Tattoo Origins: Egypt
Evidence of tattooing can be found on almost every continent, and throughout the history of nearly every culture. The oldest known evidence of tattooing practices were Egyptian, with the earliest known artefacts that depicted tattoos being that of clay figurines that date back nearly 4000 years.
Mummified egyptian remains with intact tattoos date back from 2000BCE to as early as 700CE. Making Egyptians the oldest known tattooed society. That was until 1991, when German hikers discovered Otzi the 5,300 year old tattooed iceman in the Otzal alps near the Italian-Austrian border. So, while Egyptians may not be the oldest tattooed culture, they do have the strongest collaboration of evidence proving tattooing to be an important part of their ancient civilization.
Clay figurines depict females adorned with tattoo like markings decorated with complex arrangements of dots, dashes and occasionally an abstract figure representing deities, demigods, or amulets.
The art of Egyptian tattooing was found primarily on the mummified remains of females. Early archeologist surmised that mummification was not only for the more affluent Egyptians, but for the common woman as well. They believed the tattoos to be a sign of property marking, such as one would use to mark a slave. For this reason, many tattooed mummified remains of females were dismissed as an insignificant find. That was until the discovery of one of the best preserved mummified remains, found in the ancient city of Thebes.
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Dating back to 2000BCE during the XI Dynasty of Egypt, the tomb would identity the woman as Amunet, High-Priestess of Hathor and royal concubine of Pharaoh Mentuhotep II. Intricate designs of parallel lines on her back, arms and thighs and an elliptical pattern of dots covering the stomach and pelvic region.
Amunet changed scientists views on the practice of ancient Egyptian tattooing. Once believed to be the mark of slavery or prostitution. It was believed that the tattoos were a way to help protect the woman from venarial disease or violent men. Amunet's tattoos made scientists re-theorize the symbolic meaning of these ancient tattoos.
The pattern series of dots that adorned Amunet's stomach and many of her female counter parts have led many to believe that the tattoos have protective and fertility promoting purposes. The pattern of dots on and around the umbilical region closely resemble a type of beaded net used when wrapping the deceased for the mummification process. The net was used to keep all the parts inside the wrap. The tattoo would expand during pregnancy revealing an intricate design that resembles a web or net, believed to help keep the fetus inside. It is also believed that the pattern of dots is linked to the primal female power of the universe, or the Great Mother.
As Egyptian culture would advance around 1300BCE tattooing would also advance. From complex abstract patterns to pictographs. The pictographs often depicted goddesses, gods, or demigods. Popular amongst the Egyptian women of this time period was a depiction of Neith the Egyptian Goddess of war.
The earliest known Egyptian tattoo that was not an abstract image of lines and dots or pictographs, was the image of the demigod Bes. Pictured above the plate is a representative of a woman with Bes tattooed on her upper thigh. The image of Bes is often represented in many Egyptian paintings as a tattoo on the thigh of dancers and musicians. Bes the half dwarf-half lion is one of the few demigods shown from the front view as opposed to only a profile view. Bes was known for being a protector of home, women and children. For this reason Bes was a common fixture in ancient Egyptian culture. Depicted not only in tattoo, but painted on walls, carved into headboards and worn as jewellery.
By 700CE Christianity and Greek culture had made a tremendous impact and Egypt had a fairly large amount of Christian followers. Depicted above and below is a photo of tattoo from a female thigh, written in ancient Greek and translated as M-I-X-A-H-A or Michael. Believed to possibly be the first biblical reference tattoo it is a depiction of the name of the Archangel Michael.
Egypt has a long history of tattooing as an important part of it's culture. Evidence of tattooing in Egypt dates back as far as 4000years. To the more recent discovery of ancient Egyptian mummified remains dating 700CE displaying a tattoo of Greek and Christian influences. Just more evidence that tattoos may truly be the oldest practices of mankind still being used today.