Home Tattoo Culture Are Mummies a Tattoo Historian’s Best Friend?

Are Mummies a Tattoo Historian’s Best Friend?

The British Museum has just released images of a recently discovered 1,300 year old mummified Sudanese woman that may be the oldest recorded evidence of a Christian tattoo.  The well-preserved body was uncovered  near the Nile River in a recent archeological expedition in Northern Sudan.

In popular literature and modern films, Mummies usually play the role of the villain as they stumble awkwardly towards the Hero and his leading Lady, their wraps pulled back to reveal unspeakable horrors beneath, impervious to bullets, and usually bent on fulfilling some ancient curse so that they may come to life and wreak even greater havoc and carnage.  Said curse, of course, needs the blood and/or heart of a comely young heroine to be extracted in a gruesome ceremony involving sacred knives and unintelligible incantations in order to be fulfilled.  Thankfully our hero intervenes at the last possible moment, kills the Mummy, saves the girl, the two kiss and we cut to the end credits.  But for tattoo historians and cultural anthropologists, Mummies are like best friends when it comes to unraveling the history of ancient tattoos.

For tattoo historians, the biggest hurdle to a comprehensive understanding of ancient body art, its forms, its evolution and the designs and symbols used, is the fragility and impermanence of the human canvas.  Human skeletal remains can last for millennia and the fossil bone record is the primary source of knowledge of human evolution.   Soft tissues, skin included, almost never survives for any significant length of time.  Who knows what extraordinary information might be gleaned if we could glimpse the hides of our ancient ancestors.  Tattoo historians for the most part have had to satisfy their quest for knowledge about tattoo practices by analyzing objects and implements to see if there was a connection. Does a human figurine have decoration, or inscribed lines that appear to mimic body art?  How can we be certain that its not meant to represent body painting?  Could a tool, or a bone or flint needle have been used to puncture the skin to enable tattoo pigment to have been rubbed in?  Does an old vessel appear to contain remnants something that might have tattoo pigment?

In more modern times, the written record in both Greece and Rome contains specific references to tattooing and its practices.  And urns and mosaics and sculptures have all featured figures with body art.  But always the questions haunts the historian, “What did the tattoos actually look like?”.  Mummified remains are a window back in time, and the mummy, a time traveller to the present day.  Thanks to these preserved human remains we have been able to piece together an incredibly rich and varied history of body art all over the world, a clear implication that tattooing is a widespread cultural practice.  The mummy tattoo record spans Oetzi at the end of the Iron Age in the glaciers of Alps, to mummies in Egypt, to those human remains found preserved by deserts and permafrost and peat bogs all over Europe and Asia.  But the Sudanese mummy is believed to be the earliest evidence to date of a specifically Christian tattoo.

mummy tattoo detail

The tattoo was revealed on her thigh by the use of infrared imaging, and has been interpreted by the researchers at the British Museum as a monogram for the archangel Michael.  Ancient Greek letters were stacked to spell out Michael – M-I-X-A-H-A.  The symbol has been previously found in Church mosaics and marked on Church artifacts, but never before on human flesh.

And the best part for tattoo enthusiasts and historians?  The mummy will be featured in an exhibit this May at the British Museum.  Check out the Telegraph’s amazing video of the rare and unique find.

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