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Ancient Tattoos

Ceramic Female Figurine

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Culture: Cucuteni
Location: Romania
Date: Fifth Millennium B.C.

cucuteni-tattoosIn 1981, more than 20 ceramic human figurines reclining on chairs and bearing elaborate incised decorations were unearthed in northeastern Romania. They, and many other figurines like them—such as the one pictured at right—were made by a people we know today as the Cucuteni culture, which lasted from 4800 to 3000 B.C. in what is now Romania and Ukraine. Some scholars have interpreted these lines as representations of body modification. “They could be tattoos,” says San Francisco State University archaeologist Douglass W. Bailey. “Some say they are clothes, or they could represent something else we don’t understand. We will never know for sure, but in a sense, that’s unimportant. What’s important is that they were using the surface of their bodies to communicate ideas, whether they related to membership in a group or individual identity.” He notes that earlier Paleolithic figurines such as the Venus of Willendorf were unmarked, and that incisions on the bodies of figurines only appear after the beginning of the Neolithic, when ceramics were first made and decorated. “In the Neolithic, people were incising pots by taking a sharp point and cutting away the clay,” says Bailey. “If the pot was a metaphor for the body, that process of engraving could have also been seen as tattooing.” While the practice might have existed in Paleolithic times, there is no evidence for tattooing before 7,000 years ago. Perhaps it was only after the first pots were decorated that people began to contemplate making permanent changes to their own skin’s appearance.

Ötzi, the Iceman

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Culture: Copper Age Europe
Location: Italy
Date: 3500-3100 B.C.

copper-age-mummy-tattoosPerhaps the most famous tattooed ancient man is Ötzi the Iceman, who died high in the Italian Alps more than 5,000 years ago. Ötzi’s clothing, tools, and weapons are a remarkable window into the life of a herder or perhaps a chieftain in Copper Age Europe. But it is Ötzi’s body itself, almost perfectly preserved by the snow and ice that covered him shortly after his death, that provides unique evidence of early medicine. Ötzi is covered with more than 50 tattoos in the form of lines and crosses made up of small incisions in his skin into which charcoal was rubbed. Because they are all found on parts of the body that show evidence of a lifetime of wear and tear—the ankles, wrists, knees, Achilles tendon, and lower back, for example—it’s thought that Ötzi’s tattoos were therapeutic, not decorative or symbolic. When Ötzi was first studied, archaeologists were shocked because they had never before seen Copper Age tattoos, and because acupuncture as a treatment for joint distress, rheumatism, and arthritis was thought to have originated in Asia more than 2,000 years later.

Dogu Figurine

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Culture: Jōmon
Location: Japan
Date: 2000-1000 B.C.

jomon-japan-tattooIn the 1870s, the Japanese government banned body modification among the Ainu, a small indigenous group who were once renowned for intricate face and arm tattoos. Philippe Dallais of the Museum of Ethnography in Neuchatel, Switzerland, believes they were the last practitioners of a tradition that stretched back thousands of years to the Jōmon people. Hunter-gatherers who eventually became sedentary, the Jōmon developed a complex culture that lasted from 12,000 to 300 B.C. Archaeologists excavating Jōmon houses often unearth humanoid earthenware figurines known as Dogu that sport engravings on their faces and bodies. “I believe these marks in many cases represent tattoos,” says Dallais. “You often find them on arms and around the mouth and eyebrows, just like the tattoos of the Ainu.” No obvious tattooing tools have been found at Jōmon sites, but Dallais says stone tools could have been used to make them. “You have obsidian everywhere in Japan, and it’s possible to take a piece and quickly make small, neat incisions for tattooing.”

Faience Figurine and Bowl

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Culture: Egyptian
Location: Egypt
Date: Middle Kingdom, ca. 2033-1710 B.C. (figurine); New Kingdom, 1400-1300 B.C.



Among cultures known to have practiced tattooing, the ancient Egyptians appear to be the only one in which tattoos may have been the sole province of women. There are several examples of actual tattooed women, including the mummy of Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor, which was discovered in 1891. However, ceramic figurines and vessels depicting tattooed women offer much more evidence. In the Middle Kingdom, footless faience figurines sometimes known as “Brides of the Dead” were created with patterns of lines and diamonds, primarily on their abdomens, but sometimes on their thighs as well. Although likely not a portrait of any individual, this example (left top) is of a type of figurine often found in homes, temples, and tombs, functioning as household items, offerings to the gods, or accompaniments for the dead. In addition to the tattoos, which are seen as sexually suggestive, the figurines often wear belts made of cowry shells, a symbol of femininity, and would have had copious amounts of hair—which was considered especially erotic—attached through holes in the head. Thus, it’s likely that the tattoos were considered one element of a woman’s sexuality, and that they may have been included in the tombs to continue the deceased’s sex life. Because some figurines have been found in female tombs, it’s also possible that they functioned as images of ideal femininity, of which tattoos were an important part. In the New Kingdom a novel kind of tattoo was added to the Egyptians’ repertoire. Women, especially musicians and dancers (left bottom), were sometimes depicted with images of the dwarf god Bes on their thighs, in addition to the more traditional geometric patterns. The Egyptians worshipped Bes as a protector of women in labor, children, and the home.

Lapita Fragment and Engraving

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Culture: Lapita
Location: Oceania
Date: ca. 1000 B.C. (fragment); 1843 (engraving)



Captain Cook was the first to use the verb “tattoo” in English in 1769, when he described the Tahitian art of tatau in his diary. Now people all around the world bear Polynesian-inspired tattoos, but the first to wear those famous designs were likely the Lapita, who lived from around 1500 to 500 B.C. and are the ancestors of many of today’s Pacific peoples. No direct evidence of Lapita tattooing exists, but University of California, Berkeley, archaeologist Patrick Kirch says that the intricate designs they incised on their pottery resemble tattoo motifs that are still used today and were made by the same toothlike implements that can still be used to create tattoos. “These vessels were being decorated the same way as the body and might represent ancestors,” says Kirch, who thinks these “tattooed pots,” which were thick and crudely made, were probably intended for display during ceremonial occasions. The Lapita used slender, undecorated pottery for utilitarian purposes, such as storing water. Kirch notes that in ethnographic accounts of Oceanic societies, women were responsible for making pottery and men were responsible for tattoos. “It’s possible the Lapita women were creating the skillfully made pottery that actually had to be used, and men were making terrible pottery and decorating it with tattoos.”





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