Museum mummies sport world’s oldest tattoo drawings

Infrared photography reveals animals and symbolic designs from 5,000 years ago

TATT MAN  Infrared imaging revealed that smudges on the upper-right arm of a naturally mummified Egyptian man are actually tattoos of a wild bull and a Barbary sheep. These oldest known picture tattoos date from at least 5,000 years ago.

© the Trustees of the British Museum

Two human mummies housed at the British Museum in London for more than a century boast the world’s oldest known — and longest hidden — tattoos of figures and designs, a new investigation finds. These people lived in Egypt at or shortly before the rise of the first pharaoh around 5,100 years ago.

Radiocarbon analyses of hairs from the mummies date the bodies to between 3351 B.C. and 3017 B.C., says a team led by Egyptologist Renée Friedman of the University of Oxford and bioarchaeologist Daniel Antoine of the British Museum in London. Infrared photography revealed that smudges on a male mummy’s upper right arm depict a wild bull and a Barbary sheep, while a female mummy bears four S-shaped patterns on her right shoulder and a line with bent ends on her right arm. These animals and figures appear in Egyptian art from the same period, the researchers report online March 1 in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Both sets of tattoos — which consist of a carbon-based pigment, possibly soot — may have symbolized power, social status or knowledge of cult activities, but their precise meanings are unclear.

The two were the only mummies found with tattoos, out of seven mummies originally buried at a southern Egyptian site and now held at the British Museum. All of the bodies had been preserved by the desert’s dry heat.

The tattooed Egyptian mummies are approximately as old as Ötzi the Iceman. The mummified man found in the Italian Alps has 61 dark lines tattooed on his limbs and torso, but no pictures or designs (SN: 1/23/16, p. 5). Some of the Iceman’s tattoos covered areas of joint disease and may have been intended as treatments. CT scans of the two Egyptian mummies found no signs of bone disease near or below tattoos.

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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