Hidden tattoos found on Egyptian mummies change our knowledge of the ancient practice
Three thousand years ago, the village of Deir el-Medina in ancient Egypt was home to a community of artisans, all living and working together on the tombs of the Valley of the Kings necropolis. But new evidence has emerged that tombs were not their only creative outlet.
Infrared imaging has revealed a range of tattoos on the previously unstudied mummified corpses of seven women. The ink was scattered across their bodies, with a range of different motifs.
According to University of Missouri anthropologist Anne Austin, this represents evidence that in ancient Egypt, the practice of tattooing may have been more widespread than we knew. She presented her findings at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting in November.
The work has been several years in the making. It started in 2014, when Austin and her colleague Cedric Gobeil noticed markings on the neck of a female Deir el-Medina mummy. Closer inspection revealed that the marks were not, as she first thought, painted on - they were tattoos.
But, as we saw with the 5,000-year-old mummies from Gebelein, which had been sitting in a museum for over 100 years before their tattoos were discovered, tattoos on mummies aren't always easy to see. Mummified skin becomes discoloured and darkened, especially with mummification resins added to the mix; and tattoos can lighten over time.
Such hidden tattoos can, however, be revealed with infrared photography, which works in wavelengths usually invisible to the human eye.
So, that's what the researchers did. On that initial female mummy, they catalogued a whopping 30 tattoos, most of which would not have been hidden by clothing, and would have required a second person to perform the tattooing - placed on the neck, back, and behind the shoulders.
The subject of the tattoos included sacred motifs such as Wadjet eyes, baboons, cobras, cows, scarab beetles, and lotus flowers. This combination of motifs and visibility led the researchers to the conclusion that the woman could have been a healer or a priestess of some kind.
But that mummy was just the first. By 2016, Austin had identified three more tattooed mummies from Deir el-Medina. Now, as reported by Science News, she's added another three to that count, bringing the total to seven.
"The distribution, display, and content of these tattoos reveal how they were used both in religious practice and to forge permanent, public identities," Austin wrote in her abstract.
"The extensive tattoos on one female mummy demonstrates the use of tattoos for identifying and enabling this woman to act as a key religious practitioner to the Deir el-Medina community. Additional tattoos found and analysed during the 2016 and 2019 seasons using infrared photography indicate that many more individuals were likely tattooed at Deir el-Medina."
This is pretty significant. Although evidence for tattooing exists in the archaeological record from ancient Egypt, it's primarily in art and figurines. Actual mummies that have tattoos have been found rarely; in addition to the seven Deir el-Medina mummies, only six other tattooed Egyptian mummies have been identified.
What this research shows is that maybe we haven't been looking with the right tools.
It also shows that - just like people who get tattooed today - maybe there's no one single reason the ancient Egyptians tattooed themselves. In addition to the woman's inferred religious role, some of the motifs on the other mummies suggest healing, or protection. (And, well, maybe they just thought the ink looked badass.)
Tattoos have been found on other mummies around the world. The Siberian Ice Maiden and unnamed warrior who died 2,500 years ago on the Ukok Plateau, for instance, had tattoos that anthropologists think signified age and status.
We can learn more about the tattooing practices of ancient Egypt by uncovering more tattooed mummies. And who knows - maybe they're already sitting in museums, waiting for someone with an infrared camera to find them.