Egyptian culture has long been revered for their artistic achievements—the Great Sphinx of Giza, the Abu Simpel Temples, the Mask of Tutankhamun and a couple of little buildings called the Pyramids of Giza. Now scientists have discovered that alongside the role of master sculptors, ancient Egyptians were also tattoo artists.
Archaeologists have used infrared photography to discover tattoos on the bodies of seven mummified people during a dig at the site of Deir el-Medina. These aren't the first mummies to be discovered with tattoos—six previous mummies from various locations have also been found to have tattoos—but this group is forcing archaeologists to reassess some of their previously held theories about tattoos in ancient Egypt.
The findings were presented by Anne Austin of the University of Missouri–St. Louis at a meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research last month. Previously, archaeologists thought that Egyptian women wore tattoos as a sign of fertility. But given the extensive tattoos on these six individuals, and because all seven mummies were female, Austin believes that the tattoos may be related to the spiritual world. While not much is known about the identities of the women, Austin believes that they may have had roles as healers or priestesses.
Austin and her team were particularly interested in one of the mummies that bore over 30 tattoos. Her collection includes cross-shaped patterns on her arms, a design not seen in any of the other 12 Egyptian mummies. Another one of the mummies had a tattoo of a human eye (a sign of protection) on the back of her neck, as well as a pair of baboons on the sides of her neck.
Infrared photography is allowing scientists to see things that they never would have been able to discover mere decades ago. "It’s quite magical to be working in an ancient tomb and suddenly see tattoos on a mummified person using infrared photography,” Austin told Science News.
One can only imagine that with further use of the technology scientists will continue to learn more about the practice of tattooing in ancient Egypt and beyond. Maybe one day Otzi the Iceman will lose his crown as the first known tattooed person.
Next time somebody tries to tell you that tattooing is just a fad that will fade, sit them down and tell them about these tattooed Egyptian women.