A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Wednesday, October 09, 2013
Some of the most spectacular tattoos in the ancient world have been found adorning Iron Age mummies unearthed in the Altay Mountains of Siberia. There, a series of tombs dug into permafrost preserved the remains of nobles from a nomadic people today known as the Pazyryk Culture. On the skins of these mummies were intricate tattoos, depicting both mythical and real animals in action: running, stalking victims, or twisting in an S-shape, which scholars call “the pose of agony.”
Archaeologist Sergey Yatsenko of the Russian State University for the Humanities says the animal most commonly found was a monster that took the form of a wild goat with an eagle’s beak and a panther’s tail. This creature appeared on the upper part of the right shoulder of most of the mummies. On the left shoulder, the Pazyryk people sported the depiction of a tiger or a wild ram. A rooster poised for battle was frequently tattooed on noblemen’s forefingers, and a group of goats or rams often marched along their lower legs.
Yatsenko points out that Greek accounts of the period stress that “barbarians” in Eurasia never went nude or even semi-nude in public, so most of these tattoos would probably have never been seen by others. Why endure the long and painful process of getting such dramatic tattoos if they were always covered? “I think they were for magical protection,” says Yatsenko, whose favorite Pazyryk tattoos are abstract designs found on the hands of a man who was probably a shaman. “Those tattoos were probably his spiritual weapons.”
Friday, October 11, 2013
The barren desert of China’s southern Tarim Basin has been the source of some of the ancient world’s most mysterious tattooed mummies. One of them belonged to a woman who some time between 1000 and 600 B.C. was possibly sacrificed and then buried in a necropolis now outside the modern village of Zaghunluq. The woman had brown hair with white streaks that had been braided and tied with red wool string, and her eyebrows had been painted just before her death.
University of Pennsylvania scholar Victor Mair has worked in the Tarim Basin and has studied the mummies for more than 30 years. He believes the woman’s charcoal and soot tattoos were likely ornamental or symbolic. They include moons on her eyelids, ovals on her forehead, and a decorative scroll pattern on her left hand, wrist, and exceptionally long fingers. Although the culture to which the woman belonged has not been identified, the similarity of her tattoos to those of other mummies from Russia, for example, clearly identifies her as part of the Eurasian tradition of tattooing that begins with Ötzi some 5,000 years ago.