New archaeological evidence from Egyptian mummies shows the practice of having lower back tattoos is actually more than three millennia old even though it may seem like an early 21st century fad popularized by low-rise-jeans clad celebrities.
Researchers Anne Austin and Marie-Lys Arnette at the New Kingdom site of Deir el-Medina (1550 B.C. to 1070 B.C.) published the new findings in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology last month.
The tattoos discovered on ancient flesh and tattooed figurines from the site are likely connected to the ancient Egyptian god Bes who was believed to protect women and children, particularly during childbirth.
The Deir el-Medina site was a planned community
The Deir el-Medina site, which lies on the western bank of the Nile across from the archaeological site of Luxor, was excavated by a French team in 1922 around the same time that King Tut’s tomb was found.
The site was known as Set-Ma’at (“Place of Truth”) in the New Kingdom period, and it was a planned community. It had a large neighborhood with rectangular gridded streets and housing for workers who were responsible for building tombs for Egyptian rulers.
The women and children lived in the village of Deir el-Medina while the men would leave for days at a time to work on the tombs.
An important feature commonly known as the Great Pit at the site, which is an ancient dump full of pay stubs, receipts, and letters on papyrus, has helped archaeologists better understand the lives of the common people.
However, the discovery of at least six tattooed women at Deir el-Medina was rather surprising because nothing in the Great Pit mentions the practice of tattooing.
Anne Austin, study lead author and bioarchaeologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told Live Science in an email, “It can be rare and difficult to find evidence for tattoos because you need to find preserved and exposed skin.”
“Since we would never unwrap mummified people, our only chances of finding tattoos are when looters have left skin exposed and it is still present for us to see millennia after a person died,” Austin said.
Austin’s new evidence came from two tombs that she and her team examined in 2019. Human remains from one tomb included a left hip bone of a middle-aged woman.
Tattoos on mummies reflected protective representatives
Patterns of dark black coloration were visible on the preserved skin creating an image that, if symmetrical, would have run along the woman’s lower back.
A depiction of Bes and a bowl is just to the left of the horizontal lines of the tattoo, which is imagery related to ritual purification during the weeks after childbirth.
Infrared photography revealed that the second tattoo from a middle-aged woman discovered in a nearby tomb is difficult to see with the naked eye.
This tattoo was reconstructed in a drawing to reveal a wedjat, or Eye of Horus, and possibly an image of Bes wearing a feathered crown. Both images suggest that this tattoo was related to protection and healing.
More Details about tattoos found on Egyptian mummies
According to Austin, ancient medical texts associated the zigzag line pattern, which may represent a marsh, with cooling waters used to relieve pain from menstruation or childbirth.
Furthermore, three clay figurines depicting women’s bodies were found at Deir el-Medina decades ago and were re-examined by study co-author Marie-Lys Arnette, an Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Arnette indicated that the figurines also show tattoos on the lower back and upper thighs that include depictions of Bes.
The researchers, therefore, concluded that “when placed in context with New Kingdom artifacts and texts, these tattoos and representations of tattoos would have visually connected with imagery referencing women as sexual partners, pregnant, midwives, and mothers participating in the post-partum rituals used for protection of the mother and child.”
Tattoos in Ancient Egypt were common
Bioarcheologist Sonia Zakrzewski at the University of Southampton in the U.K., who was not involved in the current study, told Live Science in an email that “the newly described tattoos are extremely intricate relative to earlier Egyptian tattoo practices” and that “images of pregnant women are extremely rare in Egyptian art.”
Zakrzewski suggested that because childbirth and fertility of the soil were linked in Egyptian thought, “these tattoos are imprinting protective representations, including of gods on their body, almost like the person has their own portable magical amulet with them.”
According to Austin, tattooing in Deir el-Medina is even more common than people realized, though it is unknown how widespread it may have been elsewhere in Egypt during that same time period.
“I’m hopeful more scholars will find evidence of tattooing so that we can see if what is happening in this village is unique or part of a broader tradition in ancient Egypt that we simply haven’t discovered yet,” she said.
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