Tattoos in Ancient Egypt

I recently came back from visiting a friend abroad who I went to university with and sometimes inspiration strikes in the weirdest way. They happen to have a good number of tattoos some of which have ancient Egypt spin on them. So it got me thinking I know there have been examples of tattoos in ancient Egypt but why don’t I do a little bit of a deep dive and see what I can find out?

Figure 1: The American artist Nicole (Cole) Wilson had all of Otzi’s tattoos retouched on her own body as an art performance.  https://www.iceman.it/en/nicolewilsoneng/

The word tattoo comes from the word  Tatau a Sāmoan word. With the arrival of Europeans to Polynesia in the 18th century, Sāmoa and other Polynesian cultures had no formal written language and so these Europeans mispronounced and subsequently documented mispronounced words from Polynesia as they were originally spoken by native people[1].  One of the earliest or even possibly the oldest examples of tattooing in the world was found on Otzi the Iceman whose remains were found in a glacier on the Austrian- Italian border in 1991 and date to c.3250 [2]. In total, he had 61 tattoos covering a variety of different parts of his body including his lower legs, upper back torso and left wrist (Figure 1). In terms of Ancient Egpyt tattooing was practised at least as early as the Middle Kingdom.  

Tools of the Trade  

Dyed using dark pigments most likely black blue or green each colour symbolising rebirth, life birth resurrection and fertility. Like I have said before in Ancient Egypt a lot of the time seemingly simple objects can have multiple layers to it down to the materials it is made of not just the form it takes. Often something can represent more than one thing at a time.

image
Figure 2: Aset of suspected tattooing tools found by Petrie at Gurob https://collections.ucl.ac.uk/Details/petrie/19310

Although no objects have been found that can be solidly confirmed as tools used for tattooing is it loosely assumed that sets of tools were found by Flinders Petrie at the sites of Abydos and Gurob. The Abydos example is It is an implement best described as a sharp point set in a wooden handle, dated to c. 3000 B.C. The second set found by Petrie was a set of small bronze instruments c. 1450 B.C.—resembling wide, flattened needles—at Gurob if these needles were tied together, they would provide repeated patterns of multiple dots.[3](Figure 2) Most likely the people doing that tattooing were older women with experience and understanding of both the symbols and the significance of the colours used[4]. For example, at Deir el Mediana the presence of wise women and oracles in written records could be a candidate for a woman with the necessary skills to tattoo.  

Don’t bring biases to the table, please

In other ancient cultures close to Egypt such as Greece and Rome tattoos were also worn as a cultic symbol dedicating once to a particular god, a brand of servitude, or a mark of a certain profession or to encourage fertility or protection with both societies tattooing both men and women. Something that does not seem the same in ancient Egypt. But when comparing these ancient cultures a biased seems to persist when looking at ancient Egypt. Interpretations of ancient Egyptian women’s tattoos have and are regarded or just ignored as a symbol of lower class and marking of dancing girls or sex workers without any further consideration of other options [5]. Early egyptologists interpreted the tattoos that they found according to their own prejudices and understanding concerning body art. Even now this prejudice towards those with body art hangs in the air about the feminine form and body art. The idea of tattooing for the western world is historically associated with masculinity therefore ‘as women become heavily tattooed, their femininity can be considered weakened, and we see this when they face public social sanctions along such lone …why would you do that to your pretty body?’[6]. In addition to this, the idea of eroticism came into view with early excavators.  Because tattooing seemed to be an exclusively female practice in ancient Egypt, mummies found with tattoos were usually dismissed by the (male) excavators who seemed to assume the women were of “dubious status,” described in some cases as “dancing girls.”[7] Modern interpretations steer away from bringing these biases to the tables but heavily tattooed people still raise an eyebrow in some people’s minds.

Flip the script on the old Interperatiosn High-status women 

Tattoos on the Mummy of Amunet
Figure 3: The tattoos of the Preistress of Hathor Amunet https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1000/tattoos-in-ancient-egypt/#google_vignette

However, flipping the script on older interpretations as more evidence has come to light and technologies have developed it has shown that many of the tattooed remains of women were obviously priestesses and members of the court thus casting a shadow on the older interpretations of the; ‘low class’ tattooed women and so the concept of cultic tattoos identifying these women with the worship of Hathor[8].  Although the precise meaning of tattoos found in ancient Egyptian examples is not entirely clear, there are clear religious and protective overtones. Tattoos offered pertinent protections these magical images tattooed on one’s skin would have hardly been out of place no matter the individual’s social status.

Figure 4: A so called fertility figurine with a myraid of dots and dashes on her suspected to represent tattoos Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités égyptiennes, E 10942 – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl010007299 – https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU

One of the most well-known examples of tattooing on ancient Egpyt remains comes from a discovery made in 1891 by Eugune Grevaut at Deir el Bahri. This discovery was the remains of two female mummies dating to the Middle Kingdom, both sets of remains bore tattoos of geometrically arranged dots and dashes. The burials themesesleve were adjacent to those of several high-status women who held the Tile ‘Kings Wife’ and so they are considered to be members of the King’s harem[9]. One of the women’s remains has been identified as that of the 11th Dynasty Sole Lady in Waiting, Preistress of Hathor Amunet.  A peculiar fault in discussions of Amunent tattoos has happened as no picture of her tattoos is referenced rather the body often shown as Amunet in publications is in fact that of the unknown omen she was discovered alongside[10]. Amunet had tattoos on the top of her abdomen, above her thighs breasts, lower back and arms in a geometrical pattern of dots and lines[11] (Figure 3). These patterns of markings have often been linked by some scholars to fertility figures from this period (Figure 4).

Figure 5: The double cow motif on the arms of the Deir el Medina women. https://www.arce.org/resource/tattooing-ancient-egypt

Another example of a tattooed woman holding religious significance and status comes from the site of Deir el-Medina. The Deir el Median mummy’s tattooes were discovered in 2014 as part of theInstitut Français d’Archéologie Orientale’s mission at the site. On close inspection of the remains a total of 30 figural tattoos showing a variety of symbols and hieroglyphs were discovered; ranging from the eye of Horus to the sign nefer meaning good[12]. The tattoos themselves also extended along this women’s arms, shoulders, throat and back.  Tattoos in pubic regions of the body were intended to permanently mark this woman as associated with religious worship, especially to Hathor with the double cows on her arms (Figure 5). The Eye of Horus on her throat, her shoulder blades and back allowed from any angle that she was viewed at this woman had a pair of divine eyes looking back.[13](Figure 6) These eyes were also written together with the hieroglyph nefer thus giving this body art more meaning as when combined with the divine eye it forms the phrase ‘to do good’ the use of the divine eye further bolsters the potency of the art. Moreover, the placement of this divine formula on her throat and shoulder may have then magically embued her speech and movements with potent religious magic[14].  

Figure 6: The throat of the Deri el Medina women showing a pair of baboons flanking an eye of Horus below another set of tattoos showing two eyes of hours flanking the nefer hieroglyph. https://www.arce.org/resource/tattooing-ancient-egypt
Faience wine bowl with female lute player. Egypt, around 1400–1300 BC. National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden (AD 14)
Figure 7: Faience wine bowl with a female lute player you can see the god Bes on her thigh. 1400–1300 BC, Faience, National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden AD 14. (Photo: (c) National Museum of Antiquities) https://blog.britishmuseum.org/tattoos-in-ancient-egypt-and-sudan/

Alongside the more overt religious connection, other tattoos appear to be more protective in nature. Especially when it comes to thinking of childbirth. It has been noted that some women used body art on their bodies to protect a child in the women and during childbirth- it should be added that this protective tattooing could be found on priestesses as these women were able to marry and have children. Furthermore, a pregnant belly grows so that tattoos could be designed in a way to form an intricate net design from one lower back to just below the belly button creating a protective barrier between the world and the unborn child[15]. Furthermore, the tattooing of the god Bes on the upper thigh would suggest another example of tattoos as a means of protecting the birth as Bes was the protector of women in labour. (Figure 7).

I have really enjoyed looking at tattoos from Ancient Egypt and I hope you have too. It has been fun to look at a topic that still has some work to do in further understanding them, their early interpretation bias and how they were created – I can’t wait to see what more comes to light.

References


[1] https://pasefika.com/Culture/Article/19/sa/Meaning-of-Tatau-1

[2] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1000/tattoos-in-ancient-egypt/

[3] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tattoos-144038580/

[4] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1000/tattoos-in-ancient-egypt/

[5] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1000/tattoos-in-ancient-egypt/

[6]  Thompson, B., 2015. Covered in Ink: Tattoos, Women and the Politics of the Body Volume 24 of Alternative Criminology. New York: NYU Press. Page 36

[7] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tattoos-144038580/

[8] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1000/tattoos-in-ancient-egypt/

[9] Graves-Brown, C., 2010. Dancing for Hathor: women in ancient Egypt. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. Page 113

[10] Graves-Brown, C., 2010. Dancing for Hathor: women in ancient Egypt. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. Page 115

[11] Graves-Brown, C., 2010. Dancing for Hathor: women in ancient Egypt. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. Page 115

[12] https://www.arce.org/resource/tattooing-ancient-egypt

[13] https://www.arce.org/resource/tattooing-ancient-egypt

[14] https://www.arce.org/resource/tattooing-ancient-egypt

[15] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1000/tattoos-in-ancient-egypt/

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