The Mystery of Ancient Tattoos on Mummies




tattoos on mummies
3000-year-old mummy with tattoos

Throughout the history of mankind, ancient cultures around the world have chosen to embalm the dead. These cultures believed that mummifying the bodies of their warriors, kings and queens would preserve their souls for the afterlife. Thousands of years later, contemporary archeologists have discovered many mummies inside these meticulously well-hidden tombs. However, the stories behind the deaths of these mummies and the relevance their lives must have had in their time, can only be speculated on. Fortunately, mummies were often buried with ancient cultural artifacts, weapons, jewelry and engravings that help facilitate academic interpretations. Even though these ancient objects stand as great sources of interpretation, nothing is more objective than what could be unveiled from researching the corpses themselves. In recent decades archeologists in different parts of the world were amazed to discover some visible ancient tattoos on mummies. These tattoos have survived thousands of years and represent an arguably objective connection, with what might have been the historic or tragic lives of these figures.

3,000-year-old female mummy covered in hidden tattoos

 tattoos on mummies
Egyptian tattoos on mummies (pic: Anne Austin)

In a village called Deir el-Medina in Egypt, archeologist Anne Austin, discovered a 3000-year-old mummy. The mummy is proven to have been a woman who proudly inked sacred Wadjet eyes on her neck, shoulders, and back; lotus blossoms on her hips, and cows on her arms. Although mummies with abstract tattoos, such as dots, have been found before, it was the first time that a mummy had figurative tattoos like this one. She was covered in more than 30 tattoos of flowers, animal and sacred symbols from which meaning remains unknown. Austin speculates that the tattoos had a religious significance, particularly the eyes and the cows, which may have been a reference to the goddess Hathor. With the help of Infrared imaging, Austin managed to uncover many of the hidden tattoos. Consequently, the images were reconstructed with a special software to correct distortions caused by the mummy’s skin that shrank over time. The images revealed that the tattoos were placed on certain body parts where, for the ancient techniques of that time, must have been very painful. It was also noted that some of her tattoos were faded, which means that she was getting newer tattoos as her older ones were fading away. Despite these discoveries, several questions remain unanswered. Questions on the real significance of her tattoos? And why did this woman have so many?

 tattoos on mummies
Egyptian tattoos on mummies (scan: Anne Austin)
 tattoos on mummies
Egyptian tomb for mummy

61 tattoos on the 5300-year-old mummified Ötzi the Iceman

 tattoos on mummies
5300-year-old tattoos on mummies (Ötzi the Iceman)

An even older discovery was made in September 1991, when two tourists found an Iceman’s remains nestled into a glacier in the Italian Alps. Since then, researchers have rigorously analyzed the Iceman to paint a picture of what life was like during the start of the Bronze Age some 5,300 years ago. Having noticed certain marks on the remains of the iceman, anthropologists mapped these marks on the 5,300-year-remains using a new imaging technique, revealing previously-unknown tattoos. The Iceman has 61 tattoos organized into 19 different groups. Each group of tattoos is simply a set of horizontal or vertical lines. It is believed that the tattoos served a therapeutic or diagnostic purpose for the Iceman, because the tattoo groupings tend to cluster around the lower back and joints — places where Iceman was suffering from joint and spinal degeneration. The tattoos may have demarcated the locations for acupuncture treatments, or perhaps the tattoos were the treatment. Whether these tattoos had a medical purpose or were symbolic for something entirely different remains a mystery. But assembling a definitive inventory of the Iceman’s body art gives future researchers a firm foundation to start from.

 tattoos on mummies
Horizontal tattoos on mummies (Iceman’s tattoos)

The Lady of Cao – Tattoos on Mummies

 tattoos on mummies
Peruvian tattoos on mummies (Lady of Cao)

In 2005 in a funerary chamber deep within an ancient Peruvian ritual site, a Moche mummy was found exceptionally preserved, untouched since 450 AD. The chamber had the characteristics of a high-status burial of an ancient shaman woman, filled with gold ornaments and symbols of power. The mummy sported several tattoos that were achieved using charcoal pigment embedded beneath skin with a sharp needle or cactus spine. The images were sophisticated geometric designs and creatures like spiders, catfish, snakes, crabs, and mythical beasts. Interestingly, a strangled adolescent was discovered near her funerary, who might have been a sacrifice to guide her into the afterlife, according to the museum at the El Brujo archaeological site where she was found. The lady of Cao is believed to have ruled over the desert valleys of Ancient Peru. Using 3D imaging technology and forensics archaeology, a replica of her face was made based on Lady of Cao’s skull structure and ethnographic research. Today, The Lady of Cao enriches Peru’s cultural heritage and stand as a reminder of the complex societies that thrived in what is now Peru long before the Inca empire dominated the Andes or Europeans arrived in the Americas.

 tattoos on mummies
Artifacts found with the mummy Lady of Cao
 tattoos on mummies
Visible tattoos on mummies – Lady of Cao

Considering the many mysteries surrounding tattooed mummies and what these markings might have meant in their lifetime, one thing is certain: humans have been decorating their bodies for tens of thousands of years. Evidence dates to 100,000 years ago depicting workshops where Paleolithic peoples mixed up ochres for paints and cosmetics. Tattoos appear to be part of the typical kit for bodily adornment, and they may be among humanity’s most ancient forms of art.

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Sources: Ancient Ink: Mummies and Their Amazing Tattoos, 3,000-year-old female mummy was covered in hidden tattoos, Ancient Ink: Mummies and Their Amazing Tattoos.

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