British Museum blog

Tattoos in ancient Egypt and Sudan

Marie Vandenbeusch, curator, British Museum

View of the Nile, Fourth Cataract region, before the building of the dam. Photo © Derek Welsby

View of the Nile, Fourth Cataract region, before the building of the dam. Photo © Derek Welsby

One of the eight mummies that are the subject of the exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries, the mummy of a woman from Sudan, was discovered relatively recently, compared to the others. Her body was found in 2005, during rescue excavations taking place in the area of the Fourth Nile Cataract, where the building of a dam threatened to flood archaeological sites. The collection of over a thousand human remains excavated during the mission was donated by the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (Sudan) to the Sudan Archaeological Research Society, which then gave them to the British Museum. Arid climate and hot sand had naturally mummified some of these bodies, including the remains of this woman. Her soft tissues are so well preserved that conservators at the British Museum located a tattoo and other marks on her skin.

Evidence for tattooing in ancient Egypt and in Nubia is scarce, and human remains do not provide any indication of the frequency of the tattoos themselves: because of their location directly on the skin they are usually either not preserved or hidden by bandages. The first tangible examples of Egyptian tattoos date back to the Middle Kingdom (about 2000 BC): several tattooed mummies of women were found at Deir el-Bahari. The markings mainly consist of dots and dashes, often grouped into geometrical patterns, such as lozenges, and are usually placed on the chest, the abdomen, the arms or the legs.

Faience statuette of a woman with body decoration which has sometimes been identified as tattoos (Paris, Musée du Louvre, E 10942). Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christian

Faience statuette of a woman with body decoration which has sometimes been identified as tattoos (Paris, Musée du Louvre, E 10942). Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christian Decamps

Although tattoos are rare on human remains, they seem to be more frequent on female representations. The geometrical decorations commonly adorning Middle Kingdom statuettes are very similar to tattoos found on the mummies of women who lived at the same period. However, the debate about their identification as tattoos is still open and recent discoveries regularly bring new insights to these questions.

Faience wine bowl with female lute player. Egypt, around 1400–1300 BC. National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden (AD 14)

Faience wine bowl with female lute player. Egypt, around 1400–1300 BC. Photo by permission of National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden (AD 14)

Both human remains and decorated figurines take us to the world of dancers and musicians. One of the mummies from Deir el-Bahari is thought to be a priestess of the goddess Hathor, whose patronage of music and dance is well established. There are also depictions showing a figure of the god Bes on the thigh of young ladies who appear to be dancers and musicians. This is not surprising when we consider that Bes, a god who protected the household and the family, was also associated with music and dance. The implicit eroticism symbolised by Bes in connection with these naked dancers seems to be also conveyed by the presence of tattoos.

Tattoo depicting a monogram of Saint Michael on the inner thigh of the woman from Sudan

Tattoo depicting a monogram of Saint Michael on the inner thigh of the woman from Sudan

As is still the case today, the meaning and function of tattoos can vary, some showing affiliation to a social group, others having medical or protective purposes. The naturally mummified woman from Sudan in the exhibition bears a monogram of St Michael tattooed on her inner thigh. It combines in one symbol the letters forming the name Michael (MIXAHΛ) in Greek or Coptic (both languages use a very similar alphabet). The monogram is topped with a cross. The tattoo suggests that the woman was of Christian faith, and may indicate that she hoped to place herself under the protection of the Archangel – one of the patron saints of Nubia.

The monogram of St Michael is already known in other contexts, in particular in Nubia where both the monogram and the representation of the Archangel were drawn on the walls of churches or incised on pottery, but its use as a tattoo was an unexpected discovery. We can interpret the tattoo as an invocation to the saint, but it was also a way of demonstrating one’s faith. Tattoos are still used in this way by Copts who often bear a small cross inside the wrist as a spiritual symbol of their affiliation to a community.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung.

The exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, is available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

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