Protective Birth Tattoos Found on Ancient Egyptian Mummies
Lower back tattoos may seem like an early 21st-century fad popularized by celebrities in low-rise jeans, but new archaeological evidence of Egyptian mummies shows the practice is actually more than three millennia old.
At the New Kingdom site of Deir el-Medina (1550 B.C. to 1070 B.C.), researchers Anne Austin and Marie-Lys Arnette have found that tattoos on ancient flesh and tattooed figurines of the site are likely related. with the ancient Egyptian god Bes, who protected women and children, especially during childbirth. They published their findings last month in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (opens in new tab).
Deir el-Medina (opens in new tab) is located on the west bank of the Nile, opposite the archaeological site of Luxor. Beginning in 1922, around the same time that king tut‘s tomb was found, the site was excavated by a French team. In the New Kingdom period known as Set-Ma’at (“Place of Truth”), this was a planned community, a large neighborhood with rectangular streets with grids and housing for the workers responsible for building tombs for the Egyptian rulers. While the men left for days at a time to work on the tombs, women and children lived in the village of Deir el-Medina. A key feature of the site is the so-called Great Pit, an old dump filled with paychecks, receipts and letters on papyrus that helped archaeologists better understand the lives of ordinary people.
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But nothing in the Great Pit mentions tattooing, so the discovery of at least six tattooed women in Deir el-Medina was surprising. “It can be rare and difficult to find evidence for tattoos because you have to find preserved and uncovered skin,” study lead author Anne Austin (opens in new tab), a bioarchaeologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told Live Science in an email. “Because we would never unpack mummified Folks, our only chance of finding tattoos is when the looters are gone skin exposed and it’s still there for us to see millennia after a person died.”
The new evidence Austin discovered came from two graves she and her team examined in 2019. Human remains from one grave include a left hip bone of a middle-aged woman. Patterns of dark black color were visible on the preserved skin, creating an image that, if symmetrical, would have run down the woman’s lower back. Just to the left of the horizontal lines of the tattoo is an image of Bes and a bowl, images related to ritual purification during the weeks after childbirth.
The second tattoo comes from a middle-aged woman discovered in a nearby grave. In this case, infrared photography revealed a tattoo that is difficult to see with the naked eye. A reconstruction drawing of this tattoo reveals a betjat, or Eye of Horus, and a possible depiction of Bes with a feathered crown; both images suggest that this tattoo was related to protection and healing. And the zigzag line pattern may represent a swamp, which Austin says ancient medical texts associated with cooling water used to relieve pain from menstruation or childbirth.
In addition, three clay figurines depicting female bodies found decades ago in Deir el-Medina were reexamined by study co-author. Marie-Lys Arnette (opens in new tab)an Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who suggested that they, too, display tattoos on the lower back and thighs depicting Bes.
The researchers concluded in their paper that “when placed in context with New Kingdom artifacts and texts, these tattoos and representations of tattoos would be visually linked to images referring to women as sexual partners, pregnant women, midwives, and mothers who participated in the study.” postpartum rituals used for the protection of the mother and child.”
Sonia Zakrzewskiz (opens in new tab), a bioarchaeologist at the University of Southampton University in the UK who was not involved in the current study, told Live Science in an email that “the newly described tattoos are extraordinarily complex compared to previous Egyptian tattoo practices” and that “depictions of pregnant women are extremely rare in Egyptian art.” Since childbirth and fertility of the soil were linked in Egyptian thought, Zakrzewski suggested that “these tattoos imprint protective images — including of gods — on their bodies, almost as if the person were carrying their own portable magical amulet.”
Tattooing in Deir el-Medina is actually more common than people realized, according to Austin, although it’s not known how widespread it may have been elsewhere in Egypt during that period. “I hope more scholars will find evidence of tattooing so we can see if what’s happening in this village is unique or part of a wider tradition in ancient Egypt that we just haven’t discovered yet,” she said.
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