The Oldest Tattoos Ever Discovered on an Egyptian Mummy Date Back 5,000 Years

Some his­to­ries tell us more about their nar­ra­tors than their char­ac­ters. The sto­ry of tat­toos in ancient Egypt is one exam­ple. While tat­toos and oth­er forms of body mod­i­fi­ca­tion have been part of near­ly every ancient cul­ture, Egyp­tol­o­gists have found many more tat­tooed female than male mum­mies at ancient bur­ial sites. Since tat­too­ing seemed to be an almost “exclu­sive­ly female prac­tice in ancient Egypt,” writes arche­ol­o­gist Joann Fletch­er, “mum­mies found with tat­toos were usu­al­ly dis­missed by the (male) exca­va­tors who seemed to assume the women were of ‘dubi­ous sta­tus,’ described in some cas­es as ‘danc­ing girls.’ ”

There is no evi­dence, how­ev­er, to sug­gest that tat­toos in ancient Egypt specif­i­cal­ly marked dancers, pros­ti­tutes, con­cu­bines, or indi­vid­u­als of a low­er class (and thus of lit­tle inter­est to some ear­ly archae­ol­o­gists). One mum­my described as a con­cu­bine “was actu­al­ly a high-sta­tus priest­ess named Amunet, as revealed by her funer­ary inscrip­tions.” Ear­ly archae­ol­o­gists stub­born­ly clung to deroga­to­ry 19th-cen­tu­ry assump­tions about tat­toos (and class, danc­ing, sex, and reli­gion), even when dis­cussing tat­tooed Egypt­ian women whose buri­als obvi­ous­ly showed they were priest­esses or extend­ed mem­bers of a roy­al fam­i­ly.

Until rel­a­tive­ly recent­ly, “the most con­clu­sive evi­dence of Egypt­ian tat­toos,” writes Joshua Mark at the World His­to­ry Ency­clo­pe­dia, “dates the prac­tice to the Mid­dle King­dom” — span­ning the 11th through the 13th Dynas­ties (approx­i­mate­ly 2040 to 1782 BC). In 2018, how­ev­er, researchers at the British Muse­um took anoth­er look at two nat­u­ral­ly mum­mi­fied 5,000-year-old Pre­dy­nas­tic bod­ies, one male one female, dat­ing from between 3351 and 3017 BC. They looked specif­i­cal­ly for signs of body mod­i­fi­ca­tion that might have gone unseen by ear­li­er Egyp­tol­o­gists.

Known as the Gebelein pre­dy­nas­tic mum­mies, these bod­ies are two of six exca­vat­ed at the end of the 1800s by Egyp­tol­o­gist Sir Wal­lis Budge. Through the use of CT scan­ning, radio­car­bon dat­ing and infrared imag­ing, the British Muse­um has found that pre­vi­ous­ly unex­am­ined marks “push back the evi­dence for tat­too­ing in Africa by a mil­len­ni­um,” the Muse­um blog notes, describ­ing the find­ings in detail.

The male mum­my, called “Gebelein Man A,” showed a design on his bicep:

Dark smudges on his arm, appear­ing as faint mark­ings under nat­ur­al light, had remained unex­am­ined. Infrared pho­tog­ra­phy recent­ly revealed that these smudges were in fact tat­toos of two slight­ly over­lap­ping horned ani­mals. The horned ani­mals have been ten­ta­tive­ly iden­ti­fied as a wild bull (long tail, elab­o­rate horns) and a Bar­bary sheep (curv­ing horns, humped shoul­der). Both ani­mals are well known in Pre­dy­nas­tic Egypt­ian art. The designs are not super­fi­cial and have been applied to the der­mis lay­er of the skin, the pig­ment was car­bon-based, pos­si­bly some kind of soot.

The female mum­my, or “Gebelein Woman,” showed more intel­li­gi­ble mark­ings:

[A] series of four small ‘S’ shaped motifs can be seen run­ning ver­ti­cal­ly over her right shoul­der. Below them on the right arm is a lin­ear motif which is sim­i­lar to objects held by fig­ures par­tic­i­pat­ing in cer­e­mo­ni­al activ­i­ties on paint­ed ceram­ics of the same peri­od. It may rep­re­sent a crooked stave, a sym­bol of pow­er and sta­tus, or a throw-stick or baton/clappers used in rit­u­al dance. The ‘S’ motif also appears on Pre­dy­nas­tic pot­tery dec­o­ra­tion, always in mul­ti­ples.

In Mid­dle King­dom tat­too­ing prac­tices, a series of marks seemed to pro­vide pro­tec­tion, espe­cial­ly in fer­til­i­ty and child­birth rites, func­tion­ing as per­ma­nent amulets or a kind of prac­ti­cal mag­ic. Even if their mean­ings remain unclear, Marks writes, it does, “seem evi­dent that they had an array of impli­ca­tions and that women of many dif­fer­ent social class­es chose to wear them.” And it does seem clear that tat­too­ing was impor­tant to ancient, Pre­dy­nas­tic men and women, maybe for sim­i­lar rea­sons. Tat­too­ing tools have also been found dat­ing from around the same time as the Gebelein mum­mies, exca­vat­ed at Aby­dos and con­sist­ing of “sharp met­al points with a wood­en han­dle.”

The dat­ing of Gebelein Man A and Gebelein Woman place them as approx­i­mate con­tem­po­raries of Ötzi, a nat­u­ral­ly mum­mi­fied man cov­ered in tat­toos. Dis­cov­ered in 1991 on the bor­der of Aus­tria and Italy, Ötzi was pre­vi­ous­ly con­sid­ered the old­est tat­tooed mum­my. You can learn more about how the British Muse­um re-exam­ined the Gebelein bod­ies in the “Cura­tor’s Cor­ner” video above with cura­tor of phys­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gy Daniel Antoine. Read more about the find­ings at the British Muse­um’s blog and the Jour­nal of Archae­o­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Ancient Egypt­ian Sound­ed Like & How We Know It

The Met Dig­i­tal­ly Restores the Col­ors of an Ancient Egypt­ian Tem­ple, Using Pro­jec­tion Map­ping Tech­nol­o­gy

A 3,000-Year-Old Painter’s Palette from Ancient Egypt, with Traces of the Orig­i­nal Col­ors Still In It

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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