Infrared images reveal hidden tattoos on Egyptian mummies

The images of eyes, crosses and more on 7 females may challenge ideas about the practice

mummy tattoo

A researcher checks an ancient Egyptian mummy’s shoulder for tattoos with an infrared scanner. Tattoos revealed here include two stylized eyes that symbolized protection and a hieroglyph portraying a bent papyrus plant with water.

A. Austin

SAN DIEGO — Modern technology is illuminating tattoos on mummified, ancient Egyptians that until now had gone unnoticed.

Infrared photography has helped to identify tattoos on seven mummified individuals dating to at least 3,000 years ago at a site called Deir el-Medina, archaeologist Anne Austin of the University of Missouri–St. Louis reported November 22 at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Although the identities of these tattooed folks are unknown, artisans and craft workers at Deir el-Medina built and decorated royal tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens.

Until the Deir el-Medina discoveries, tattoos had been found on a total of only six mummified individuals over more than a century of research at ancient Egyptian sites. But infrared photos, which display wavelengths of light invisible to the naked eye, are transforming what’s known about tattooing in ancient Egypt, Austin said.

“It’s quite magical to be working in an ancient tomb and suddenly see tattoos on a mummified person using infrared photography,” said Austin, who, along with her colleagues, examined the mummies in 2016 and 2019. That research was conducted while Austin was working with the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo.

Designs and placement of tattoos vary greatly on the 13 Egyptian mummies, which consist of 12 women and one man. A female mummy found in 1891 bore the first known tattoo from ancient Egypt. More recently, archaeologist Renée Friedman of the University of Oxford in England used infrared imaging to reveal tattoos on one male and one female Egyptian mummy housed at the British Museum in London (SN: 3/9/18). Those people lived in Egypt shortly before the rise of the first pharaoh around 5,100 years ago.

Ötzi the Iceman’s 5,250-year-old body, found in the Italian Alps, displays the oldest known tattoos (SN: 1/13/16).

Only tattooed females have been identified at Deir el-Medina. Discoveries there challenge an old idea that tattoos on women connoted fertility or sexuality in ancient Egypt. Deir el-Medina tattoos appear to be more closely associated with women’s roles as healers or priestesses, Austin said.

In the most striking case, infrared photos revealed 30 tattoos on various parts of a female mummy. Cross-shaped patterns on her arms don’t occur on any of the other dozen tattooed mummies, Austin said. Several other of her tattoos look like hieroglyphs used in ancient Egyptian writing. The extent and range of body markings on this woman suggest she may have been a religious practitioner of some kind, Austin speculates.

Another Deir el-Medina woman had a tattoo on her neck depicting a human eye — an ancient Egyptian symbol associated with protection — as well as tattoos of a seated baboon on each side of her neck.

“I see no discernible pattern in the tattoos we’ve found so far,” Austin said.

Discoveries of tattoos on additional Egyptian mummies may help researchers figure out how these markings were used. “Everything about the new tattoo discoveries is surprising because so little is known about this ancient Egyptian practice,” said Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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