By Gary Gray
Humans have marked their bodies with arm tattoos for thousands of years. These are permanently inked designs, sometimes plain, sometimes elaborate. They are always personal though, and they have served many purposes.
Things such as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religious beliefs, adornments and even forms of punishment. Joann Fletcher, research fellow in the department of archaeology at the University of York in Britain, describes the history of tattoos and their cultural significance to people around the world.
People like the famous” Iceman,” a 5,200 year-old frozen mummy, to today’s Maori.
In terms of arm tattoos or any tattoo on actual bodies, the earliest known examples were from ancient Egypt. They were present on several female mummies dated to 2000 B.C. Following the more recent discovery of the Iceman from the area of the Italian-Austrian border in 1991 and his tattoo. This date has been pushed back a further thousand years when he was carbon dated at around 5,200 years old.
Following discussions with my colleague Professor Don Brothwell of the University of York. One of the specialists who examined him, and the distribution of the tattooed dots. Noticed small crosses on his lower spine and right knee and ankle joints correspond to areas of strain-induced degeneration.
Also the suggestion that they may have been applied to alleviate joint pain and were therefore essentially therapeutic. This would also explain their somewhat ‘random’ distribution in areas of the body which would not have been that easy to display had they been applied as a form of status marker.
There’s certainly evidence that women had tattoos on their bodies and limbs from figurines 4000-3500 B.C.. Occasionally female figures represented in tomb scenes 1200 B.C. and in figurine form 1300 B.C.. They all had tattoos on their thighs. Small bronze implements identified as tattooing tools were discovered at the town site of Gurob in northern Egypt. The tools dated to 1450 B.C.. Mummies with tattoos, from the three women already mentioned and dated to 2000 B.C.. Later several examples of female mummies with these forms of permanent marks were found in Greco-Roman burials at Akhmim.
Because this seemed to be an exclusively female practice in ancient Egypt, mummies found with tattoos were usually dismissed by the excavators. They seemed to assume the women were of “dubious status,” described in some cases as “dancing girls.” The female mummies had nevertheless been buried at Deir el-Bahari in an area associated with royal and elite burials. We also know that at least one of the women described as “probably a royal concubine” was actually a high-status priestess named Amunet. This was revealed by her funerary inscriptions.
It has long been assumed that such tattoos were the mark of prostitutes or were meant to protect the women against sexually transmitted diseases. I personally believe that the tattooing of ancient Egyptian women functioned and had a therapeutic role as a permanent form of amulet. It was a very difficult time of pregnancy and birth.
This is supported by the pattern of distribution, largely around the abdomen, on top of the thighs and the breasts. This would also explain the specific types of designs, in particular the net-like distribution of dots applied over the abdomen. During pregnancy, this specific pattern would expand in a protective fashion in the same way bead nets were placed over wrapped mummies to protect them. They were said to “keep everything in.” The placing of small figures of the household deity Bes at the tops of their thighs would again suggest the use of tattoos as a means of safeguarding the actual birth. Bes was the protector of women in labor, and his position at the tops of the thighs a suitable location. This would ultimately explain tattoos as a purely female custom.
We have no explicit written evidence in the case of ancient Egypt, it may well be that the older women of a community would create the tattoos for the younger women. As it happened in 19th-century Egypt and happens in some parts of the world today.
It is possible that an implement best described as a sharp point set in a wooden handle, dated to 3000 B.C. and discovered by archaeologist W.M.F. Petrie. Huge made the discovery at the site of Abydos may have been used to create tattoos.
Petrie also found the aforementioned set of small bronze instruments 1450 B.C. resembling wide, flattened needles at the ancient town site of Gurob. They would use repeated patterns of multiple dots if tied together in a bunch.
These instruments are also remarkably similar to much later tattooing implements used in 19th century Egypt. The English writer William Lane observed, “the operation is performed with several needles tied together. With these, the skin is pricked in a desired pattern: some smoke black, mixed with milk from the breast of a woman, is then rubbed in. It is generally performed at the age of about 5 or 6 years, and by gipsy women.”
Most examples on mummies are largely dotted patterns of lines and diamond patterns, while figurines sometimes feature more naturalistic images. The tattoos occasionally found in tomb scenes and on small female figurines which form parts of cosmetic items. They also had small figures of the dwarf god Bes on the thigh area.
Usually a black or dark pigment such as soot was introduced into the pricked skin. It seems that brighter colors were largely used in other ancient cultures. The Inuit who are believed to have used a yellow color along with the more usual darker pigments.
The mummified head of a woman from the pre-Inca Chiribaya culture, located at the Azapa Museum in Arica, Chile. The head is adorned with facial tattoos on her lower left cheek.
That it appears to have been restricted to women during the purely dynastic period, i.e. pre 332 B.C.. Also the way in which some of the designs can be seen to be very well placed, once it is accepted. They were then used as a means of safeguarding women during pregnancy and birth.
The were 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 2000-15000 B.C.. They were found to have blue tattoos, which in at least one case featured the same arrangement of dots across the abdomen. This was noted on the aforementioned female mummies from Deir el-Bahari. The ancient Egyptians also represented the male leaders of the Libyan neighbors 1300-1100 B.C. with clear, rather geometrical tattoo marks. They appeared on their legs, and arm tattoos. They 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. In 1993, a woman with arm tattoos, again of mythical creatures on her shoulders, wrists and thumb and of similar date. She was found in a tomb in Altai. The practice is also confirmed by the Greek writer Herodotus 450 B.C.. He 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. They were “divers shapes of beasts” tattooed on their bodies. The Romans named one northern tribe “Picti,” literally “the painted people.”.
Amongst the Greeks and Romans, the use of tattoos or “stigmata”and seems to have been largely used as a means to mark someone as “belonging” either to a religious sect or to an owner. This can be seen 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, was said to have been tattooed. He was said to have had ivy leaves to symbolize his devotion to Dionysus. The 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. Tattoos were felt to “disfigure that made in God’s image” and so were banned by the Emperor Constantine.
We have also examined arm tattoos on mummified remains of some of the ancient pre-Columbian cultures of Peru and Chile. They 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. This tattoo stretched across her abdomen and extending down to her genitalia. Presumably alluding to the regions associated with birth. On the mummified remains which have survived, the tattoos noted were on torsos, limbs, hands, the thumbs and fingers and occasional facial tattooing was practiced.
Extensive facial and body tattooing used among Native Americans including the Cree Indians. The mummified bodies of a group of six Greenland Inuit women were found in A.D. 1475. The women revealed evidence of facial tattooing. Infrared examination revealed that five of the women had been tattooed in a line extending over the eyebrows. Also along the cheeks and in some cases with a series of lines on the chin. Another tattooed female with arm tattoos was a mummy, dated 1,000 years earlier. She was also found on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, her tattoos of lines, hearts and dots confined to the arms and hands.
Evidence for tattooing is also found amongst some of the ancient mummies found in China’s Taklamakan Desert 1200 B.C., although during the later Han Dynasty, it seems that only criminals were tattooed.
The elaborate tattoos of the Polynesian cultures are thought to have developed over millennia. They featured highly elaborate geometric designs, which in many cases can cover the whole body. Following James Cook’s British expedition to Tahiti in 1769, the islanders’ term “tatatau” or “tattau,” meaning to strike or hit. This gave way to the word of the west, our modern term “tattoo.” The marks then became fashionable among Europeans, particularly so in the case of men. Coal miners and sailors, with both professions which carried serious risks and presumably explaining the almost amulet-like use of anchors. Sometimes miner’s got lamp tattoos on the men’s forearms.
Modern Japanese tattoos are real works of art. Many modern highly skilled tattooists of Samoa continue to create their art as it was carried out in ancient times. Prior to the invention of modern tattooing equipment. Various cultures throughout Africa also used tattoos, including the fine dots on the faces of Berber women. In Algeria, the elaborate facial tattoos of Wodabe men in Niger and the small crosses on the inner forearms which mark Egypt’s Christian Copts.
In the Maori culture of New Zealand, the head was considered the most important part of the body. The face embellished by incredibly elaborate tattoos or ‘moko,’ which were regarded as marks of high status. Each tattoo design was unique to that individual and since it conveyed specific information about their status, rank, ancestry and abilities. It has accurately been described as a form of id card or passport. It was a kind of aesthetic bar code for the face. The sharp bone chisels were used to cut the designs into the skin, a soot-based pigment would be tapped into the open wounds. Then they would heal over to seal in the design. With arm tattoos the warriors got tattooed various stages in their lives as a kind of rite of passage. The decorations were regarded as enhancing their features and making them more attractive to the opposite sex.
Maori women were also tattooed on their faces. These markings tended to be concentrated around the nose and lips. Christian missionaries tried to stop the procedure but the women maintained that tattoos around their chins and mouths prevented the skin from becoming wrinkled. It also kept them young. This practice was apparently continued as recently as the 1970s.
It seems to have sprung up independently as a permanent way to place therapeutic or protective symbols upon the body. Also as a means of marking people out into appropriate social, political or religious groups. It may also have been a simple form of self expression or a fashion statement.
As in so many other areas of adornment, there was of course cross-cultural influences. Some of which existed between the Egyptians and Nubians, the Thracians and Greeks.
Many cultures encountered by Roman soldiers during the expansion of the Roman Empire in the final centuries B.C. The first centuries A.D. And, certainly, Polynesian culture is thought to have influenced Maori arm tattoos.