The History Of Tattooing Rewritten Thanks To 5,000-Year-Old Egyptian Mummies

New research has revealed the world’s first figurative tattoos on two Egyptian mummies from the British Museum, including the oldest known example of female tattoos.

Thanks to the use of infrared technology, figurative tattoos of a wild bull and a sheep were identified on the upper arm of a male mummy, while linear and “S” motifs were identified on the upper arm and shoulder of a female mummy. These are the oldest tattoos that have been found on a female individual.

Top image: An Infrared image of the male mummy known as Gebelein Man A. Lower left: Detail of the tattoos observed on his right arm under infrared light. Lower right: The mummy and tattoos under normal lighting conditions. Image Credit: British Museum.

They are dated between 3351 and 3017 BC, say archaeologists indicating that the discovery is rewriting the history of tattooing.

Daniel Antoine, Curator of Physical Anthropology of the British Museum has said in a statement that: “The use of the latest scientific methods, including CT scanning, radiocarbon dating, and infrared imaging, has transformed our understanding of the Gebelein mummies. Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals. Incredibly, at over 5,000 years of age, they push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium.”

The mummies, which have been naturally mummified, belong the predynastic period of Egypt, the era before the unification of the country by the first pharaoh around 3,100 BC.

All the visible skin of these mummified people was examined for signs of body modification as part of a new conservation and research program.

Seen here are the Details of the S-shaped tattoos on the Predynastic female mummy from Gebelein. Image Credit: British Museum

The male mummy, known as “Gebelein Man A”, has been on display at the British Museum almost continuously since its discovery about 100 years ago.

As noted by experts, previous CT scans showed that Male Gebelein A was a young man (18-21 years of age) when he died most likely from a knife wound on his back.

Dark spots on his arm, which looked like faint marks under natural light, had remained unexamined in the past.

But now, thanks to Infrared photography experts have revealed that these spots were, in fact, tattoos of two animals with horns that overlapped a bit.

The animals have been identified as a wild bull (long tail, elaborate horns) and a Barbary sheep (curved horns, humpback shoulder).

It is believed how both animals were well known in predynastic Egyptian art.

The designs are not superficial and have been applied to the dermis layer of the skin, and researchers say how the pigment is based on carbon, possibly some kind of soot.

The female mummy, known as «Gebelein Woman», was found to have several tattoos; A series of four small “S” shaped motifs can be seen running vertically over her right shoulder.

Below them, on the right arm, researchers found a linear motif that is similar to objects held by figures participating in ceremonial activities in painted pottery of the same period.

The application of tattoos to the human body enjoyed a long and diverse history in many ancient cultures.

At present, the oldest surviving examples are the mainly geometric tattoos of the alpine mummy known as Ötzi (fourth millennium BC), whose skin was preserved by the ice of the Tyrolean Alps.

According to the radiocarbon dates, Gebelein’s tattoos are approximately contemporaneous with Ötzi (3370-3100 BC) and, therefore, can be considered as one of the first surviving tattoos in the world.

Researchers say that the findings conclusively demonstrate that the art of tattoos was practiced during the predynastic period of Egypt (around 4000-3100 BC) by men and women.

As the oldest known tattooed figurative motifs, they add to our understanding of the range of possible uses of tattoos at the dawn of the ancient Egyptian civilization and broaden our view of the practice of tattooing in prehistory.

To learn more about the discovery visit Journal of Archaeological Science.

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