The mummies of seven women found at Egypt’s Deir el-Medina site bear tattoos including crosses, baboons and hieroglyphics.
The ancient Egyptians were known for decorating nearly every available surface, from the walls of temples to the interiors of tombs and every square inch of statues and furniture. But recent scholarship suggests the Egyptians’ penchant for adornment didn’t end here: As Bruce Bower reports for Science News, infrared images of seven 3,000-year-old mummies have revealed an array of hidden tattoos scattered across the ancients’ bodies.
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.
Further analysis, including imaging conducted this year, helped Austin and her team identify more Deir el-Medina tattoos.
“It’s quite magical to be working in an ancient tomb and suddenly see tattoos on a mummified person using infrared photography,” she tells Bower.
The tattoos’ significance is still up for debate. All of the tattoos at Deir el-Medina have been found on women. This trend, and the variety of markings found, suggests the body art may be associated with women’s roles as healers and priestesses, not simply fertility and sexuality as previously theorized.
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.