Sunday, 09 December, 2018

Mummies with the oldest tattoos

British Museum    
     MUMMY The male remains are on display at the British Museum British Museum MUMMY The male remains are on display at the British Museum
| 03 March, 2018, 00:38

A 5000-year-old Egyptian mummy has become the oldest tattooed woman in the world after scientists found odd motifs inked on her shoulders and arms. Gebelin Man A had tattoos of what appears to be a wild bull and a sheep, while Gebelein Woman had staff-like and S-shaped motifs on her upper arm and shoulder.

The male mummy is one of the most popular exhibits in the British Museum and was naturally preserved perhaps because it was buried at the height of the summer, or was in a shallow tomb, said Daniel Antoine, secretary of the Natural Anthropology Department at the British Museum.

"Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals", he continued.

Infrared photography has uncovered the earliest example of female tattooing in the world, pushing back evidence for artistic body modification by a millennium, the British Museum said.

There is evidence of tattooing on mummies found in the Taklamakan Desert in China dating from 1,200 BC. In both cases, the tattoos were likely made of soot and probably served as a status symbol.


Known as the Gebelein mummies, these well-preserved bodies have been on display at the British museum for over a century after being excavated at the end of the 19th century. A new survey using infrared rays have helped scientists to see images of animals that were drawn on the human hand to more than 5,200 years ago.

Another mummy, a female one, known as "Gebelein Woman", has several tattoos; a series of four small "S" shaped motifs can be seen running vertically over her right shoulder. Scientists have thought so far that ancient tattoos were limited to women. But his tattoos are vertical or horizontal lines, rather than figurative. Based on the radiocarbon dates, the Gebelein tattoos are approximately contemporary with Ötzi (3370-3100 BC), and can therefore be considered among the earliest surviving tattoos in the world.

The study states that they may represent a crooked stave, a symbol of power and status, or a throw-stick or batons and/or clappers used in ritual dance. One is interpreted to be a wild bull with a long tail and elaborate horns; the other appears to be a Barbary sheep with curving horns and a humped shoulder.

The record for the oldest tattoo is held by Ötzi the Iceman, but his tattoos were all geometric shapes.

Prior to the discovery, archaeologists believed tattooing in Egypt was only performed on women, as tattoos were only depicted on female figurines of the period.

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