A mummy from ancient Egypt was heavily tattooed with sacred symbols, which may have served to advertise and enhance the religious powers of the woman who received them more than 3,000 years ago.
The newly reported tattoos are the first on a mummy from dynastic Egypt to show actual objects, among them lotus blossoms on the mummy’s hips, cows on her arm and baboons on her neck. Just a few other ancient Egyptian mummies sport tattoos, and those are merely patterns of dots or dashes.
Especially prominent among the new tattoos are so-called wadjet eyes: possible symbols of protection against evil that adorn the mummy’s neck, shoulders and back.
“Any angle that you look at this woman, you see a pair of divine eyes looking back at you,” says bioarchaeologist Anne Austin of Stanford University in California, who presented the findings last month at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
Austin noticed the tattoos while examining mummies for the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology, which conducts research at Deir el-Medina, a village once home to the ancient artisans who worked on tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings. Looking at a headless, armless torso dating from 1300 to 1070 bc, Austin noticed markings on the neck. At first, she thought that they had been painted on, but she soon realized that they were tattoos.
Austin knew of tattoos discovered on other mummies using infrared imaging1, which peers more deeply into the skin than visible-light imaging. With help from infrared lighting and an infrared sensor, Austin determined that the Deir el-Medina mummy boasts more than 30 tattoos, including some on skin so darkened by the resins used in mummification that they were invisible to the eye. Austin and Cédric Gobeil, director of the French mission at Deir el-Medina, digitally stretched the images to counter distortion from the mummy’s shrunken skin.
The tattoos identified so far carry powerful religious significance. Many, such as the cows, are associated with the goddess Hathor, one of the most prominent deities in ancient Egypt. The symbols on the throat and arms may have been intended to give the woman a jolt of magical power as she sang or played music during rituals for Hathor.
The tattoos may also be a public expression of the woman’s piety, says Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute in Illinois. “We didn’t know about this sort of expression before,” Teeter says, adding that she and other Egyptologists were “dumbfounded” when they heard of the finding.
Some tattoos are more faded than others, so perhaps some were made at different times. This could suggest that the woman’s religious status grew with age, Austin says.
She has already found three more tattooed mummies at Deir el-Medina, and hopes that modern techniques will uncover more elsewhere.
Even infrared imaging can’t penetrate an intact mummy’s linen binding. But a nineteenth-century penchant for unwrapping mummies could enable the discovery of more tattoos, says Marie Vandenbeusch, a curator at the British Museum in London. Such examples could provide needed evidence “to really pinpoint the use of those tattoos”, she says.
Austin argues that the scale of the designs, many of them in places out of the woman’s reach, implies that they were more than simple adornment.
The application of the tattoos “would’ve been very time consuming, and in some areas of the body, extremely painful”, Austin says. That the woman subjected herself to the needle so often shows “not only her belief in their importance, but others around her as well”.
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