The Archaeology of Tattoos: An Investigation of the Oldest known Tattoos
Figure 1. A drawn depiction of the tattoos of the ancient Egyptian mummy Amulet
Figure 2. The joint tattoos of Otzi the iceman used to remedy arthrosis in the wrist
In modern times and throughout ancient history, tattoos have held important significances and functions which are integral in an individual and culture’s self-expression. In shaming those for creatively expressing themselves in a physical manner through unique attire, makeup, or tattoos, one is discouraging the individualism which shapes has and will continue to shape cultures and makes humans unique from one another.
Tattoos have held more than just symbolic and decorative roles throughout history. The oldest evidence of tattoos was discovered on the remarkably well preserved remains of Otzi the Iceman who lived between 3370 and 3100 BC (Krutak, 2015). These tattoos were especially striking as they were clearly used in a curative manner. They were strategically placed on areas of his body that were associated with painful arthrosis of the joints (Krutak, 2015). This subverts the stereotype that ancient humans were technologically inferior to humans today and were distinctly aware of the curative abilities of acupuncture-like treatment. This therapeutic use of tattooing techniques has been discovered in multiple other preserved bodies of ancient humans such as the chief of Pazyryk (Krutak, 2015). Additionally, the process of being tattooed at a young age was customary in ancient Egypt. Recent research provides evidence that traumatic experiences like tattooing performed early in life stimulates hormone release in the pituitary gland. This promotes the rapid growth and development of children into stronger, healthier, and overall larger adults (Krutak, 2015). Evidently, the society of the ancient Egyptians understood the surprising and powerful effects of tattooing just as the society that Otzi belonged to did.
Tattooing in a more americanized and modern sense for religious, symbolic, and artistic endeavors existed in a similar manner around 7000 years ago. For example, ancient Egyptians received intricate net-like tattoos on their stomach during pregnancy that were intended to function as a protective barrier for women while they carry their children (Mark, 2017). The nets would expand while their babies grew and were thought to be a safeguard for the baby. Also, these same women were often decorated with religiously significant tattoos such as the deity Bes to serve as a protector during the women’s pregnancy and labor process (Mark, 2017). The symbolic use of religious figures and netting in the form of permanent markings conveys the importance which tattoos held in ancient Egyptian culture and especially in women of this culture. These intricate tattoos were also hypothesized to function as a means of demonstrating one’s distinctive physical appearance and sexual identity.
Through the exploration of the history of tattoos, it is made clear that past cultures were not vastly different from our modern societies. The practice of tattooing in communities like Otzi’s and the ancient Egyptians illustrates the technological sophistication of past cultures, despite ethnocentric views that are often held today. The decorative role of tattoos also demonstrates that since the beginning of human life, people have always strived to express their identities in this permanent, deeply symbolic, therapeutic, or simply ornamental manner.
References and Links for Further Investigation:
Johnson, Lauren. “8 Oldest Tattoos in the World.” Oldest.org. Oldest.org, May 6, 2022. https://www.oldest.org/artliterature/tattoos/.
Krutak, Lars. “The Cultural Heritage of Tattooing: A Brief History.” Karger. Karger Publishers , March 26, 2015. https://www.karger.com/Article/Fulltext/369174.
Magazine, Smithsonian. “Infrared Reveals Egyptian Mummies’ Hidden Tattoos.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, December 5, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/infrared-reveals-egyptian-mummies-hidden-tattoos-180973700/.
Mark, Joshua J.. “Tattoos in Ancient Egypt.” World History Encyclopedia. Last modified January 09, 2017. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1000/tattoos-in- ancient-egypt/.
This is really interesting! I’m curious — in your research, did you find any sources discussing the use of multiple medias to interpret the symbolism of tattoos? For instance, are there specific pottery designs or tool designs that are also seen in tattoo symbolism?
In the Cucuteni culture, which lasted from 4800 to 3000 B.C., there is evidence of multiple medias expressing the symbolism and importance of tattoos (AIA 2013). Archaeologists have found many clay human figures with intricate designs on them that likely represent tattoos. Archaeologists speculate that during the Neolithic period, when people began to engrave pottery, the process of engraving could have also been seen as tattooing. In ancient Egyptian culture, tattoos were thought to be images of ideal femininity, this was also reflected in ancient tattooed female figurines found throughout Egypt (AIA 2013).