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The tattooed right hand of a Chiribaya mummy is displayed at El Algarrobal Museum, near the port of Ilo in southern Peru. The Chiribaya were farmers who lived from A.D. 900 to 1350. (Joann Fletcher)

Tattoos

The Ancient and Mysterious History

Can you describe the tattoos used in other ancient cultures and how they differ?

Among the numerous ancient cultures who appear to have used tattooing as a permanent form of body adornment, the Nubians to the south of Egypt are known to have used tattoos. The mummified remains of women of the indigenous C-group culture found in cemeteries near Kubban c. 2000-15000 B.C. were found to have blue tattoos, which in at least one case featured the same arrangement of dots across the abdomen noted on the aforementioned female mummies from Deir el-Bahari. The ancient Egyptians also represented the male leaders of the Libyan neighbors c. 1300-1100 B.C. with clear, rather geometrical tattoo marks on their arms and legs and portrayed them in Egyptian tomb, temple and palace scenes.

The Scythian Pazyryk of the Altai Mountain region were another ancient culture which employed tattoos. In 1948, the 2,400 year old body of a Scythian male was discovered preserved in ice in Siberia, his limbs and torso covered in ornate tattoos of mythical animals. Then, in 1993, a woman with tattoos, again of mythical creatures on her shoulders, wrists and thumb and of similar date, was found in a tomb in Altai. The practice is also confirmed by the Greek writer Herodotus c. 450 B.C., who stated that amongst the Scythians and Thracians "tattoos were a mark of nobility, and not to have them was testimony of low birth.”

Accounts of the ancient Britons likewise suggest they too were tattooed as a mark of high status, and with "divers shapes of beasts" tattooed on their bodies, the Romans named one northern tribe "Picti," literally "the painted people."

Yet amongst the Greeks and Romans, the use of tattoos or "stigmata" as they were then called, seems to have been largely used as a means to mark someone as "belonging" either to a religious sect or to an owner in the case of slaves or even as a punitive measure to mark them as criminals. It is therefore quite intriguing that during Ptolemaic times when a dynasty of Macedonian Greek monarchs ruled Egypt, the pharaoh himself, Ptolemy IV (221-205 B.C.), was said to have been tattooed with ivy leaves to symbolize his devotion to Dionysus, Greek god of wine and the patron deity of the royal house at that time. The fashion was also adopted by Roman soldiers and spread across the Roman Empire until the emergence of Christianity, when tattoos were felt to "disfigure that made in God's image" and so were banned by the Emperor Constantine (A.D. 306-373).

We have also examined tattoos on mummified remains of some of the ancient pre-Columbian cultures of Peru and Chile, which often replicate the same highly ornate images of stylized animals and a wide variety of symbols found in their textile and pottery designs. One stunning female figurine of the Naszca culture has what appears to be a huge tattoo right around her lower torso, stretching across her abdomen and extending down to her genitalia and, presumably, once again alluding to the regions associated with birth. Then on the mummified remains which have survived, the tattoos were noted on torsos, limbs, hands, the fingers and thumbs, and sometimes facial tattooing was practiced.

With extensive facial and body tattooing used among Native Americans, such as the Cree, the mummified bodies of a group of six Greenland Inuit women c. A.D. 1475 also revealed evidence for facial tattooing. Infrared examination revealed that five of the women had been tattooed in a line extending over the eyebrows, along the cheeks and in some cases with a series of lines on the chin. Another tattooed female mummy, dated 1,000 years earlier, was also found on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, her tattoos of dots, lines and hearts confined to the arms and hands.

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