Hidden Tattoos Found on Egyptian Mummies Through Infrared Imaging
Fri, December 3, 2021

Hidden Tattoos Found on Egyptian Mummies Through Infrared Imaging

Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved mummy, was discovered in the Alps on the Austrian-Italian border in 1991 / Photo by: Thilo Parg via Wikimedia Commons

 

Tattoos have played an integral role in the life of prehistoric and modern society. Unlike today, when anyone can get their tattoos as a form of self-expression, tattoos in the past often symbolized upper class, royal status. They were symbols of healing, power, magic, and were a reflection of the natural world. However, only a few of the mummies that have been discovered worldwide sported tattoos. One of them was Ötzi the Iceman.

Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved mummy, was discovered in the Alps on the Austrian-Italian border in 1991. According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, a non-profit company publishing the world's most-read history encyclopedia, the mummy has 61 tattoos, from his lower legs to his upper back, torso, and left wrist. It was concluded that these tattoos must have been therapeutic in nature, alleviating some conditions he may have had. The researchers were astonished as they hadn’t seen tattoos intended for medical purposes. 

“The distribution of the tattooed dots and small crosses on his lower spine and right knee and ankle joints correspond to areas of strain-induced degeneration, with the suggestion that they may have been applied to alleviate joint pain and were therefore essentially therapeutic,” Joann Fletcher of the department of archaeology at the University of York in Britain said. 

In 1993, the second mummy who had a tattoo was uncovered. The mummy was of a young woman who was believed to have been a shaman or spiritual leader of the nomadic Pazyryk people from 2,500 years ago. Unlike Ötzi’s tattoos, her tattoos represent images – the earliest known examples of figurative tattoos. A study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science detailed that infrared imaging revealed the outlines of two animals in the skin: a bull and a Barbary sheep. Novosibirsk scientist Natalia Polosmak even described these tattoos as “the most complicated and most beautiful.”

The tattoos found on these ancient mummies are not only important because of their intricate designs and images, but they are also significant windows into the lives and cultures of these remarkably preserved individuals.

The Discovery of Deir El Medina

During the 1920s, the world’s attention was focused on the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, but a team was also excavating a site located south of Egypt’s infamous Valley of the Kings. This was where archaeologists discovered Deir El Medina, an ancient Egyptian village, considered to be one of the most groundbreaking discoveries ever made in Egypt. The researchers regard it as one of its kind since no other discovery has provided such a comprehensive understanding of a typical community living during the time of the pharaohs.

The world suddenly had the most accurately documented account of a typical community by the time excavation of the site was complete. The information had covered a time span of 400 years. Aside from providing a huge amount of information on the daily life of the people who lived there, it also debunked the notion that all great tombs and pyramids were built using slave labor. The remains of men at Deir El Medina showed that they were all well-paid and well-looked after--not treated as slaves. Also, men allowed their wives or daughters to take time off of work, instead of letting them do household chores every day of their lives. 

According to Ancient Origins, an online site that posts news and articles relating to archaeology and anthropology, archaeologists were able to piece together what life was like in ancient workers' settlements through ancient records, including personal letters, bills, lawsuits, prayers, ancient Egyptian literature, and thousands of papyri. 

During the 1920s, the world’s attention was focused on the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, but a team was also excavating a site located south of Egypt’s infamous Valley of the Kings / Photo by: Son of Groucho via Flickr

 

Hidden Tattoos Found on Egyptian Mummies

The discovery of hidden tattoos on some Egyptian remains found in Deir El Medina was surprising. The tattoos were found using infrared imaging, the process of converting infrared (IR) radiation (heat) into visible images that depict the spatial distribution of temperature differences. The mummies had stayed in a museum for over 100 years before the tattoos were discovered. 

Tattoos on mummies aren’t always easy to see because their skin becomes discolored and darkened as years pass. But, such hidden tattoos can be revealed with infrared photography, which works in wavelengths usually invisible to the human eye. According to the Smithsonian, the official journal published by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., archaeologist Anne Austin of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, presented research on the seven 3,000-year-old mummies at the annual conference of the American Schools of Oriental Research last November.

The discovery of hidden tattoos on some Egyptian remains found in Deir El Medina was surprising / Photo by: Didia via Wikimedia Commons

 

Austin was the first to notice markings on the neck of a headless and armless torso. She initially thought they were painted on. Eventually, she found 30 individual tattoos from the remains. Many of the designs were invisible to the naked eye due to resins used in mummification. The tattoos featured sacred motifs such as cobras, cows, baboons, scarab beetles, and lotus flowers, suggesting that the particular mummy must have been a healer or a priestess of some kind.

"The distribution, display, and content of these tattoos reveal how they were used both in religious practice and to forge permanent, public identities," Austin said. 

However, Austin stated that she sees no discernible pattern in the tattoos they found. Nonetheless, this has opened new opportunities for future archaeologists and researchers to figure out how these markings were used.