Tattooed Mummies

by Steve Gilbert


The oldest tattooed body known to date was discovered in 1991. It is that of a Bronze Age man who died over 5,000 years when he was apparently caught in a snow storm during a hunting trip on a mountain between Austria and Italy. Together with the body were clothing, a bow and arrows, a bronze ax, and flint for making fire.
The skin is of great interest because it bears several tattoos: a cross on the inside of the left knee, and six straight lines 15 centimeters long above the kidneys. Professor Konrad Spindler of Innsbruck University speculated that the tattooing could have been ornamental, or that it might have been used for magical purposes or to denote social status.
"I don't like superlatives," said Spindler, "but this is the only body of a Bronze Age man found in a glacier and certainly the best preserved corpse of that period ever found. Other Bronze Age corpses found in German, Scandinavian, or British peat moors didn't have much of the inner organs and skin left intact."

The world's most spectacular tattooed mummy was discovered by Russian anthropologist Sergei Ivanovich Rudenko in1948 during the excavation of a group of Pazyryk tombs about 120 miles north of the border between China and Russia. The Pazyryks were formidable iron age horsemen and warriors who inhabited the steppes of Eastern Europe and Western Asia from the sixth through the second centuries BC. They left no written records, but Pazyryk artifacts are distinguished by a sophisticated level of artistry and craftsmanship.
The Pazyryk tombs discovered by Rudenko were in an almost perfect state of preservation. They contained skeletons and intact bodies of horses and embalmed humans, together with a wealth of artifacts including saddles, riding gear, a carriage, rugs, clothing, jewelry, musical instruments, amulets, tools, and, interestingly, hash pipes! (described by Rudenko as "apparatus for inhaling hemp smoke"). Also found in the tombs were fabrics from Persia and China, which the Pazyryks must have obtained on journeys covering thousands of miles.
Rudenko's most remarkable discovery was the body of a tattooed Pazyryk chief: a thick-set, powerfully built man who had died when he was about 50. Parts of the body had deteriorated, but much of the tattooing was still clearly visible. The chief was elaborately decorated with an interlocking series of designs representing a variety of fantastic beasts.
The best preserved tattoos were images of a donkey, a mountain ram, two highly stylized deer with long antlers and an imaginary carnivore on the right arm. Two monsters resembling griffins decorate the chest, and on the left arm are three partially obliterated images which seem to represent two deer and a mountain goat.
On the front of the right leg a fish extends from the foot to the knee. A monster crawls over the right foot, and on the inside of the shin is a series of four running rams which touch each other to form a single design. The left leg also bears tattoos, but these designs could not be clearly distinguished.
In addition, the chief's back is tattooed with a series of small circles in line with the vertebral column. This tattooing was probably done for therapeutic reasons. Contemporary Siberian tribesmen still practice tattooing of this kind to relieve back pain.
No instruments specifically designed for tattooing were found, but the Pazyryks had extremely fine needles with which they did miniature embroidery, and these were undoubtedly used for tattooing
In the summer of 1993 another tattooed Pazyryk mummy was discovered in Siberia's Umok plateau. It had been buried over 2,400 years ago in a casket fashioned from the hollowed-out trunk of a larch tree. On the outside of the casket were stylized images of deer and snow leopards carved in leather. Shortly after burial the grave had apparently been flooded by freezing rain and the entire contents of the burial chamber had remained frozen in permafrost.
The body was that of a young woman whose arms had been tattooed with designs representing mythical creatures like those on the previously discovered Pazyryk mummy. She was clad in a voluminous white silk dress, a long crimson woolen skirt and white felt stockings. On her head was an elaborate headdress made of hair and felt - the first of its kind ever found intact. Also discovered in the burial chamber were gilded ornaments, dishes, a brush, a pot containing marijuana, and a hand mirror of polished metal on the wooden back of which was a carving of a deer. Six horses wearing elaborate harnesses had been sacrificed and lay on the logs which formed the roof of the burial chamber.
"We wouldn't be as happy if we had found solid gold," said Natalya Polosmak, the Russian archaeologist who discovered the tomb. "These are everyday things. Through them we see life as it was."

What can we conclude from these fragmentary survivals of ancient tattooing? Considering the number of tattooed mummies which have been discovered, it is apparent that tattooing was widely practiced throughout the ancient world and was associated with a high level of artistic endeavor. The imagery of ancient tattooing is in many ways similar to that of modern tattooing. Egyptian tattooing was related to the sensual, erotic, and emotional side of life, and all these themes are found in tattooing today. Inca tattooing is characterized by bold abstract patterns which resemble contemporary tribal tattoo designs. All of the known Pazyryk tattoos are images of animals. Animals are the most frequent subject matter of tattooing in many cultures and are traditionally associated with magic, totemism, and the desire of the tattooed person to become identified with the spirit of the animal. Tattoos which have survived on mummies suggest that tattooing in prehistoric times had much in common with modern tattooing, and that tattooing the world over has profound and universal psychic origins.

Copyright 1995 by Christopher Gotch and Steve Gilbert This article is an excerpt from the revised edition of Art, Sex and Symbol by Ronald Scutt and Christopher Gotch, now in production.


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