A team of researchers discovered the oldest known figural tattoo on a pair of 5,000-year old Egyptian mummies at the British Museum. With the help of infrared technology, researchers have pushed back the practice of figural tattooing by about a thousand years.

Gebelein Mummies

A hundred years ago, a pair of mummies was discovered in Gebelein, a part of Upper Egypt. Since then, they have been continuously on display at the British Museum. Both are over 5,000 years of age, with the male mummy, Gebelein Man A, believed to have died of a stab wound when he was between 18 and 21 years of age. Further, both of their ancient graves were not specially prepared, and both were naturally preserved by the heat, aridity, and salinity of the desert in their shallow graves.

As a part of a new conservation program, the mummies were further examined for any body modifications on all visible skin, and they were found to have been inked with what is believed to be the world's earliest known figural tattoo.

Infrared Revelation

The dark markings on Gebelein Man A's right arm was previously left unexamined as they were barely distinguishable under natural lighting. With the new efforts under way, researchers examined the dark splotches on his skin with infrared photography and discovered that they were actually tattoos of a wild bull and a Barbary sheep. The tattoos were revealed to have been applied to the dermis of the skin using pigments made from a kind of soot.

The female mummy, Gebelein Woman, was also found to have several tattoos on her arm and shoulder. On her right shoulder is a series of four S-shaped markings, and below it on her arm is a stick-shaped marking that is believed to either be a stave, which is a symbol of power, or a baton used in ritual dances.

It was previously believed that only the females were tattooed during Predynastic Egypt, but the discovery suggests the practice being done on both sexes. Furthermore, researchers believe that the tattoos likely denote status, bravery, or magical knowledge.

Tradition Pushed Back By A Thousand Years

Because of the ages of the mummies, the practice of tattooing in Africa has been pushed back by a thousand years. Before this discovery, the earliest example of tattooing is the Alpine mummy called the Ötzi.

The discovery is quite relevant, as it pushes back the current understanding of the practice and at the same time gives an insight as to its possible uses in ancient times, especially in the Egyptian civilization.

"Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals," said Daniel Antoine, curator of Physical Anthropology at the British Museum.

The paper is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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