Egyptian mummies’ tattoos revealed: crosses, baboons and hieroglyphics

Smithsonian looks at tattoos – the tattoos of Egyptian mummies, obscured by the mummification resins but revealed by infrared light:

Archaeologist Anne Austin of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, presented research on the tattooed mummies at the annual conference of the American Schools of Oriental Research in late November. Austin and her colleagues found the tattoos on mummified remains unearthed at a site called Deir el-Medina. The still-unidentified individuals were probably artisans and craft workers who helped construct and decorate the elaborate tombs found in the nearby Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens.

According to the paper’s abstract, tattooing in ancient Egypt remains poorly understood. The civilization left very little record of the practice, and prior to the Deir el-Medina finds, researchers had only identified six other Egyptian mummies with tattoos.

Per Nature’s Traci Watson, Austin first spotted the tattoos while studying the Deir el-Medina mummies at Cairo’s French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in 2016. She noticed markings on the neck of a headless, armless torso and initially thought they were painted on. After closer examination, however, Austin realized the designs were actually tattoos. Using infrared light to better examine the mummy, she eventually found 30 individual tattoos, many of them invisible to the naked eye due to resins used in mummification.

The original tattooed woman assessed by Austin has cross patterns on her arms and hieroglyphic-like elements elsewhere. Most of the marks on her body do not appear on other individuals, leading Austin to suspect she played a significant religious role in ancient Egyptian society.

According to [Science News reporter Bruce] Bower, another Deir el-Medina mummy has tattoos of a human eye—a sign of protection still in use today—and a seated baboon on either side of her neck.

The archaeologist says she can find no discernible pattern in the tattoos found to date.

[via Ms. McHugh]