Ancient Egyptians and their tattoos

New analysis of two ancient Egyptian mummies have revealed what was once thought to be smudges are actually tattoos.

First found in the year 1900, the mummies were recently reanalysed by the British Museum as part of an ongoing project to re-examine valuable artefacts.

The mummies, one male and one female, date from around five and a half thousand years ago, roughly the same time as our old friend Ötzi the Ice Man, who we have talked about before. This makes them some of the earliest known bearers of tattoos. The next known example of ancient Egyptians with tattoos doesn't appear for more than a thousand years later!

The original Hipsters

What was originally mistaken for a smudge was re-examined with infrared light, allowing scientists to see the markings on the mummified skin more clearly. On the male body, images of a wild bull and what appears to be a Barbary sheep can be seen.

The woman's body contains four "S"-like symbols on her top shoulder joint and an "L"-shaped line on her abdomen that archaeologists think might be a stave, or wooden staff.

Both bodies contained tattoos that were inked into the dermis, the thicker part of their skin, with an ink made of some sort of soot. Copper instruments found in nearby regions have been previously suggested as tattooing tools.

What the Tattoos Tell Us

Previously, archaeologists assumed that only women living during ancient Egypt's predynastic period, from 4000 B.C. to 3100 B.C., had tattoos. These latest findings tell us that both men and women in ancient Egyptian societies had tattoos.

This is also the first time archaeologists have found examples of tattoos on people that mirror motifs used in art, such as cave paintings. Both the images on the male and female seem to suggest a symbolic relevance, but archaeologists aren't quite of their exact meaning.

"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," says study author and British Museum curator Daniel Antoine.

It didn’t seem to help protect him though, as a CAT scan showed the man had a cut in his shoulder and damage to one of his ribs, suggesting he died from a stab wound to the back!

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