Chronicle on the skin: why did ancient people put tattoos on the body and what do they mean?

(ORDO NEWS) — The desire to paint one’s own body is a common cultural phenomenon of all peoples and civilizations. The specific forms of decoration and their underlying motifs vary by region, culture, and era. What can tell the richness and variety of tattoos found on ancient remains?

The most ancient tattoos

Today, the earliest known tattoos can be found on the body of a naturally preserved mummy known as Ötzi the Iceman. The frozen mummy was found near the Italo-Austrian border in 1991 and is believed to be about 5,200 years old.

The mummy of the man, who has been named Ötzi, has over 60 different tattoos, including dots, small crosses and straight lines. The distribution of these tattoos seems random at first. For example, there are some dots and crosses on the lower spine, some straight lines above the kidneys, and parallel lines on the ankles.

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Ötzi’s tattoos most likely had a therapeutic function, since the areas to which they were applied correspond to old wounds or rheumatic pains. Probably the Stone Age healer who treated Ötzi made incisions in the skin over the painful area of ​​the body, placed medicinal herbs in the wounds, and then cauterized them with the tip of a heated metal instrument.

A similar treatment for rheumatic pain and arthritis has been used for centuries by the Berbers of the highlands of North Africa. If Ötzi’s tattoos were indeed therapeutic, they may represent the earliest evidence of acupuncture.

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Egyptian tattoos

Another example of the use of tattoos by ancient people can be found in ancient Egyptian culture. The body and limbs of some female figurines dating from around 4000-3500 BC are decorated with tattoos. Some of the women depicted in the tomb scenes also had tattoos.

The best evidence for the use of tattoos in ancient Egypt is found in several female mummies dated to around 2000 BC. Prior to Ötzi’s discovery, these were the earliest known tattoos on human bodies.

The “drawings” are present on these mummies’ abdomens, upper thighs, and chests, so some researchers have suggested that the tattoos were a sign specific to prostitutes. Other scholars believe they were meant to protect women from sexually transmitted diseases.

In addition, tattoos could serve as a form of magical protection during pregnancy and childbirth. The latter point of view is confirmed, for example, by the fact that on the upper part of the thighs of mummies there are small images of the god Bes (Besu, Beza), who was considered the patron of women in childbirth.

The last hypothesis is also supported by the tattoos on the body of the priestesses of the goddess Hathor, who was also responsible for fertility. They have drawings located in the upper pubic region, lower and upper abdomen and just below the right chest.

The priestess also had tattoos just above the elbow joint and on her left shoulder, and also on her hips. Most of these tattoos are in the form of dashes, dots and concentric circles. For the most part, they protected the reproductive organs.

Sexual intercourse, pregnancy and childbirth are three parts of an inseparable cycle. The last part – childbirth – was for ancient women a dance with death, which quite often sent them on a journey to the afterlife. Therefore, tattoos are another evidence that ancient people had sophisticated knowledge in the field of acupressure and nerve pathways in the human body.

Perhaps the drawings were used to numb or induce labor during labor in an attempt to make the process safer. Acupressure is still used during childbirth, and several modern medical studies have shown it to be beneficial for pain relief.

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Ancient Chinese and Japanese tattoo

In some parts of the ancient world, tattoos served not as protective amulets, but as signs of shame and humiliation. In ancient China and Japan, for example, the faces of those who committed certain crimes were branded in this way.

According to the teachings of Confucius, in ancient China, the body was seen as a parental gift. Given the importance that Confucius attached to honoring and respecting ancestors and parents, any deliberate mutilation of the body, including a tattoo, was perceived as barbaric and disrespectful to the ancestors. Since the tattoos remained for life, the “marked” criminals bore a life-long punishment: the patterns on the skin forever relegated them to the margins of society.

Tarim mummies tattoos

At the beginning of the 20th century, several hundred mummies were found in various places in the Tarim Desert in Xinjiang (China). Their age dates back to approximately 2000-1800 BC. Some of these people were of Caucasian origin, and their grave goods suggest that the dead were traders in textiles and, possibly, leather goods.

Many mummies are tattooed: for example, crescents and ovals are depicted on the face of one of the women. The moon designs are suggestive of the worship of the moon goddess, which is present in many cultures, and the presence of face tattoos suggests that, regardless of the meaning, the designs were important to the woman, as she chose to put them where she could hardly hide, and they served as an identification mark for others.

Interestingly, another mummy has tattoos in the form of the Sun on the temples: the Sun often represents a male god, so it is quite possible that these two people performed some kind of religious function.

Pazyryk splendor

The Pazyryk tribes lived in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, south of present-day Novosibirsk. They were nomadic pastoralists who traveled on horseback and traded with merchants in China, India, and Persia.

Most of the well-preserved artefacts of their culture, as well as human mummies, were found in tombs in which, in ancient times, water seeped and froze, enclosing the funerary objects in ice, which remained intact in the permafrost until the tombs were excavated. Domestic researchers poetically call the representatives of the Pazyryk culture “horsemen sleeping in the ice.”

The mummified remains with tattoos belong to the Pazyryk tribe of the Iron Age (600-300 BC). The researchers speculate that the nomads used the drawings for identification purposes and perhaps so that ancestral spirits could identify a fellow tribesman in the afterlife. The intricacy and detail of their tattoos is mind-boggling.

The most amazing find is the remains of two people. The first, most likely, was the leader of the tribe. It is believed that at the time of death this man was about 50 years old. In areas of the remains that were not affected by decomposition, tattoos are clearly visible: they were probably applied with fine embroidery needles.

Many of the designs on the chief’s body depicted animals, including a donkey, a mountain sheep, a goat, a fish, a monster, and four rams, as well as two long-horned deer, an unidentified predator on his right arm, and two griffin-like animals. Three more damaged images are believed to be two deer and a mountain. Many images are intertwined. The chief also had several small circular tattoos near his spine, which may have been therapeutic, like Ötzi’s.

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The second remains belong to a woman – the Ice Maiden, also known as the Altai Maiden or Princess Ukok. She was buried in a wooden tomb with six horses. The woman was younger than the chief, her head was shaved, but she wore a wig and headdress.

Tattoos also cover the body of the Ice Maiden: among them there are drawings of wild animals and domestic animals. It is believed that different animals and images were used to determine a person’s place in society. These are some of the most intricate ancient tattoos to date. In fact, their design is so impressive that even many of our contemporaries wear tattoos of the ancient Pazyryk tribe on their bodies.

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Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Britons

The Thracian state existed side by side with the Greco-Roman world in the territory of modern Eastern Macedonia, southeastern Bulgaria and in parts of Turkey. Images of Thracian women with tattoos appear on Greek red-figure vases.

Luc Renault, an art historian, suggests that in Thrace the tattoo was used to adorn a girl of premarital age, as a bride price was paid. This is in contrast to the classical Greek and Roman systems, in which the bride’s family provided a dowry to the groom’s family.

Images of women on classical vases (c. 500 BC) give a visual representation of the geometric and figurative tattoos of Thracian women: zigzags, dots, lines, meanders, checkerboard patterns, spirals, spiral staircase patterns, animal figurines, crescent moons, radiant suns, and decorated sockets.

Tattoos were applied to the arms, legs, ankles, chest, neck and chin. Sometimes the arms or legs were completely covered in patterns.

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The Persians, Greeks, and later the Romans used tattoos as a mark of ownership, that is, underwear drawings simply served as a brand. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Thebans who surrendered to the Persians at Thermopylae were branded with tattoos.

This made it impossible for a runaway slave to go unnoticed – he would be immediately recognized by the marks on his skin. This type of branding was banned at the beginning of the 4th century AD due to the pressure of the Christian church: then it was believed that tattoos disfigure the human body, created in the image and likeness of God.

Among the Greeks and Romans, the use of tattoos – or “stigmata” as they were then known – seems to have been used as a means of marking someone as “belonging” to a religious sect.

Therefore, it is very curious that in the time of the Ptolemies, when Egypt was ruled by a dynasty of Macedonian Greek monarchs, Pharaoh Ptolemy IV (221-205 BC) was tattooed in the form of ivy leaves, symbolizing his devotion to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and patron of the Ptolemaic dynasty. The fashion for tattoos was adopted by Roman soldiers and spread throughout the Roman Empire.

The legendary traditions of the ancient Britons also suggest that their leaders were tattooed with images of various animals. One northern tribe living in the British Isles was called by the Romans “Picts”, literally – “painted people”.

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Over the ocean

In the culture of the Moche Indians, which existed from the 1st to the 8th century AD on the coast of Peru, tattoos were also actively used.

In 2006, scientists discovered a tattooed mummy, which they later named Lady Kao. This was a young girl, about 25 years old, who died, probably from complications in childbirth. The Moche deliberately did not mummify the dead, but the conditions for the drying of the body developed by themselves and preserved Lady Kao’s intricate tattoos.

Most likely, only those with the highest status in the social hierarchy of the tribe had the right to wear tattoos. Probably, the images represented and strengthened the connection of people with deities through sympathetic magic (based on the idea that objects that are similar in appearance or have been in direct contact allegedly form a supernatural connection with each other).

Lady Kao’s tattoos are snakes, crabs and spiders, all animals associated with the Moche pantheon of divine beings. Their presence connected the girl even more with the world of the supernatural and probably increased the power among her fellow tribesmen; the divine literally lived on the skin of a young woman.

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In addition to the Moche culture, tattoos are found on the mummified remains of some of the ancient pre-Columbian cultures of Peru and Chile, which often reproduce the same ornate depictions of stylized animals and the wide range of symbols found in their textiles and ceramics.

One stunning Nazca female figurine has a huge tattoo that starts at the top of her body, stretches across her belly and extends to her genitals, presumably related to childbearing. On the surviving mummified remains, tattoos are present on the torsos, upper limbs and thumbs, sometimes there are drawings on the face.

Extensive face and body tattoos are common among Native Americans, with designs found on the mummified bodies of a group of six Greenlandic Inuit women.

The mummies, scanned in infrared, showed that five of the women had tattoos in the form of a line running above the eyebrows, along the cheeks and, in some cases, a series of lines on the chin. Another tattooed female mummy, dated to 1000 AD and found on the island of St. Lawrence in the Bering Sea, had tattoos consisting of dots and lines, but these were limited to the arms and hands.

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The Inuit, like many of their neighbors, believed that the bodies were inhabited by many spirits, each of which lived in a certain area. Therefore, they were often tattooed to protect the spirits, and at the same time parts of the body from the corrupting influence of hostile forces and magic.


No wonder researchers never ignore tattoos, even if they were just decoration. After all, when an ancient free man decided to decorate his body with a tattoo, he made a difficult choice – he chose eternal change and eternal transformation, because he intended to take the tattoo with him to the afterlife. In other words, it was a very serious decision that should not be taken lightly or thoughtlessly.


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