What do a young mother in New Kingdom-era Ancient Egypt, Ötzi the Iceman, and Britney Spears have in common? Lower back tattoos.
Deir el-Medina, in Upper Egypt – which, somewhat confusingly, refers to the southern portion of the country – is rather different from the stereotypical Ancient Egyptian archeological site. It wasn’t built in honor of any pharaoh or god, and it doesn’t memorialize any grand military victory – instead, it was home to the workers and artisans who built the nearby Valley of the Kings.
As such, it gives us a rare chance to see what life was like for ordinary people all those millennia ago. Excavations have uncovered glimpses at how these ancient laborers lived, how they died, and how they got into trouble with their bosses for inappropriate work conduct.
And a new study from archeologists Anne Austin and Marie-Lys Arnette has revealed insights into an even more intimate area of human life: the birthing room.
“Childbirth was clearly an important and dangerous experience for women,” Austin told IFLScience, “including the dangers both before and after birth.”
For most of human history, childbirth was one of the most dangerous things a person could do in life, killing up to about one in twenty of those who went through it. In an era long before germ theory and antibiotics, people turned to anything – be it folk remedies, prayer, or flat-out magic incantations – that might protect their wives and mothers during this scary time.
For Ancient Egyptians, it seems their lucky charms may have been tattoos.
“Our most recent discoveries of tattoos in figurines and mummified remains all connect to symbols and gods related to protection of mothers, children, and childbirth,” Austin explained. “So one possibility is these tattoos could have served as protections before, during, or after childbirth.”
You probably don’t associate the Ancient Egyptians with the early-2000s trend disparagingly known as the “tramp stamp” – but for most of these newly-discovered tats, that’s pretty much what they were. Wide, symmetrical ink designs decorate the bodies of mummified women at the site, calling on gods and symbols to protect the wearer during and after childbirth – some sit in the classic “I drank fourteen shots of tequila at a sorority party and all I got was this Tinkerbell tattoo” position just above the butt, while others can be found on the inner thighs.
Still others may have been found elsewhere on the ancient women’s bodies – but since modern archeologists no longer unwrap mummies, physical evidence for the tradition can only be found accidentally, after past looters have already bungled the remains and left skin exposed.
“We have… found so much variation in the tattoos themselves,” Austin told IFLScience. “Even if we find the same design, it does not always appear on the same place on the body.”
“In the human remains, we have only found evidence of tattoos on adult, Egyptian women during the New Kingdom, but some depictions show tattoos on younger women,” she added. “So while the practice is clearly gendered, we are still trying to understand the role tattoos played in this Egyptian village.”
Of course, as much as tattoos may be seen as a modern phenomenon, the truth is that the impulse to decorate our bodies with ink has been ubiquitous throughout human history. In fact, the curious thing about this new discovery is not necessarily that the Ancient Egyptians had these tattoos, Austin told IFLScience, but the fact that we haven't seen much evidence for them before.
“We only have very limited evidence of tattoos across Pharaonic Egypt, so it doesn’t seem like they were common, but we are also just now starting to research tattoos,” she explained. But “the more examples of tattooing I find, the more I am struck by how biased our historical records are in telling us about daily life,” she added. “This village is one of the most well-documented sites in ancient Egypt, and yet the texts never mention tattooing.”
That makes the discovery of the tattooed mummies something of a double revelation. In their paper, Austin and Arnette have discovered something close to unique: a practice that we barely knew existed, among a population rarely heard from in the historical record.
“As a practice for women, tattooing reveals some of the issues important to women in this village and their roles dealing with these issues,” Austin told IFLScience. “The tattoos give us one way to see that when texts are relatively silent.”
The study is published in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology.