About 5,000 years ago, a young Egyptian male exposed his upper arm and presumably prepared to receive a tattoo of a wild bull, overlapping with a Barbary sheep. Preserved on his now mummified remains, the surviving image stands as one of the oldest tattoos in the world, as British researchers have recently found. Their study, published yesterday in the Journal of Archaeological Science, also describes motifs shaped like letters of the alphabet on a female mummy buried at the same site as the male. The pair’s ink jobs represent the world’s earliest figural tattoos, the scientists say.
The mummies are two of seven predynastic ones known as the Gebelein mummies, eponymously named for the southern region of Upper Egypt where they were buried in shallow graves. The arid climate preserved their bodies from their hair — which scientists used to date the mummies — to their soft tissues, ink and all.
They were excavated in 1896 by E.A. Wallis Budge, Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum, which has housed them since 1901. As part of a new program, researchers at the museum and the University of Oxford examined the visible skin of all seven mummies for signs of body modification. The male and female were the only two that bear tattoos, which were applied with a carbon-based pigment.
Nicknamed “Ginger” for his tufts of red-colored hair, the male mummy is officially known as the Gebelain Man and has been on display, controversially, almost continuously since his arrival at the museum. The dark smudges on his arm appeared as faint markings under natural light, but new infrared photography revealed that they actually depict two horned animals. Both the wild, long-tailed bull and the Barbary sheep were well known in Predynastic Egyptian art, appearing in rock art and on myriad objects such as jars and cosmetic palettes.
While the researchers have not determined their exact meaning, they believe the animals might be symbols of power and strength. Unfortunately, it seems they could not protect him from a tragic demise: the Gebelain Man, as found in 2012, was murdered by an assailant who stabbed him in the back.
More enigmatic are the woman’s tattoos. Marking her top shoulder joint are “S”-like symbols, and below on her arm is a pricked “L”-shaped line. The “S” motifs appear in multiples as decorative elements on Predynastic pottery, the researchers say, while the linear motif might represent a crooked stave, or ritual dance objects such as a throw-stick or clappers. The lines, which would have been highly visible, could have signified status, bravery, cult knowledge, or protection.
The mummies represent the earliest evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium. They date between 3351 to 3017 BCE, which makes them nearly contemporaneous with another famous ancient bearer of ink, a mummy from much colder lands known as Ötzi the Iceman. As Allison Meier previously wrote for Hyperallergic, this Alpine male was found to have 61 tattoos of lines and X shapes. Since 2015, he held the title of oldest tattoo bearer found; now, he’s in good company with the couple from Gebelain.
The ancient Egyptian ink demonstrates conclusively that tattooing was practiced in prehistoric Egypt, but it also brings up questions about the role of tattoos in Egyptian society, and what they signified for men and women.
“These findings overturn the circumstantial evidence of the artistic record that previously suggested only females were tattooed for fertility or even erotic reasons,” the researchers write. Whatever the meaning of the Egyptian woman’s tattoos, it’s nice to think that they expressed her female power through less restrictive messages.