The once-hidden tattoos of ancient Egyptian mummies are now being revealed to Egyptologists using novel infrared technology, allowing a glimpse into how members of the 3,000-year-old society once lived and worked.
Similar tattoos were previously identified by archaeologist Anne Austin in a study published in 2017, which described identifiable symbols of religious connotation as well as representations of floral motifs, animals, and deities. At the time, photography measures revealed dozens of tattoos were on the neck, shoulders, arms, and back of the mummy including a “pair of lotus blossom tattoos” connected by a dotted line on a woman’s hips. It was determined that all tattoos were made prior to mummification and in places requiring that someone else apply them.
“In 2014, the mission of the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale (IFAO) identified an extensively tattooed mummy from the necropolis at Deir el-Medina, the community of the workmen who cut and decorated the New Kingdom’s royal tombs,” reads the new paper’s abstract. “Since then, we have identified several other individuals with tattoos among the many unpublished human remains at the site.”
Austin and her team examined the mummies in 2016 and again this year. The new findings presented at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research identify tattooed individuals in addition to those previously described. However, researchers are not yet able to identify the symbols or what they may have been used for and the identities of the mummies remain unknown.
“The distribution, display, and content of these tattoos reveal how they were used both in religious practice and to forge permanent, public identities,” the researchers write in the paper. “The extensive tattoos on one female mummy demonstrates the use of tattoos for identifying and enabling this woman to act as a key religious practitioner to the Deir el-Medina community.”
Designs and placement of the tattoos vary broadly between individuals, but the number of tattoos discovered suggests that the practice was likely a large part of the Deir el-Medina culture. Together, the findings offer some of the “most comprehensive evidence we have to date of the practice of tattooing in ancient Egypt.”
Egyptologists have identified tattoos on only a handful of mummies spanning Pharaonic Egypt’s more than 3,000-year history and little is known about the importance of the practice in Ancient Egypt. Researchers discovered what are thought to be the oldest figurative tattoos ever on two Egyptian mummies housed in the British Museum, London, dating back around 5,300 years.
Deir El-Medina was once an ancient village home to craftsmen who built the royal tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens, according to Ancient History Encyclopedia. Unlike many other civilizations of the time, Deir El-Medina was a community planned for the purpose of housing the workers who were known as “Servants in the Place of Truth”.
The site has been excavated since the early 20th century and provides a wealth of information on the daily life of people who lived there, as well as their role in constructing the eternal resting places of royalty.