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Ancient Tattoos

Red-Figure Vessel

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Culture: Thracian
Location: Central and Southeastern Europe
Date: 450-440 B.C.

thracian-tattoosIn most of the ancient Greco-Roman world, tattoos were seen as a mark of punishment and shame. The Greeks, who, according to the historian Herodotus, learned the idea of penal tattoos from the Persians in the sixth century B.C., tattooed criminals, slaves who tried to escape, and enemies they vanquished in battle. A famous example has the Athenians tattooing the defeated Samians with an owl, Athens’ hallowed emblem, only to have the favor returned when the Samians defeated the Athenians and tattooed their prisoners with a Samian warship. In the Roman Empire, slaves were marked to show their taxes had been paid. The emperor Caligula tattooed gladiators—as public property—and early Christians condemned to the mines. But among many of the ancient cultures the Greeks and Romans encountered—Thracians, Scythians, Dacians, Gauls, Picts, Celts, and Britons, to name a few—tattoos were seen as marks of pride. Herodotus tells us that for the Thracians, tattoos were greatly admired and “tattooing among them marks noble birth, and the want of it low birth.” A fifth-century B.C. Greek vase (left) depicts a tattooed Thracian maenad, a female follower of the god Dionysus, killing the musician Orpheus as punishment for abandoning Dionysus to worship the sun god, Apollo.

Moche Mask and Mummy

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Culture: Moche
Location: Peru
Date: A.D. 100-300 (mask); A.D. 450-500 (mummy)



moche-tattooThe Moche culture of ancient Peru is noted for elaborately decorated ceramics, goldwork, textiles, and murals—and people. While actual physical evidence of tattooing is rare, there are a great number of artifacts indicating that tattooing was likely a common and esteemed practice in the Moche world, according to Edward Swenson of the University of Toronto. Swenson believes that while it’s possible that the markings on the gold mask (left), for example, may represent actual tattoos, they more likely may be stylized “faux” tattoos that were not inscribed on the face of the deceased buried with the mask but, rather, were symbolic of his identity and life force. One interesting motif that is often found is a string of pupating flies ringing the neck, which Swenson believes symbolizes death and rebirth. “If the fly necklace can be interpreted as a kind of tattoo, then I would suspect some individuals were tattooed in important life-crisis rituals, such as after initiates successfully achieved a new social or ritual status,” explains Swenson. “Similarly, shamans are often depicted with anthropomorphized animals, perhaps suggesting their ability to shape-shift in states of trance.” Animals, both realistic and supernatural, also adorn the body of the “Lady of Cao” (top), a well-preserved mummy found at the site of El Brujo in 2005. Her tattoos include stylized catfish, spiders, crabs, felines, snakes, and a supernatural being commonly called the Moon Animal. “We can only speculate about the meaning of these motifs,” says John Verano of Tulane University, who excavated the mummy with El Brujo Project and Museum director Régulo Franco. “But spiders are associated with rain, as well as with human sacrifice and death, and the serpent is an important element associated in many ancient Andean cultures with deities, fertility, and human sacrifice as well,” adds Verano. “Tattoos may very well have been embraced for aesthetic reasons in Moche society, but they probably also played a fundamental role in facilitating transformations into new states of being,” says Swenson.

Head Effigy Pot

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Culture: Mississippian
Location: United States
Date: A.D. 1350-1550

mississippian-tattooFrom about A.D. 1200 to 1600, Native Americans speaking very different languages and living across a vast swath of what is now the United States followed similar religious practices known today as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. According to David H. Dye of the University of Memphis, who has studied both ritual depictions on artifacts and the Native American oral traditions, tattooing was a vital part of these shared religious ideas. “They played a role in celebrating the perpetuation of life,” says Dye. “For warriors, facial tattoos were snares for capturing the soul of someone they killed in battle. Capturing those enemy souls through permanent tattoos helped extend not only their own lives, but helped ease the passage of their dead relatives.” Much of the evidence for tattooing comes from ceramic pots that depict heavily tattooed human heads. These vessels were often decorated with bird motifs, which seem to relate to the Birdman, a deity who ensured the daily rebirth of the sun and symbolized the triumph of life over death. Often these tattoos took the form of feathers or raptor claws around the eyes. “By tattooing themselves with bird motifs, they became that supernatural creature,” says Aaron Deter-Wolf of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology. “The tattoos enabled them to embody his force.”

Hollow Ceramic Figurines

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Culture: Western Shaft Tomb
Location: Mexico
Date: 100 B.C.-A.D. 400



For more than 1,000 years, a culture flourished in what are now the western Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, and parts of Colima. Most of what we know about the culture comes from artifacts taken from shaft tombs—usually by tomb raiders—including examples of heavily tattooed hollow ceramic figurines. Some scholars believe the figurines depict gods, while Christopher Beekman of the University of Colorado Denver suspects that they may in fact represent the people with whom they were buried. Certainly the designs were intended to communicate identity and status, particularly considering that the figurines appear to have been used in ceremonial contexts, and also set up in residential areas to be seen and visited. According to Beekman, it is notable that the tattooing occurs prominently around the mouth, which may refer, as it does in Classic Maya society, to the breath of life or the capacity of polished speech of these individuals.

Ibaloi Mummy

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Culture: Ibaloi
Location: Philippines
Date: ca. A.D. 1500

ibaloi-mummy-tattooAn indigenous people known as the Ibaloi once mummified their honored dead and laid them to rest in hollowed logs in the caves around what is now the Filipino municipality of Kabayan. In life, these ancient people had won the right to be covered in spectacular tattoos depicting geometric shapes as well as animals such as lizards, snakes, scorpions, and centipedes. “According to nineteenth-century ethnographic accounts, Ibaloi head-hunting warriors revered these creatures as ‘omen animals,’” says Smithsonian anthropologist and tattoo scholar Lars Krutak. “The sight of one before a raid could make or break the entire enterprise.” After successfully taking the head of an enemy in battle, a warrior would have these propitious animals permanently etched onto his body. Some Kabayan mummies also feature less fearsome tattoos, such as circles on their wrists thought to be solar discs, or zigzagging lines variously interpreted as lightning or stepped rice fields. “All these tattoos seem to depict the surrounding environment,” says Krutak, who notes that the increased attention paid to the mummies in the last decade has helped fuel a resurgence in traditional tattooing, which had largely died out. Today, thousands of people tracing their descent to the ancient Ibaloi wear designs on their skin modeled after those of their ancestors.