Infrared pictures reveal hidden tattoos on Egyptian mummies -
Infrared pictures reveal hidden tattoos on Egyptian mummies
Posted 02 Dec 2019 05:53 PM

Source: Science News

Infrared photography has helped to spot tattoos on seven mummified people dating to a minimum of 3,000 years ago at a website 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. Though the identities of those tattooed people are unknown, artisans and craft workers at Deir el-Medina built and decorated royal tombs in the near 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 people over more than a century of research at ancient Egyptian sites. However infrared photos, which show 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 operating in an ancient grave 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, that consist of 12 girls 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 individuals 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 are known at Deir el-Medina. Discoveries there challenge an old concept that tattoos on girls connoted fertility or gender in ancient Egypt. Deir el-Medina tattoos seem to be a lot of closely related to women’s roles as healers or priestesses, Austin said.

In the most striking case, infrared photos discovered 30 tattoos on varied parts of a female mummy. Cross-shaped patterns on her arms don’t occur on any of the other dozen tattooed mummies, Austin said. Many different of her tattoos appear as if hieroglyphs used in ancient Egyptian writing. The extent and range of body markings on this woman suggest she might are a spiritual practitioner of some kind, Austin speculates.

Another Deir el-Medina woman had a tattoo on her neck depicting a person's eye — an ancient Egyptian image associated with protection — still as tattoos of a sitting 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 might help researchers discover how these markings were used. “Everything about the new tattoo discoveries is surprising as a result of so little is thought about this ancient Egyptian practice,” said Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein of Brigham young university in Provo, Utah.

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