Ancient Tats

I’ve written before about the increasing number of tattoos you see these days — with reports estimating that about one-third of Americans are sporting ink — and what a cultural change it represents from the United States of my youth. (Arrows and infinity signs are popular these days, by the way.)

It turns out, though, that the current craze for “body art” has a very ancient lineage — and its known history has just gotten even older.

telemmglpict000155855176_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqmkujzfylr8qfmlqp7nvuva3q8tt5y4yc6db7uimlx80Researchers recently determined that two Egyptian mummies in the British Museum have tattoos.  The mummies are 5,000 years old and date back to pre-dynastic Egypt, which pushes the date of the earliest known use of figurative body art, rather than geometric patterns, back by an additional 1,000 years.  One of the mummies is a woman who has a series of four “s” shapes — perhaps coiled snakes? — inked on her shoulder, which may have been symbols of status, bravery, and magical knowledge.  The other mummy is a man who has depictions of a wild bull and a sheep on his upper arm.  The bull figure was supposed to denote power and virility, but it apparently didn’t help the male mummy, who died of a stab wound to the back when he was between 18 and 21 years old.

The markings were made using a technique that would be considered incredibly crude by modern standards.  The British Museum thinks the tattoos were produced using soot as the coloring agent and needles of copper or bone to insert the soot under the skin.

There’s no way to know, of course, whether figurative tattoos have an even more ancient history, because we don’t have preserved bodies going back 10,000 years.  The discoveries of cave paintings made by the earliest human ancestors, however, suggests to me that the creation of figurative art is instinctive and has played a key role in human development.  It just makes sense that the cave painters would also have experimented with decorating an actual body or two.  I’d bet that if you invented a time machine and went back to check out the humans of 10,000 or 15,000 years ago, you’d see your fair share of ink.


Some Piercing Observations On Body Art

Recently I went to the doctor’s office for a check-up.  As the nurse wrapped the blood pressure cuff on my arm, I noticed she had some kind of tattoo on the inside of her right wrist.  It appeared to fall onto the tasteful end of the broad spectrum of tattoos, but still it was jangling and discordant — like hearing a hockey player speak with a British accent or meeting an accountant who snapped his gum and had his hair fashioned into spikes.

Body art is one of the most ancient forms of human expression and individuality.  Different human cultures have often featured tattoo art, piercings, and other forms of ritual interference with normal body appearance — like using rings to stretch necks or wrapping female feet to keep them appropriately dainty (and crippled).  But as civilization moved forward, extensive tattoos were relegated to harpoon throwers and sideshow attractions.

It’s odd that such practices have had a seeming resurgence in modern times.  I suppose I can appreciate the impulse to get a tattoo that attests your devotion to a particular individual or branch of the military, but I can’t understand what would motivate 21st-century Americans to cover their bodies with writhing snakes, angry eagles, barbed wires, and skulls, or put a bolt in their nose, a ball through their tongue, or a ring or chain through other tender body parts.

When I see people with ornate body art I wonder what deep back story might be at play that would cause them to endure the countless painful needle pricks, skin cutting, and other forms of self-mutilation needed to produce their current appearance.  They seem to be making a sad cry for attention that they would not receive otherwise — and I confess that I draw inferences about their neediness, their judgment, and their impulsiveness.

Elaborate tattoos and nose studs might be fine on NBA players, punk rockers, and unisex hair salon workers, but I don’t think I’d vote for a presidential candidate with an ear ring and face tattoo.