In Brief

Ancient Obsidian Tools Were Used for Tattooing, Archaeologists Find

You may find stick-and-pokes an intense form of tattooing, but the use of needles, safety pins, or other common sharp objects doesn’t look quite so rough when you consider that ancient Melanesians inked themselves with volcanic glass.

obsidian
Piercing pig skin with charcoal-soaked and ochre-socked tips; and piercing skin covered by ochre and skin covered by clay (all images courtesy Nina Kononenko, Robin Torrence, and Peter Sheppard)

You may find stick-and-pokes an intense form of tattooing, but the use of needles, safety pins, or other common sharp objects doesn’t look quite so rough when you consider that ancient Melanesians inked themselves with volcanic glass. A team of researchers from Australia and New Zealand examined 15 obsidian artifacts from the Nanggu site in the Solomon Islands — a large Lapita settlement site — and determined that the shiny black glass pieces were specially designed and used to pierce skin as far back as 3,000 years ago. Their findings, recently published in a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science, shed new light on tools initially thought to serve as awls to transform animal skin and hide into cloth and other items.

piercing tools
Piercing tools: experimental (a–d) and artefacts (e–h) (click to enlarge)

“The research demonstrates the antiquity and significance of human body decoration by tattooing as a cultural tradition amongst the earliest settlers of Oceania,” the team told Hyperallergic. “Because of the importance of tattooing even at this early date, a specialized group of tools were made using obsidian, a raw material that was transported many kilometers to the Lapita site.”

Archaeologists have found numerous cases of ancient tattoos, with the oldest inked remains recently found on an Alpine ice mummy. But as these human remains are generally poorly preserved, turning to the tools responsible for such markings is a more feasible method to better understand the history of body inscriptions. Such implements are still uncommon to excavate, often made of perishable materials, but obsidian, formed when lava cools, tends to be long-lasting.

Archaeologist Peter Sheppard, one of the study’s authors, had suspected in the early 1990s that the small, retouched obsidian flakes found in the region were used for piercing skin. Only in 2004, however, did co-author and archaeologist Nina Kononenko microscopically examine the tools. She identified specific traces of chipping and rounding of their edges along with thin striations and smooth polish that indicated the obsidian pieces were used specifically for piercing and puncturing. Kononenko also identified centuries-old residues of mixed blood, ochre, and charcoal and began experimenting with chicken and lizard skin to understand how such wear formed. Last year, the researchers moved on to pig skin, using replicas of the ancient artifacts to conduct their tattooing experiments, which incorporated various pigments.

“The comparison of experimentally produced traces of wear on tools with those observed on prehistoric artifacts showed close similarities,” the team said. “Therefore, we came to conclusion that the only way the excavated ‘gravers’ could be used is for tattooing and scarification of human body. This conclusion is supported by the presence of blood residues mixed with ochre or charcoal used as a pigment in tattooing.”

Today, we use obsidian to manufacture the blades of knives, and some surgeons even wield scalpel blades with the material (they aren’t FDA-approved, however). But tools created from the sleek volcanic glass were once relatively common around the world — besides representing very early precedents to the tattoo machine as we know it, such flakes were even used in the bloodletting rituals of early Mesoamerican societies, the researchers said.

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Location of the Nanggu site in the Solomon Islands
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