Infrared images reveal hidden tattoos on Egyptian mummies

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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.

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