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Published Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Bit of Tattoo History

A cross section of Otzi's tattoos by EURAC's mummy researchers (Samadelli and Melis)

As I've mentioned before in this blog, there's a tendency for body modification history to be erased somewhat because skin deteriorates so quickly, in most cases, and doesn't leave much of a record for us. It's only after mummies or frozen bodies are found that we see the real history of what people looked like, not just the clean, smooth faces of the museum reconstructions.

This is perhaps no more evident than when we look at the history of tattoos. Who were the first tattooists? What were the earliest methods of tattooing? While many theorize that the practice goes back considerably further than we know, what we can tell from existing evidence is still pretty cool.

The earliest actual tattoo found on a person's body belongs to Otzi the Iceman who had 61 tattoos on him (at the most current count). They were mostly straight lines, or crosses, and are concentrated around joints and his lower back, leading many scientists to speculate that these tattoos were medicinal, or at least marking areas where treatments should be done. They were made by rubbing ash into cuts, not with ink. Ozti has been dated to between 3300 and 3100 BCE. Around the same time pottery was becoming a thing (More on this later).

But the story I most wanted to tell, before diving deeper into pre-history, is of the priestess of Hathor in ancient Egypt, and the

A drawing by Daniel Fouquet (1898) of the mummy Amunet's tattoos.
Faience figurine from Egypt showing dotted markings that might, maybe, represent tattoos. )Image UCL Museums and Collections)

“Brides of the Dead” that were frequently buried with people during this time. Basically, tiny faience statues were buried with people, perhaps for fertility, and these statues bore markings that appear to be tattoos. It's corroborated by the fact that a priestess of Hathor's mummy, a woman named Amunet, dated to around 2100-1900 BCE was found to have very similar tattoos on her body. Along with Amunet, some dancers from the temple of Hathor also had the tattoos.

This is significant because the tattoos and their statues are one of the ways that the history of tattooing is followed going back further than we have skin to study. In other words, sometimes when there's no skin, you still have statues, and the statues seem to indicate that tattooing goes back really, really far.

Egyptian figurines going back as far as 4000-3500 BCE show what appear to be tattoos.

Cucuteni clay figure (image by Cristian Chirita, Wikimedia)

Even earlier figurines found in what is now Romania and Ukraine, made from clay, show signs of what might be early tattoos. The figures are predominately female, and are covered with simple line drawings, similar to what would later be seen on Egyptian faience, but much more extensive. The people who made these belong to the Cucuteni culture, and they are the earliest signs discovered so far of tattoos.

Not only are these lines only found in the Neolithic clay figures, and not in the earlier stone carved figures, but many have connected the practice of making pottery to tattooing itself. The wet clay had designs carved into it using sharp tools, much like tattoos, and it may have been that pottery artists were the first tattoo artists.

Although earlier art, like the Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel and the Lascaux cave paintings, both from around 40,000 years ago, indicate that there was plenty of carving and artistic expression happening in earlier periods.

One of the most notable carved figures ever discovered, the Shigur Idol, which is the oldest wood carved

Diagrams of the Shigir Idol made in 1916(?)

sculpture in the world (preserved in a peat bog for 11,000 years), certainly bears signs of stylized markings on the skin, very like what would later appear on Otzi.

Unfortunately, without the skin to back it up, any evidence of tattooing before 7,000 years ago is just speculation.


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