers.


An Example of a Traditional Male Polynesian Tattoo

An Example of a Polynesian Armband “Souvenir” Tattoo

For more than 5,000 years humans have been tattooing their bodies for a variety of reasons. Archaeology has helped us to understand that tattooing developed in several ways around the world, both as a medical practice to stimulate blood flow to areas of pain, as well as a symbolic way of connecting an individual to their community and cultural history.



Further Reading 

Interesting article about a modern woman getting the same tattoos as Otzi the Iceman: 

For more on the religious significance of tattoos: 



Rapp Learn, Joshua.

   September 7, 2018   5000-year-old ‘Iceman’ May Have Benefited from a Sophisticated Health Care System. Science Magazine., accessed September 14, 2019.


   May 4, 2003   Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo. PBS,, accessed September 14, 2019.



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2 thoughts on “The Archaeology of Tattoos

  1. You discuss how tattoos can reveal a lot about both “the individual and the society’s cultural history as a whole”. I think this definitely can be true but I also wonder whether there are any potential consequences from trying to derive such social meaning from tattoos? Is there any danger in reading “too far” into them? Do we risk trying to find meaning where there is none? This reminds me of something we discussed in my senior seminar the other day. We were talking about the flowers that are engraved over one of the doors outside Blodgett and how though we, as current Vassar students, derive no meaning from those engravings, it is possible in 100 years that when future students study the ruins of Blodgett they may hypothesize that these flowers held great significance for us and were symbols of say education or knowledge even though they weren’t at all. Sorry these are a lot of questions!! Feel free to only respond to one.

  2. I think that there is definitely the possibility that we tend to overanalyze when we have very little evidence, especially when the evidence is permanently on the human body. Since tattooing is such a painful and personal process, there is a high likelihood that archaeologists go “too far” when analyzing them. This can also be applied to the tools that are used for tattooing. Because so few of the tools used for tattooing have survived, their importance and cultural significance can be overblown, as archaeologists rely heavily on the evidence that they have.

    Deter-Wolf, Aaron, Robitaille, Benoît, and Walters, Isaac.
    2017 Scratching the Surface: Mistaken Identifications of Tattoo Tools from Eastern North America. University of Washington Press, Seattle. accessed October 12, 2019.

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