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Identifying the Practice of Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia

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Tattooing was practised by many ancient societies, including the ancient Egyptians and Nubians. Egypt, for example, boasts iconographic and physical evidence for tattooing for a period spanning at least 4000 years – the longest known history of tattooing in the world. The second oldest physical evidence for tattooing worldwide was recovered from Middle Kingdom contexts in Egypt and C-Group contexts in Nubia (the Hanslabjoch ice man being the oldest). It has been suggested that tattooing was also practised in the Predynastic period as evidenced by figurines with geometric designs, however, no physical evidence for tattooing has yet been found for this early period. Strangely there is almost no mention of tattooing in ancient Egyptian written records. Historical and ethnographic records indicate that tattooing was also practised much more recently in the Coptic, Islamic and modern eras. Unlike many past societies, tattooing in Egypt appears to have been a custom practised almost exclusively on women. Tattooing tools have not yet been positively identified from ancient Egypt. Ethnographic sources suggest that bundles of metal rods were used in Egypt’s more recent history. This paper discusses physical and iconographic evidence for tattooing in ancient Egypt and investigates whether five copper rods found at Kafr Hassan Dawood, a Predynastic to Early Dynastic site in the East Delta, could be physical evidence for tattooing during this early period.
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85
Identifying the Practice of Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and
Nubia
Geoffrey J. Tassie
Institute of Archaeology, UCL
Tattooing was practised by many ancient societies, including the ancient Egyptians and
Nubians. Egypt, for example, boasts iconographic and physical evidence for tattooing for
a period spanning at least 4000 years – the longest known history of tattooing in the world.
The second oldest physical evidence for tattooing worldwide was recovered from Middle
Kingdom contexts in Egypt and C-Group contexts in Nubia (the Hanslabjoch ice man being
the oldest). It has been suggested that tattooing was also practised in the Predynastic period
as evidenced by gurines with geometric designs, however, no physical evidence for tattooing
has yet been found for this early period. Strangely there is almost no mention of tattooing in
ancient Egyptian written records. Historical and ethnographic records indicate that tattooing
was also practised much more recently in the Coptic, Islamic and modern eras. Unlike many
past societies, tattooing in Egypt appears to have been a custom practised almost exclusively
on women. Tattooing tools have not yet been positively identied from ancient Egypt.
Ethnographic sources suggest that bundles of metal rods were used in Egypt’s more recent
history. This paper discusses physical and iconographic evidence for tattooing in ancient
Egypt and investigates whether ve copper rods found at Kafr Hassan Dawood, a Predynastic
to Early Dynastic site in the East Delta, could be physical evidence for tattooing during this
early period.
Introduction
The word ‘tattoo’ derives from the Tahitian word tatatau, which means ‘to strike
properly’ and which Captain Cook recorded as ‘tattow’ (Hassan et al. 1991). In tradi-
tional societies, permanent body decoration has a psychological or practical purpose,
or sometimes both. Sending out a range of social signals, body decoration plays an im-
portant part in expressing and reinforcing social relationships, values and society itself.
As with temporary forms of body decoration, e.g. hairstyles, painting and make-up,
permanent body decoration helps to dene boundaries of social groups and sub-groups
within society by marking differences in status and role. Their very permanence allows
the latter forms of body decoration to perform tasks that the more transitory forms do
not. Thus they demonstrate permanent social relationships between an individual and
society. Permanent body decoration is often applied when an individual goes through a
rite of passage and attains a new social status, such as adulthood (Rubin 1988). While
the reasons for tattooing can change over time, the end result is still a permanent mark-
ing, an enculturalisation of the body.
The study of tattooing and enculturalisation of the body in past societies, and the rec-
ognition of ancient tattooing needles both on archaeological sites and in museums,
have been only recently undertaken (Bianchi 1985, 1988, 1996; Hassan et al. 1991;
Keimer 1948; Magor 1999; Rubin 1988). This paper examines the practise of tattoo-
ing in ancient Egypt and Nubia, and presents criteria for identifying possible tattooing
needles in archaeological contexts. A holistic approach is used, utilising the available
archaeological material including iconographic data, and comparing and contrasting
this with ethnohistoric and ethnographic evidence from the region to provide possible
Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 14 (2003): 85-101
Geoffrey J. Tassie
86
Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia 87
parallels for ancient remains and practices. In this approach, cognitive, socio-religious
and socio-sexual aspects are all incorporated into the analysis and interpretation of the
evidence.
While the textual record from ancient Egypt makes no direct reference to the practice,
it has long been recognised that the ancient Egyptians indeed tattooed themselves;
there is much iconographic evidence, as well as a number of tattooed desiccated human
remains. Winlock (1942: 74), for example, excavated tattooed mummies from Deir el-
Bahari in 1922-23. However, the identication of actual tattooing needles has proved to
be a difcult task; they have not yet been positively recognised in archaeological con-
texts – some may have been mislabelled as awls or sewing needles. The use of many
artefacts can only be inferred from their context and association, and tattooing needles
are no different, although, if found sufciently well-preserved, scientic analysis of
their tips may identify traces of blood or the pigment used to create the tattoo.
Tattooing Methods and Tools
Two methods appear to have been used in tattooing by traditional societies to introduce
the pigment into the subcutaneous layers of skin: the sewing and the puncture methods.
The sewing method is used to create lines; up to 40 stitches are used to make a line
5cm in length. An eyed needle is used with a piece of twine or sinew blackened with
soot. The needle is pulled through the skin in short but deep stitches, and pressure is
applied to the skin with the thumb to rub in the pigment. The operation ends with oil
being rubbed into the skin (Hassan
et al. 1991: 111-112). In contrast,
the puncture method uses a sharp
pointed instrument, such as a pin
or needle to break the skin. Pig-
ment may be applied to the tip of
the needle or may be rubbed into
the broken skin after being pricked.
This method may be used to create
dots, lines or gures, and appears to
have been the method preferred for
tattooing in ancient Egypt, judging
from the patterns found on tattooed
desiccated human remains.
Keimer (1948: 55-64), in his semi-
nal work on the subject of tattooing
in ancient Egypt, reviews many
early travellers’ accounts of tattoo-
ing in Egypt and elsewhere in Af-
rica. The majority of these relate
that an uneven number of metal
needles tied together and hafted
Figure 1. Edward Lane’s drawing of a tattooed
Egyptian woman from the early part of the
19th century (from Lane 1860: 40).
Geoffrey J. Tassie
86
Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia 87
into a wooden handle were used. Wild (1623: 204) noted that Egyptian women would
colour their hands and around their mouth with little blue dots, as if they had pricked
themselves with needles and rubbed charcoal into the wounds. Edward Lane, during
his stay in Egypt (1833-35), observed that some women of the lower orders tattooed
their faces with blue designs, usually their chins and foreheads, and also the backs of
their hands, their arms, feet and the middle of their bosom (Lane 1860: 39); simple
dots, circles and lines were often used (Fig. 1). Tattooing may have been carried out
on Egyptians, like many other Near Eastern and North African peoples as a rite of pas-
sage, and may have been used to ward off evil and disease (Myers 1903: 87). Tattoos
may also have played a role in dening an individual and maintaining the continuity of
social units and social relationships.
Blackman described the method of tattooing among the Fellahin of Upper Egypt and
noted that:
…the implement used in tattooing consists of seven needles xed into a
short stick, which is bound round at the end and then plastered over to
keep them rmly in position. Sometimes smaller needles, and only ve in
number, are used for tattooing children. Lamp-black [soot] is the pigment
employed, and this is usually mixed with oil, though some people say that
water is used.
(Blackman 1927: 51)
The designs were rst drawn on the skin by the tattoo artist with needles, the skin was
then pierced using the tattooing tool before the soot dye was rubbed in. Alternatively,
the points of the tattooing needles could be dipped in the soot mixture, and when the
needles pierced the skin the pigment was left deep in the dermis layer. The tattooed
surface may or may not bleed, but will become swollen and scab over. Both indigo and
soot have antiseptic properties helping to prevent infection, and herbs such as cloves
or leaves of white beet could be applied after the tattooing was completed to reinforce
the tattooed design and reduce the swelling (Lane 1860: 39-40; Smeaton 1937: 60).
After three to seven days the scab will fall off leaving the tattoo xed deep in the skin
(Smeaton 1937: 60).
The Copts, who also used the puncture method, relate that the number of needles used
to tattoo must be of an odd number, as these bring luck and are of good fortune. For
the Copts, the number three represents the Holy Trinity, and this appears to be the
reason why many Coptic tattoos consist of three lines, three dots and two elements
(Caswell 1958; Keimer 1948: 59). Preference for specic numbers is also apparent
in ancient Egyptian tattoos, which often consist of three, seven or nine rows of dots or
lines, although groups of 6 and 16 were also sometimes encountered (Bianchi 1988).
To the ancient Egyptians certain numbers held magical properties, such as two, three,
seven and nine. Two symbolised duality and unity as in the ‘Two Lands’, while three
symbolised plurality as in the triads or families of the gods. The number ve, though
not in itself symbolic, may have been valued because it is the sum of two (duality) and
Geoffrey J. Tassie
88
Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia 89
three (plurality). Likewise, the number seven, being the sum of three (plurality) and
four (totality) may also have been attributed magical properties, as indicated by the
seven sacred oils, the seven Hathors and the seven gates in the Duat, through which
the deceased had to pass. Nine, made up of three threes, may have represented the
concept of a great number, a plurality of plurals, because the Ennead of nine gods
represented all the gods, and the Nine Bows symbolised all of Egypt’s enemies (Clark
1960; Wilkinson 1999).
The preference for particular numbers of rows of dots or lines thus implies a reference
to number symbolism, but also points to the number of strikes and tattooing needles
used to make a particular tattoo. The dots and strokes on the mummied remains (see
below) appear too large to have been applied with a single needle, indicating that they
may have been applied by multiple needles. In addition to expressing number symbol-
ism, tying the needles together in bundles would have increased the tensile strength of
the object; also the more needles tied together the greater the area that can be covered
in one strike. Outlining a tattoo was possibly done with fewer needles than inlling
the design.
In modern Egypt, tattooing needles inserted into wooden handles are usually blind;
they can therefore be described as awls. Awls can be used for a multitude of pierc-
ing purposes, such as piercing holes in leather. Objects usually referred to as metal,
bone and stone ‘awls’, as well as ‘sewing needles’, have been found at numerous sites
throughout Egypt and Nubia dating from the prehistoric to the modern era. However,
some of these may have been used in tattooing. The piercing of human skin in tattooing
would have probably been done with ne-tipped tools in order to create sharper designs
and cause less bleeding. The strongest indicator that an ‘awl’ or ‘sewing needle’ was
used for tattooing would be if charcoal and/or blood residues were found adhering to
the tip. As most of the tools found have not been examined for these traces, they cannot
conclusively be assigned a particular function, be it as ‘sewing needles’ or possibly as
tattooing tools. However, evidence of pigments and carrying mediums on such imple-
ments in general is an area that needs further investigation.
Human Remains: Tattooed Mummies from Egypt and Nubia
In ancient Egypt there is no artistic or physical evidence that men were tattooed apart
from one Dynasty XII stele from Abydos. This depicts a gure, which is said to be
male, with marks coming down over the chest. As the stele is extremely worn it is
hard to distinguish whether the marks indeed represent tattoos (Bianchi 1988, 1996;
Keimer 1948). Thus, the vast majority of evidence (mummied human remains, dy-
nastic gurines and tomb scenes) suggests that only women were tattooed in ancient
Egypt (Bianchi 1988). In Nubia, originally only C-Group women were tattooed, but by
the Meroitic Period both men and women were tattooed and scaried. The symbolic
meaning of the practice of body modication thus appears to have been gendered and
differed in both societies.
Comparative Chronology of the Main Cultural Groupings of Egypt and Nubia
Of the mummied remains found in Egypt and Nubia dating from the Middle Kingdom
Geoffrey J. Tassie
88
Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia 89
and C-Group periods (c.2000 BC) up to the Ptolemaic and Meroitic periods (c.300 BC)
(Table 1), 42 female tattooed bodies and a much smaller number of male bodies (1+)
have so far been found; the majority in Nubia (Bianchi 1988, 1996; Firth 1927; Fletcher
1997; Keimer 1948). The tattoos usually consist of dotted patterns, probably made
with an uneven number of needles. Nubian mummies often come from simple round
or oval pit graves with much of the desiccated bone and esh having decayed or been
disturbed. The Nubian examples of tattooed female mummies thus are often in a poorer
state of preservation than the examples from Egypt.
Mummies of the Early 2nd Millennium BC
Many of the tattooed bodies found in Nubia were excavated during two Nubian archae-
ological surveys. Firth (1927: 54), who was part of the rst survey, reports of a female
mummy in C-Group grave 271 in Cemetery 110 near the village of Quban (Kubban),
now under the waters of Lake Nasser south of Aswan. The tattoo marks on the well-
preserved skin of her abdomen “…compare [to] the marks on the C-Group pottery dolls
Date Egypt Nubia
5500 BC Predynastic (5500 – 3360 BC)
Faiyum A (5500 - 3800 BC)
Badarian (4500 – 3750 BC)
4000 BC Naqada I (3900 – 3700 BC)
Naqada II (3700 – 3350 BC)
Protodynastic (3350 – 3150 BC)
Naqada III (3360 – 2700 BC)
A-Group (3650 – 2950 BC)
3000 BC Early Dynastic (3150 – 2613 BC)
(I Dyn. – III Dyn.)
Old Kingdom (2613 – 2181 BC)
(IV Dyn. – VI Dyn.)
First Intermediate (2181-2055 BC)
(VII Dyn. – XI Dyn.)
Hiatus (Egyptians drive A-Group
out?)
C-Group (2345 – 1500 BC)
2000 BC Middle Kingdom (2055 – 1782 BC)
(XI Dyn. – XIV Dyn.)
Second Intermediate (1650 – 1550 BC)
(XV Dyn. – XVII Dyn.)
New Kingdom (1550 – 1069 BC)
(XVIII Dyn. – XX Dyn.)
Egyptian dominance of Nubia
(Kerma and Kush)
1000 BC Third Intermediate (1069 – 747 BC)
(XXI Dyn. – XXIV Dyn.)
Late Period (747 – 332 BC)
Napatan (1000 – 300 BC)
500 BC (XXV Dyn. – XXX Dyn.)
Ptolemaic (332 – 30 BC)
Roman (30 BC – AD 395)
Coptic (AD 100 -)
Meroitic (300 BC – AD 400)
Post-Meroitic (AD 400 -)
AD 500
Table 1. Comparative chronology of the main cultural groupings of Egypt and Nubia.
Geoffrey J. Tassie
90
Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia 91
from Cemetery 87” (Firth 1927: 54). Many other mummies were found in the Nubian
surveys with tattoos on their abdomens, chests, arms and legs (Keimer 1948: 16; Smith
1911: 56; Smith and Dawson 1924: 80; Steindorff 1935: 118-9). The excavators regu-
larly reported the tattoos on the human remains as resembling the patterns found on
gurines from the C-Group graves, some tattooed mummies even had tattooed gurines
placed in the grave with them, suggesting that patterns on gurines are representations
of tattoos. The C-Group is contemporaneous with the Egyptian Middle Kingdom.
The most famous tattooed bodies from Egypt are the Dynasty XI mummies found at
Deir el-Bahari: Amunet, a Priestess of Hathor who also bore the title of ‘King’s Fa-
vourite Ornament, and two other mum-
mies, found in Pits 23 and 26, who were
described as Hathoric dancers in the
court of King Mentuhotep II (Daressy
1893: 106; Winlock 1942, 1947). The
mummy of Amunet is now in the Egyp-
tian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo and
the two Hathoric dancers in the Metro-
politan Museum of Art, New York. The
mummy of Amunet was rst discovered
by Grébaut in 1891 (Daressy 1913: 99-
100; Fouquet 1899: 207) near the Tem-
ple of Mentuhotep II at Deir el-Bahari
in her own tomb in a wooden cofn; the
other cofn in the tomb was found to
contain bovine bones. The mummy was
well preserved, with bead necklaces and
a menat collar still in place around her
neck, with rings on her ngers and
bracelets on her arms beneath her band-
ages. On her left shoulder and breast
is a tattoo consisting of a row of dots
encased in two lines. On her right arm
below the elbow there are many rows
(approximately nine) of dotted tattoo
marks. There may be corresponding marks on the left arm, but these are not visible as
the mummy is lying on her left side. The tattoos on her stomach are in two groups (Fig.
2) making an elliptical pattern of dots and dashes, just above the navel and below the
chest. Those just above the navel region consist of seven to nine rows of nine strokes in
a rectangular pattern. Another tattoo on the medial line, at the top of the epigastric ba-
sin, consists of six lines made up of three dashes each. There is also a large rectangular
tattoo made up of rows of little lines virtually covering the whole of the abdominal wall
in the suprapubic region. Another tattoo is located in the middle of the right thigh in the
design of multiple diamond shapes; again this design is composed of dots. All of the
tattoos appear dark blue in colour (Keimer 1948: 9-13). In the area of the groin there is
also evidence of scarication in the form of three horizontal parallel lines.
Figure 2. Detail of the abdominal tattoos
visible on a Dynasty XI mummy of
Amunet (re-drawn by Colette Standish,
after Bianchi 1988, g. 2; from Keimer
1948, g. 9).
Geoffrey J. Tassie
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Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia 91
The 1923 Metropolitan Museum of Art Expedition to Deir el-Bahari led by Winlock,
excavated two mummies from Pits 23 and 26, located very near the tomb of Amunet
(Winlock 1942, 1947). These mummies were found to have tattoos on their bodies:
dotted lozenge shapes were placed across their chests, arms and legs, on the dorsum of
their feet and across their abdominal regions. The positioning of the tattoo designs is
similar for both mummies. The lozenge designs are made up of 16 dots, and several
lozenges form patterns that run across the abdomen and around the upper arms and
thighs, both inside and out, and down the chest (Keimer 1948: 8-9). Tattoos on the
abdominal part of the female body would have become particularly notable when the
woman became pregnant – the patterns would expand, forming an even more symboli-
cally interesting pattern, like a web or netting design. It is possible that such extensive
sets of tattoos may not have been applied all at once, and may have taken several years
for the full set to be completed, possibly marking life events, as occurs in many socie-
ties (Rubin 1988; Smeaton 1937).
Mummies of the 1st Millennium BC
Tattoos similar to those found on the C-Group mummies were also found on later
mummies of both adolescent and adult women, which were recovered in excavations at
Aksha, a Meroitic site dating to the fourth century BC located just south of Abu Simbel
and Faras (Vila 1967). The mummies showed dark blue tattoos in similar positions
to those found on the Nubian C-Group, but also with facial and hand tattoos (Bianchi
1988: 23; Seguenny 1984: 151; Vila 1967: 370-7). No male mummies from Nubia have
been identied with abdominal or thigh tattoos, however, at least one male mummy
has been identied with facial tattoos, with other bodies being unsexed (Vila 1967:
370). Blue facial tattoo marks are also characteristic of some of the bodies from other
Meroitic cemeteries in Nubia (Shinnie 1967: 155).
Several tattooed mummies have been found dating to the Ptolemaic Period in Egypt,
which is contemporary with the Meroitic Period in Nubia. The tattoos are usually dot-
ted patterns on the face and hands. However, these types of tattoos may show Greek
and Persian inuences mixed with indigenous Nilotic traditions. Although the designs
on the face are not of Greek origin, the concept of facial tattooing seems to have been
part of Greek and Persian penal tattooing tradition (Jones 1987; Magor 1999), and
seems not to have been practised in the Nile Valley during the C-Group or Middle King-
dom. However, facial tattooing is also found in Nubia on Meroitic Period mummies
and could possibly have been introduced into Egypt during Dynasty XXV when Egypt
was ruled by Nubian kings; the results of the third Nubian rescue campaign currently
taking place in the region of the Fourth Cataract may help prove or disprove this theory.
Roman Period mummies found by Maspero at Akhmim also have tattoos on their chin
and side of the nose (Strouhal 1992: 88-9). Although no mummied remains can be
posited as having religious tattoos, it is possible that a New Kingdom tattooing practice
may have lived on into the Ptolemaic Period with certain Egyptians tattooing religious
symbols on themselves, especially on the wrists and arms (Jones 1987: 144; Keimer
1948: 44, 53). This tattooing practice may have inuenced the early Coptic Christians
in their tattooing traditions, with many of the later Coptic tattoos being very similar to
those of the the Graeco-Roman era (Jones 1987: 145).
Geoffrey J. Tassie
92
Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia 93
Origins
As human remains with evidence of tattooing have not been identied in Egypt before
the Middle Kingdom, the origin of Egyptian tattooing has frequently been attributed
to Nubian inuences, in particular the C-group (Bianchi 1988), with which Egypt at
this period was having greater contact through Egypt’s imperial expansion down to the
Second Cataract. Indeed, a Nubian origin for some of the Egyptian mummies has been
suggested. In Derry’s correspondence to Winlock, he suggests that the two mummies
Winlock found in pits 23 and 26 may have been of Nubian descent; paintings of some
of these Hathoric dancers, on their sarcophagi show them dressed as Egyptians but with
dark Nubian skin colouring (Naville 1907, 1910; Winlock 1942: 129-30). Although
Winlock does not publish Derry’s letter, another letter from Derry is reproduced in Ke-
imer (1948: 14-5), and although Derry does not mention the Nubian origin of the two
mummies from Pits 23 and 26, he makes an analogy between the ancient mummied
remains and modern Sudanese body modication traditions. A fragment of a relief
from the tomb of Amunet was found by Naville (1907: pl. XVII, B) in his excavations
of the Mentuhotep II Temple at Deir el-Bahari. This fragment shows Amunet with typi-
cal Egyptian eye make-up, wearing a short round Egyptian hairstyle and typical Egyp-
tian necklaces; however, her ethnic origins as depicted by her skin colour are unclear in
the black and white photograph. Possibly she is painted in a tawny orange colour, as
she does not seem to be of the typical dark brown the Egyptians painted Nubians, or the
light yellow reserved for depictions of elite Egyptian women.
Although the Hathoric dancers of the Middle Kingdom may have had some Nubian
origins, they could have been born in Egypt and been thoroughly Egyptian in their
ideology, manners and customs. It is impossible to tell in which region the tattoos were
applied to them and the ethnic origin of the tattoo artists. Thus, the evidence does not
allow a conclusive identication of the Deir el-Bahari mummies as either Egyptians or
Nubians. The apportioning of the origin of the tattooing tradition to either of the two
regions is very equivocal, considering the great mobility between Lower Nubia and
Upper Egypt throughout the Predynastic and Pharaonic periods and especially in view
of the fact that many Nubians either lived in Egypt or were under Egyptian political
control living in Nubia, particularly from the Middle Kingdom when Egypt annexed
Lower Nubia through to the end of the New Kingdom (Smith 2003).
The scarcity of well-preserved early mummies makes the identication of tattooing on
the basis of human remains before the Middle Kingdom problematic. The majority of
the preserved mummied remains in both Egypt and Nubia are from the later periods.
Although natural mummies occur, the art of mummication with evisceration was only
in its infancy in the Old Kingdom, developing further in the Middle Kingdom and
New Kingdom. Therefore, few mummies have survived from the periods prior to the
Middle Kingdom (Ikram and Dodson 1998: 108-130). Formal mummication was
also a practice originally restricted to royalty and the elite. From the Middle Kingdom,
mummication became available to a wider spectrum of the population, becoming even
more widely available in the Ptolemaic and Meroitic periods, but with variable quality
(Ikram and Dodson 1998). Therefore, it is usually iconographic material that is put
forward as evidence of tattooing when there is a lack of mummied remains.
Geoffrey J. Tassie
92
Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia 93
Because the mummied remains indicate that tattooing was practised in both Egypt
and Nubia by c.2000 BC, and Egypt was a cosmopolitan nation from the Predynastic
onwards, it may be more appropriate to view tattooing as part of a single Nile Valley
body modication tradition with ideas and innovations owing back and forth between
the two regions. However, the fact that more mummied remains with tattoos dating
to early periods come from the most northerly part of Lower Nubia, an area known as
and settled by the Wawat tribe, it may be that they developed the practice of tattooing to
culturally identify themselves from the Egyptian civilisation to the north and the grow-
ing Kerma (Kushite) civilisation to the south in Upper Nubia (Smith 2003). The ow of
this tradition into Egypt seems almost immediate, and was taken up by some Egyptian
women who then modied this tradition into iconographic motifs such as Bes.
It seems that the tattooing of women in Middle Kingdom Egypt and in the C-Group
and Meroitic periods in Nubia may have indicated physiological changes, reproductive
capacity and sexuality, whereas, the Bes tattoos, which were originally a magico-reli-
gious New Kingdom Egyptian practice, seem more concerned with protection during
childbirth (see below). The same cannot be said of Meroitic men’s tattoos from Nubia,
which appear to be placed only on their hands and face, and may be more about social
relationships than physiological changes and reproductive capacity. The origin of tat-
tooing in Graeco-Roman Egypt is questionable, with the possible exception of magico-
religious tattoos, and therefore does not form part of this study (see Jones 1987).
Iconographic Evidence: Figurines with Possible Tattooing Patterns
Egyptian Figurines Found in Egypt
As no actual evidence has been found of tattooing in examinations of Predynastic hu-
man remains, or on extant mummies from the Old Kingdom, no denitive conclusions
can be drawn as to whether the designs on Predynastic gurines actually represent tat-
toos (Bianchi 1988: 21; Smith 1923: 63). However, patterns of lines and dots on some
female Egyptian Predynastic gurines have been interpreted by some scholars as the
earliest evidence of tattooing on the female body (Hornblower 1929: 28; Keimer 1948:
181; Thevoz 1984: 62-3). Not all Predynastic gures have patterns of lines and dots;
indeed, many have no decoration at all, while others show geometric patterns or even
zoomorphic gures. Many of these designs are very similar to those found on cross-
lined vessels dating to Naqada I, Petrie’s seriation SD 31-34. On many of the vessels,
the geometric and animal designs draw attention to musculature, movement and mo-
tion, showing zigzags, parallel lines, spirals and chevrons adjacent to the zoomorphic
gures (Magor 1999: 57).
There are many examples of footless faience gurines dating primarily to the Middle
Kingdom, which usually depict a woman in the nude or wearing just a cowrie shell gir-
dle and bead necklace, although some types depict a simple patterned sheath dress. The
nude gurines usually have an elaborate long hairstyle, often in the Hathoric manner,
with two large curls over their breasts, whereas the gurines wearing dresses usually
have a short round hairstyle. Some have been found in domestic contexts, others in
tombs. The context of some gurines which were found in domestic altars “…relates
them to this specic group of images concerned with family continuity” (Robins 1996:
Geoffrey J. Tassie
94
Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia 95
30), while those found in tombs were to aid and safeguard rebirth into the next life.
These faience gurines often display patterns that have been interpreted as tattoos
on the abdomen and arms. Lozenge shapes made up of dots or lines on the legs are
especially prominent. A faience gurine from the Brooklyn Museum of Art (cat. no.
44.226) is shown nude and with a Hathoric hairstyle. On her body is a series of dots,
many in lozenge-shaped patterns. There is one horizontal line of dots just above her
pubic triangle, which may represent tattoos (contra Bianchi 1988: 22, who sees the
pattern as invoking a cicatrix). A faience gurine of a dancing girl with a cowrie shell
girdle was found in the tomb of Neferhotep the Bowman, and was depicted as being
tattooed exactly like the mummies of the two dancers found at Deir el-Bahari (Winlock
1942: 74).
Middle Kingdom paddle dolls, spatula-like shaped wooden gures with roughly shaped
arms, frequently depict tattoos of Taweret. This hippopotamus-headed goddess was
portrayed with a lion’s arms and legs and a crocodile’s back and tail; she was a protec-
tor of women, especially during childbirth. The heads of paddle dolls are dened by
a thin neck and a large hairstyle made of strings of little mud-balls, and occasionally
eyes are painted on the face. These dolls are without legs but often show the female
genitals, even when wearing a dress. In addition to the anatomical details drawn on
these dolls in red and black, there were often zoomorphic and geomorphic patterns, and
in some instances these appear to represent tattoos. Some paddle dolls have lozenge
shapes painted on them consisting of 16 dots, similar to the tattoos on the mummies of
dancers from Deir el-Bahari. The lozenges are placed on the shoulders or arms, or in
place of or near the painted genitalia, as exemplied by Cairo Museum cat. no. 43088a.
Often, an image of Taweret is placed by the genitals on the dolls (e.g. Cairo Museum
cat. no. 43088b) (Keimer 1948: pl. XV-XVII). Crocodile tattoos can also be shown in
this protective position, near the genitalia, on Middle Kingdom paddle dolls.
Egyptian Figurines Found in Egyptian Nubia
In the New Kingdom, in addition to the traditional tattoos, images of the protective
deity Bes start to be tattooed at the top of one or both thighs, a position traditionally
occupied in the Middle Kingdom by Taweret. In the Philadelphia Museum of Art there
are two wooden statues of naked women (cat. no. 10349), originally found in a tomb in
the Egyptian town of Buhen, Nubia. They hold a fruit or ower in one hand, the other
hand hanging by their side. They are adorned with bouffant gala hairstyles, necklaces,
bracelets, cowrie shell girdles, and at the top of each thigh is depicted a tattoo of Bes
(Keimer 1948: 42).
Nubian Figurines Found in Egypt
A bronze mirror handle, currently in the Brooklyn Museum of Art (cat. no. 66.27.1), in
the shape of a young Nubian woman shows each thigh tattooed with the image of Bes
(Bianchi 1988: 25)
Bes Figures
That gures of Bes were indeed tattooed on the thighs of women in ancient Egypt (albe-
it at a later period) is supported by the nding of a tattoo of Bes on the thigh of a female
Geoffrey J. Tassie
94
Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia 95
mummy from Aksha in Nubia, dating to the fourth century BC (Vila 1967: 373). The
blue-black image is rather abstract, and executed in the puncture method (Vila 1967).
Bes, like Taweret, is a protective deity during childbirth and has been found carved on
beds and bedroom walls, on cosmetic containers and amulets. He is thought to have
evolved from a leonine deity of the Predynastic Period, and was the tutelary deity of
revelry and unbridled cavorting, which was the reason he was thought to preside at
childbirth (Romano 1982: 223-224). The tattooing of Bes has therefore been seen as an
encouragement to indulge in carnal fullment, and the wearers of such tattoos have pre-
viously been interpreted as being prostitutes wearing such charms for protection from
venereal disease (Schumann-Antelme and Rossini 2001: 68). A review of the evidence,
however, does not support this theory. The interpretive association of Bes tattoos with
prostitution is a theory originating in the Victorian era when some 19th century crimi-
nologists, following the positivist theory of the day, expounded the view that men who
mutilated their skin by tattooing indicated a mad, bad or perverted character. This was
considered the prerogative of the uneducated and criminal classes, and that a tattooed
woman must therefore be a prostitute (Fletcher 1997). This parochial Victorian view of
tattooing reects that of the Classical World which actually marked the criminals and
slaves of the day with facial tattoos (Magor 1999). The disapproval by the Christian
church of body decoration in general has also done much to degrade the practice of tat-
tooing, putting it amongst ungodly activities (Barnard 1996: 51; Jones 1987: 144).
All pictorial representations of Bes tattoos have been found on either dancers or musi-
cians from the latter part of Dynasty XVIII until the end of the New Kingdom, and al-
though they are depicted nude, this in itself is not an indicator of prostitution. Dancers
and musicians were not synonymous with prostitutes in Egypt. Dancers and musical
troupes could be attached to royal, religious and private households; music and dance
was associated with Hathor the goddess of sexuality and love (Robins 1993). Wall
paintings in tomb chapels of the elite depict nude girls in scenes of daily life, such
as banquet scenes, serving drinks and entertaining the guests who are fully clothed,
however this “mode of representation was not used to depict named formal gures
but is rather a generic image used to portray female dancers, musicians, and servants”
(Robins 1996: 30). As the formal female gures are never shown nude, it cannot be
ascertained whether or not they were tattooed. Naked adolescent girls and other sym-
bols of fertility often decorated cosmetic items such as spoons and jars and formed the
handles of mirrors, which were closely associated with Hathor (Robins 1996). These
naked girls can be seen as representing female sexuality and fertility, which is in accord
with their use as decoration on beauty items, which were later interred in the tomb, and
also served as tomb decoration, as “in all the contexts in which this motif appears it is
in association with, or as a substitute for, items that carry references to fertility, birth,
and rebirth, or to Hathor, who presided over these” (Robins 1996: 33).
Bes, through his association with fertility and reproduction, is also associated with
Hathor. However, because Bes is associated more strongly with protection during
childbirth and new mothers, it would be most probable that women had a tattoo of Bes
on their thigh to protect them from disease and complication in childbirth, as the death
Geoffrey J. Tassie
96
Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia 97
rate in childbirth proved very high for both mother and child. The association of the
birthing gods with naked women, especially those with children, suggests that the ritu-
als performed at the household altar decorated with scenes of Bes or Taweret were con-
cerned with female fertility, protection during childbirth and the child itself, and con-
tinuity of the family (Robins 1996). This does not exclude the sexual nature of music
and dance or of Bes, but the placement of the tattoo and Bes’ principal function would
seem to indicate its primary symbolic role as being that of protection and secondarily
of sexuality. One of the most impressive examples of a Bes tattoo is found on the thigh
of a lute player (a possible Priestess of Hathor due to the triple plait on the crown of
her tripartite hairstyle), depicted on a New Kingdom faience bowl now in the Leiden
Rijksmuseum van Oudbeden (cat. no. AD 14) (Bianchi 1988: 25). A naked dancer is
shown with a dark blue tattoo of Bes on each thigh on a fragment of a Dynasty XIX wall
painting found at the Workmen’s Village at Deir el-Medina (Vandier d’Abbadie 1938:
pl. III). Initially, the secular context of this painting was stressed (Vandier d’Abbadie
1938), however, the fresco originally decorated a wall to which a bench-like structure
was attached, which has been interpreted as either a shrine or as a bed to give birth
on (Bierbrier 1982). Thus, tattooing predominantly of women, and the positioning of
some tattoos, such as dot-dash designs, as well as Bes and earlier Taweret gures, on
the thighs and/or the abdomen, strongly indicate that the tattooing practice was closely
linked to female spheres of life, and indicate their possible protective functions to aid
fertility or to protect the wearer from death in childbirth.
Criteria for Identifying Ancient Egyptian Tattooing Needles
Tattooing was practised in ancient Egypt and Nubia since at least the Middle Kingdom
and the C-Group as suggested by iconographic depictions and tattooed human remains.
How can Egyptian and Nubian tattooing needles be identied in an archaeological con-
text? The salient points from the above study are:
Traces of blood or pigment on the tips of the needles.
Blind metal ne-tipped awls or needles, often tied together or
set in a handle in uneven numbers, normally between three
and seven.
Gender specicity, at least in Egypt, with the association of
the needles with women, such as in female cosmetic items.
It may not be possible to apply all criteria to a single nd, but the above list provides
standard criteria for the recognition and identication of tattooing needles in ancient
Egypt beyond mere speculation. The uneven numbering of tattooing needles – seem-
ingly following ancient number symbolism – appears as important for the identication
of tattooing tools as their shape. Context, it seems, is a further important factor in the
identication of tattooing needles. The identication of traces of pigment and/or blood
on the tips of the tools may be the most secure indicator. However, this is often pre-
vented by the poor state of preservation of such types of nds.
Geoffrey J. Tassie
96
Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia 97
Case Study: Possible Ancient Egyptian Tattooing Needles
Having reviewed the art of tattooing in ancient Egypt and Nubia, and established crite-
ria for identifying tattooing needles in archaeological contexts, these can now be tested
against tools that have been suggested as being tattooing needles. The earliest example
of a suggested tattooing needle found in Egypt dates to late Dynasty I. Petrie (1901:
24) found a microlith set in a wooden stick in the royal tombs at Abydos, and he con-
cluded that this implement was probably used for creating tattoos. However, Bianchi
(1985: 146) dismisses Petrie’s argument without further explanation, and suggests that
the tattooing instruments used by the ancient Egyptians consisted of between one and
three sh bones set in a handle. He does not provide an extant example. However, the
Abydos instrument is very similar to examples used by some traditional societies (as
mentioned above). In these cases the point is held against the skin and lightly tapped,
and the pigment is then introduced. No conclusive evidence of pigmentation or blood
on the tip of this instrument is available.
Bronze needles found by Petrie at Gurob in 1880 (Thomas 1981), dating to Dynasty
XII, and now kept at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL (cat. no. UC
7790), have been tentatively identied as tattooing needles (Booth 2001; Thomas 1981).
Petrie (1917: 51) originally described these needles as prick points for removing thorns,
due to their similarity to later Graeco-Roman prick points found in thorn-removing sets.
These bronze needles are in the form of at rectilinear pins ranging from 34-51mm in
length, with the tips folded over to form a point. Seven examples were found, three tied
together and four separately, the fourth of which also showed signs of a thread being
attached to it (Booth 2001; Petrie 1917). Booth identied these as pins primarily due to
their association with cosmetic items and ne pottery ware, and their apparent special-
ised function (Booth 2001: 14). However, Booth neither utilises the many ethnohistoric
descriptions of the act of tattooing in Egypt, nor does she consult Bianchi (1985, 1988,
1996), the leading modern authority on ancient Egyptian tattooing. Although Booth
presupposes the use of these metal rods, and produces very little evidence in support
of this deduction, her conclusion is not necessarily wrong. That seven metal rods were
found together associated with cosmetic items is a compelling argument, given the
criteria for tattooing needles set out above. However, most tattooing needles used by
traditional societies are more needle or awl-like (Keimer 1948; Bianchi 1988, 1996),
rather than at. Additionally, the uneven lengths and the lack of sharpness of the points
make these examples unsuitable as tattooing needles. Therefore, the use of these tools
must still be in question.
During the 1998/9 eld season at Kafr Hassan Dawood (KHD), a Late Predynastic to
Early Dynastic cemetery site (c.3200 BC) in the East Delta of Egypt (Hassan 2000;
Hassan et al. in press), ve metal rods or awls were discovered (Fig. 3 and inset), the
context and association of which may indicate their use as tattooing needles. The ve
metal rods were found in Grave 1027, a disturbed, multiple burial that lay partly beneath
and was cut by Grave 1015, a secondary multiple inhumation. The osteological mate-
rial from Grave 1027 was examined by Teri L. Tucker (Washington State University)
and Simon Hillson (UCL), who identied the skeletal remains of two individuals, a
male and a female both aged 25-35 years. The highest elevation in the northern part of
the burial was heavily disturbed; however, the southeastern portion of the grave which
Geoffrey J. Tassie
98
Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia 99
contained the post-cranial articulated skeletal remains of the female burial were undis-
turbed. The skeleton was in the exed position lying on its right side, oriented east-
west with head west, facing south. The grave goods included two ne-ware pots: one
small bowl and a larger ceramic jar with a potmark. Several other goods were found in
the southeastern part of the grave, associated with the undisturbed portion of the female
inhumation. The ve metal rods (nd no. 3075), measuring approximately 75mm in
length and 2mm in diameter, were found compacted together in apparent association
with four int blades (nd nos. 3062-65) between the female’s tibia and bula. Other
grave items included small beads of semi-precious stones.
The metal rods appear to be corroded and are brittle and extensively broken. There
were three differently-styled hemispherical heads amongst the ve metal rods, which
all tapered to a point at the other end: one was eyed, another had a notch and the three
remaining ones were plain. Some surface areas were covered by preserved organic re-
mains which appeared to be associated with the rods, and may have consisted of a reed
or rush-like material into which at least three of the rods were inserted or wrapped, and
with which they appeared to be tied together. Amanda Sutherland (English Heritage
and KHD archaeological conservator) examined the ve metal rods under 10x magni-
cation. The nature of the corrosion products was unusual in structure and colour, the
cross-section being composed of compacted blackish-grey crystalline corrosion retain-
ing the original surface, covered by hard dark green corrosion products. Quantitative
analysis revealed the metal to be composed of virtually pure copper. At KHD it is
unlikely that any organic residues (i.e. those of the carrying medium such as oils, fats or
waxes) would have survived the strongly alkaline burial conditions and remain adhered
Figure 3. The metal rods excavated form KHD, nd no. 3075 (photograph Joris van
Wetering; inset drawing by Serena Langousa not to scale).
Geoffrey J. Tassie
98
Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia 99
to the points of the metal rods. Likewise any traces of charcoal or pigment used to cre-
ate the tattoos are likely to have been washed away during burial.
These artefacts could have been used as a leather working set, with the eyed needle
used for sewing, the lithic blades used for cutting and the three awls used for piercing.
The notched awl may have been used as a crochet hook, possibly for making ne mesh
netting. However, because of their shape, association, number and context, the rods
could also be identied as tattooing needles. The association of the metal awls with
the female burial of Grave 1027, and the fact that at least three appear to have been
tied together and associated with the lithic blades (which may also have been used in
tattooing), seems to indicate their possible use as tattooing needles. That there were
ve needles is also indicative of a tattooing set; that one of them has an eye and another
a notch may simply indicate re-use of an object. Traces of pigmnent and/or blood on
the tips of the needles could put the question of use beyond doubt; unfortunately, such
traces are not preserved at KHD.
Conclusion
From at least 2000 BC, evidence indicates that Nubian and Egyptian women were tat-
tooed. These tattoos seem to have been primarily concerned with anxiety about fertility,
as well as protection during childbirth, and were also linked with Hathor and therefore,
sex, love, music and dance. Although there has been much discussion as to whether or
not the Predynastic Egyptians practised tattooing, no physical evidence has been recov-
ered, and it was left to scholars to give their various interpretations of the patterns on
Predynastic gurines (Bianchi 1988, 1996; Fletcher 1997; Hornblower 1929; Keimer
1948; Petrie and Quibell 1896; Smith 1911); most concluded that the geometric designs
on Predynastic gurines did not constitute conclusive evidence of tattooing. However,
the discovery of three tattooed mummies at Deir el-Bahari seems to provide physical
evidence demonstrating that tattooing took place in ancient Egypt in Dynasty XI – if
the mummies are accepted to be culturally Egyptian rather than Nubian women. The
identication of tattooing needles in archaeological contexts would help to provide a
fuller picture of this practice. However, if the evidence for tattooing needles, as argued
here, is indeed as much a matter of context as of form, then many tattooing needles may
have been overlooked in past archaeological investigations. Some of the many awls and
needles found on archaeological sites may in fact have been used as tattooing needles.
Although the metal rods found at KHD are not unequivocal proof of Predynastic tattoo-
ing needles, criteria for identifying tattooing needles have been now put forward.
Acknowledgements
I would like to acknowledge the help of Prof. F. A. Hassan (KHD Director), and the
whole team of archaeologists at KHD, especially Joanne M. Rowland, for their insights
and scientic knowledge, and also express my appreciation to Janet M. Johnstone and
Jack Green for imparting certain information to me.
Geoffrey J. Tassie
100
Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia
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101
... In an effort to understand the time depth associated with tattooing, scholars must instead turn to the archeological record. There are three principal lines of archeological evidence for tattooing in ancient and pre-literate societies: Anthropomorphic art, tattoo tools, and preserved human skin (Deter-Wolf, 2013 and Tassie, 2003). The first two lines of evidence allow for some conjecture as to the antiquity of tattooing and suggest the practice may have originated at least as early as the Upper Paleolithic. ...
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... Microscopic examination of the fi ve needles or rods (KHD3075) from grave 1027 revealed them to be completely mineralised, very brittle and extensively broken. Th ree of them had diff erently-styled heads (Tassie 2003). Some areas of the surfaces were covered by preserved organic remains that appeared to be associated and may have consisted of a reed or rush-like material into which they may have been inserted or wrapped. ...
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Continued analysis of material – primarily ceramic – excavated during the 1990s at the Predynastic to Early Dynastic cemetery site of Kafr Hassan Dawood (KHD) in the Wadi Tumilat has allowed seven phases of use to be identified. This process has been greatly helped by the acquisition of further archival material of the 1989 to 1995 excavations. The assigning of these phases was also aided by the dating of tephra from a layer covering First Dynasty graves; it has provided a terminus post quem for certain graves dug into this layer in the south of the site that did not have any grave goods and has also given a terminus ante quem for all the graves below this layer. Archaeometallurgical analysis of a copper bowl from grave 913 has shown that it was made of arsenical copper, which probably came from the Sinai. The large amount of copper artefacts found at KHD may indicate its function as a node on the interregional exchange network between the Sinai and the Memphite region.
... Fransız antropolog Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009, "Yapısalcı Antropoloji" adlı ünlü eserinde, Maori dövmelerinden söz ederken "Dövme, yalnızca bedene [basit] bir resim işlemek değil; grubun bütün geleneklerini ve felsefesini [adeta] zihne kazımaktır." (Levi-Strauss, 1963: 257;2012: 368) demektedir. ...
... Remains recovered from Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska (Smith & Zimmerman 1975) and Greenland (Hansen et al. 1991) provide evidence of ancient tattooing in the Arctic Circle, while famous examples from the Altai Mountains (Barkova & Pankova 2005; see also this volume), and the "ice man" of the Ötztal Alps (Spindler 1994) reveal ancient decorative and therapeutic tattoo traditions in Europe and Central Asia. Other examples of tattooed mummies have also been recovered in western China (Mallory & Mair 2000), and northern Africa (Tassie 2003). ...
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Although tattooing existed throughout the ancient world, there have been few archaeological identifications of actual tattoo implements outside of Oceania. This chapter discusses the archaeological footprint of ancient tattooing and uses cross-cultural comparative ethnographies to examine the material culture of the practice. These data show that identifying tattoo tools in an archaeological setting requires convincing association of those materials with pigments, supported by various additional items from a tattoo toolkit. Applying these associations to the archaeological record allows for identification of the oldest potential tattoo tools to date and suggests tattooing originated during the Middle Stone Age in southern Africa.
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