Technology reveals the secrets of ancient Egyptian tattoos

Researchers use infrared technology on ancient Egyptian mummies to detect tattoos invisible to the naked eye.
Paul Ratner
Tattoos found on a mummy's neck at Deir el-Medina
Tattoos found on a mummy's neck at Deir el-Medina.

Anne Austin/University of Missouri-St. Louis, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (2022).  

  • Tattooing your body is not just a modern rage but has apparently been popular for thousands of years.
  • Scientists found evidence of tattoos while studying female mummies from the Egyptian town of Deir el-Medina.
  • They uncovered the likely reasons why the women got them. 

Deir el-Medina was actively populated from around 1550 to 1070 BC. It is thought to have been a settlement for craftsmen who labored on the royal tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings, and was rediscovered by archaeologists in the early 1920s. Prior research revealed that the town was well-planned, with streets in a rectangular grid. The site also offered a so-called Great Pit, a dump of ancient papyrus pay stubs, receipts, letters, and other documents. The site has proven invaluable in understanding the daily lives of the people of Deir el-Medina, but clearly, some of the community’s secrets stayed hidden until now.

Tattoos uncovered

A new study, published in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, identified tattoos on two mummies found in the village’s tombs. It was authored by researchers Anne Austin (University of Missouri at Saint Louis) and Marie-Lys Arnette (Johns Hopkins University). One of the mummies came from a looted tomb and had already been unwrapped. Examining the mummified skin, the researchers came across the first tattoo on the lower back, which appeared to show a bowl, a purification ritual, and the Egyptian god Bes. This god was known for protecting women and children, with a particular focus on childbirth.

Because the second mummy was still wrapped, researchers analyzed it via infrared photography. It’s worth noting that archaeologists do not unwrap mummies at this point in time. The mummy turned out to be of a middle-aged woman and featured a different tattoo — a wedjat, or eye of Horus, and again an image of the god Bes, but now with a crown of feathers. The scientists also spotted a zigzag line below the other figures that probably depicted a marsh, which was associated with cooling waters used to relieve pain from menstruation or childbirth, as the researchers deduced from ancient medical texts. They propose that the two tattoos were essentially a request by the wearer for protection during childbirth.

Technology reveals the secrets of ancient Egyptian tattoos
Reconstructed ancient Egyptian tattoo on lower torso

Credit: Anne Austin/University of Missouri-St. Louis, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (2022).

As the scientists write in their paper, "when placed in context with New Kingdom artifacts and texts, these tattoos and representations of tattoos would have visually connected with imagery referencing women as sexual partners, pregnant, midwives, and mothers participating in the post-partum rituals used for protection of the mother and child."

The site also contained three clay figurines with tattoos of the god Bes on women’s lower back and upper thighs.

The oldest tattoos

If you're wondering what the oldest figurative tattoos are (depicting objects or beings rather than geometric shapes) -- those also hail from ancient Egypt. In a 2018 study, scientists used infrared imaging to determine that a pair of 5,000-year-old mummies from the once-existing city of Gebelein were tattooed.

The male mummy featured images of a Barbary sheep and a wild bull with horns (likely symbolizing strength and bravery), while a female mummy had a design that looked like the batons utilized in rituals. The researchers concluded that the tattoos were made by inserting ink under the skin, likely using a copper needle or bone and soot from a fire.

An Interview with a bioarchaeologist

Interesting Engineering (IE) reached out to Professor Austin, a bioarchaeologist, for more details on their work. The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Interesting Engineering: What technology was used to discover the tattoos on mummified remains? Why are the mummies no longer unwrapped?

Professor Austin: The individuals were commingled and no longer wrapped because of extensive looting long before our arrival. That allowed us to see the skin directly, but mummification and millennia take their toll on skin and make the tattoos, in some cases, difficult or impossible to see. Through infrared photography, we were able to detect tattoos otherwise invisible to the naked eye

Technology reveals the secrets of ancient Egyptian tattoos
A hip bone tattoo of a mummified Egyptian woman from Deir el-Medina

IE: How did you connect the tattoos to the practice of asking for protection during childbirth?

The deities, animals, and symbols tattooed on these women’s bodies are ones we know from other artifacts and scenes in Egypt during this time. When we look at where and how those appear, we find many connected with protections for women during and after childbirth.

IE: Are tattoos common on mummified remains from ancient Egypt? How widespread was the practice of tattooing in their society?

Previously, we had almost no direct evidence of tattooing in ancient Egypt. Very few ancient Egyptians were found with tattoos, and depictions of tattoos in art were ambiguous. However, we also often did not know how to look for tattoos on mummified skin, and the more we look, the more evidence we are finding at Deir el-Medina. So, at least in this village, tattooing appears on women and was much more common than we thought. Time will tell if this place is unusual and exceptional, or if tattooing is a wider spread practice in ancient Egypt.

Study abstract:

This article offers the first publication of the mummified remains of two tattooed women in conjunction with three unpublished figurines with tattoo motifs from Deir el-Medina. Several recurrent motifs are shared between these women and the figurines, including the use of Bes-images, Nilotic elements, and points at the neck. These themes also appear in previously published tattooed figurines, so-called cosmetic spoons, and paintings. In some cases, the figurines and the women even share the same location of the tattoos on their body, suggesting that the combined location and tattoo motifs are integral to their function and/or meaning. Through linking tattooing on human remains with figurines, our work evaluates when we can interpret markings on figurines as tattooing while also exploring potential explanations for the tattoo motifs. To do so, we connect these new examples with texts and material culture that would have been accessible to the people of Deir el-Medina.

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