At Large  January 5, 2023  Danielle Vander Horst

The Art and Archeology of Tattoo

Photo: Detroit Institute of Arts.

Two ceramic figurines from graves in western Mexico that show two heavily tattooed individuals.

For over five thousand years, the art of tattooing has captivated human cultures. Today, we understand the reasoning for adorning one’s body with images and symbols as being both incredibly varied and extremely personal. But what we don’t think about is how this was also the case in antiquity. Ample evidence the world over has shown that tattooing was employed uniquely to demonstrate modes of self-expression or to signify socio-cultural ideas.

The material record has provided much of this evidence about what some of the world’s earliest tattoos looked like and why they were inscribed onto human skin. Egyptian objects have been recovered that depict female figures with patterns of dots and lines across their bodies or with images of the god Bes on their thighs. Many scholars have noted that in Egypt only female-presenting individuals have been noted as having tattoos, leading them to posit that tattooing in this culture was associated with ideas of femininity or female-related occupations.  In Japan, carved faces incised with geometric patterns have been understood as representing tattooed designs particular to the Jōmon people, and graves from pre-Colombian Mexico have produced ceramic figurines whose bodies are covered in patterns of elaborate black lines thought to indicate particular aspects of identity and social status. 

Photo: Anne Austin.

Photograph of one of the tattoos located on a 3,000 year old female mummy from Deir el-Medina, Egypt.

These, and other related materials, are extremely poignant in helping us understand the history and archaeology of tattoos, however, our best evidence has come from actual bodies preserved through extraordinary circumstances. 

Processes of preservation are typically not kind to human bodies; more often than not, archaeologists recover little more than the bones of the deceased in their final resting place. Much of this has to do with both how a body is buried and where. In the ancient world, coffins, sarcophagi, and other elaborate tombs that could protect human remains were the burial habits of those with enough wealth to afford them. Even cremation during certain periods was often considered an ostentatious funerary rite as the amount of wood required to burn a human body completely was too expensive for the average person. Thus, many burials in the ancient world were inhumations in the ground accompanied by whatever goods those burying the deceased chose to place with the body.

Photo: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden, The Netherlands.

Painted faience objects from Egypt depictured tattood women. Top: a figurine with depictions of tattoos across her body. Bottom: a small painted faience amulet showing an Egyptian dancer with a tattoo of the god Bes on her thigh.

While these burial practices may have been the most economically or socially feasible for peoples of the past, they certainly are not typically conducive to the preservation of biological materials which break down and decompose in the presence of oxygen and bacteria.

Thus, when we do discover bodies preserved with skin and other organic components intact, they tend to come from either circumstances that denote wealth and status (e.g. Egyptian mummies) or from areas and regions that invite anoxic or anaerobic (i.e. oxygen-less) preservation. Dry climates such as deserts, extreme cold and ice, and swampy bogs have provided us with some of the most stunning examples of human preservation with many of these bodies also sporting evidence for the world’s earliest tattoos. 

Egyptian mummies are perhaps the most famous examples of how both burial rites and climate can induce excellent preservation of the human body, including hair and skin. Though tattoos on Egyptian mummies can be difficult to locate due to how the embalming process affects the skin of the deceased, in 2019 it was revealed through infra-red photography that seven 3,000-year-old female mummies excavated from Deir el-Medina all bore tattoos of varying shapes, sizes, and locations. One body, in particular, had 30 examples alone. Current research by Anne Austin at Stanford University posits that the tattoos may have played a part in these women’s lives as possible religious figures, perhaps priestesses, or even in work as healers as many of the tattoo designs are connected to images of protection.

Photo: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/EURAC/Samadelli/Staschitz

Full-scale image of Ötzi the iceman indicating the location of his tattoos.

Even older are the tattoos on a man who died in the Italian-Austrian Alps around 3250 BCE. Dubbed Ötzi by his excavators, this mummy was preserved in the oxygen-free ice sheets of an Alpine glacier after his death. Between the extreme cold and the lack of oxygen, Ötzi’s skin was preserved completely intact with 61 tattoos scattered across his body including on his wrists, legs, back, and torso. 

Research on Ötzi has provided us with incredibly valuable information about how Copper Age peoples in this part of Europe lived, but his tattoos added even more unique evidence about the medicinal practices of his time. Analyses of Ötzi’s bones showed that he suffered from joint and spinal degeneration and would have likely experienced significant arthritic pain. Not only did he carry plants and herbs targeted for pain relief, but many of his tattoos – mostly lines and dots – were strategically placed over his joints and the base of his spine suggesting that they were inscribed as a means to further assist with pain relief and healing.

Photo: The Siberian Times.

Princess Ukok: Recreations of the Ice Maiden’s shoulder and arm tattoos. Photo: Elena Shumakova, Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science.

Other cases are known to have indicated the social status of the tattooed individual. The famous so-called Ice Maiden of Siberia is one such example. This young woman aged about 25 was buried in the ice-cold Ukok Plateau approximately 2,500 years ago. When archaeologists discovered her and began to thaw out her burial, they found that her body was covered in wonderfully elaborate pictorial tattoos of mythological creatures. Considering the wealth of her burial which included six horses and clothes of imported Chinese silks, scholars have assumed that she held a position of importance perhaps as a religious figure, healer, or a member of the local nobility.

Countless more examples of tattooed bodies or depictions of tattooed individuals are known to us through the archaeological record, and certainly, more will continue to be discovered over time. But what has already been made thoroughly clear is that the art of tattooing has deep roots in human history. Whether used to indicate the social status or identity of the bearer or as a means to aid in medicinal healing, tattoos are an enigmatic practice of artistic and cultural expression that can continue to teach us about our collective past in surprising and beautiful ways.

About the Author

Danielle Vander Horst

Dani is a freelance artist, writer, and archaeologist. Her research specialty focuses on religion in the Roman Northwest, but she has formal training more broadly in Roman art, architecture, materiality, and history. Her other interests lie in archaeological theory and public education/reception of the ancient world. She holds multiple degrees in Classical Archaeology from the University of Rochester, Cornell University, and Duke University.

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