Earliest Figural Tattoos Discovered on 5,000-Year-Old Mummies

The markings include a bull, a sheep and a mysterious ‘S’ motif

Gebelein Woman tattoo.jpg
Tattoos on the Pre-dynastic female mummy from Gebelein. The Trustees of the British Museum

Two ancient Egyptian mummies known as “Gebelein Man A” and “Gebelein Woman” have been on display at the British Museum for decades. But when experts re-examined the bodies as part of a new conservation program, they found previously unnoticed tattoos on the mummies’ arms and shoulders. These markings, as Pallab Gosh reports for the BBC, are the oldest-known figural tattoos, moving the timeline for such body art back by about 1,000 years.

The mummies were first discovered in the Gebelein, Egypt, around 100 years ago. Radiocarbon dating has revealed that both individuals lived between 3351 and 3017 B.C., shortly before Egypt was unified and the early dynastic period began. The Gebelein mummies were buried in shallow graves, without any special care taken to preserve their bodies, but the region’s salinity and aridity preserved the remains naturally.

Over the years, analyses of the bodies have revealed a number of details about the ancient individuals. The Gebelein man, for instance, was around 18 to 21 years old when he died, and appears to have been killed by a stab wound to the back. But researchers only recently noticed the tattoos, which look like faint smudges under natural light. Using infrared scanning technology, a team of experts led by Renée Friedman of Oxford University’s Faculty of Oriental Studies and British Museum curator Daniel Antoine were able to make out distinct figures that had been etched onto the mummies’ skin.

Detailing the results in a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers explain that the Gebelein Man’s arm had been decorated with two horned animals, which appear to be a bull and a Barbary sheep. The team was somewhat taken aback by this discovery; tattoos appear in the cultural record from Egypt’s Predynastic era, but only on female figurines, which prompted archaeologists to surmise that only women were tattooed during this period. The new findings reveal that men also partook in body art.

According to a press release from the British Museum, researchers believe that the man “may have worn the tattoos as symbols of power and strength.” From the Predynastic period onwards, in fact, bulls appear in ancient Egyptian imagery as a symbol of male virility.

The Gebelein woman’s tattoos are more difficult to interpret. Four “S” shaped motifs were drawn vertically over her right shoulder, and on her right arm is a curved line. The line resembles objects that appear in ceramic depictions of ceremonial activities—researchers think they might be sticks, batons or clappers used in ritual dance. It is also possible that the curved line represents a “crooked stave,” which was a symbol of power and status, according to the press release. The S-motif also appears in Predynastic pottery, and while its significance is unclear, some experts believe it emphasizes or connects different elements of a composition.

“With this function in mind,” the study authors write, “the two tattoos found on Gebelein Woman could be viewed as a group possibly emphasizing ceremonial or ritual activities undertaken by, or on behalf of, the bearer.” The locations of the tattoos would have made them very visible, and the researchers think that the markings may have denoted magical or cult knowledge.

Previously, as Antoine notes in a British Museum blog post, the earliest example of body ink—which has a long and diverse history— came from the famed Alpine mummy known as Ötzi the Iceman, who lived at roughly the same time as the Gebelein mummies. Ötzi’s tattoos, however, were geometric and abstract. The markings found on the Gebelein mummies constitute the oldest “figural” tattoos, or tattoos representing real things, ever discovered. The Gebelein woman also offers the earliest evidence of tattooing on female remains, and the Gebelein tattoos push back the timeline for tattooing in Africa by about a millennium.

Perhaps most intriguingly, as Antoine points out in an interview with Gosh of the BBC, the discovery may offer “new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals.” It's possible that given time, clues as to who the Gebelein man and woman were—their status, their preoccupations, their special knowledge—can be revealed by the ancient markings on their skin.

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