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Monday, March 12, 2018

Scribal Spotlight: Tattooing in Ancient Nubia - Nile Scribes

Scribal Spotlight: Tattooing in Ancient Nubia

Earlier this month, the British Museum revealed a new discovery on their blog of previously unknown tattoos on two Egyptian mummies in their collection. Following this exciting find, the Nile Scribes have asked Erin Ingram to tell our readers more about tattooing in the ancient world for our next 'Scribal Spotlight.'

Guest scribe: Erin Ingram

Egyptian Mummies in the News

Researchers recently discovered that two 5,000 year old Egyptian mummies from Gebelein in the British Museum bear the world's earliest figural tattoos.  They tentatively identified these on 'Gebelein Man A' as a wild bull and a Barbary sheep, and the figures on 'Gebelein Woman' as an S-shaped motif and a crooked stave, throw-stick, or baton (1).

Egyptologists previously believed that tattoos carried a fertility or erotic significance and applied only to women in ancient Egypt — a belief that is now challenged by these new findings.  Friedman points out that the wild bull was a symbol of male potency in ancient Egypt and explain that this man died from a stab wound, possibly indicating involvement in the conflicts occurring ca. 3,100 BC (1). They suggest that 'Gebelein Woman's' tattoos, on the other hand, may indicate "ceremonial or ritual" involvement based on their similarities to motifs on Predynastic ceramics, figurines, and a tattoo from the late New Kingdom (1,539-1,077 BC).

How were tattoos applied in ancient times?

As today, tattoos were applied using many different methods.  Three major techniques have been suggested: one which employed the use of a needle threaded with pigment-coated twin or sinew, one which involved puncturing the skin with a needle coated in pigment, and the last which involved rubbing pigment into an open wound (2).  These tattoos could have been applied using bronze needles, fish bones, or acacia thorns (3). Although the pigment used in such tattoos has not been identified, it is generally presumed to be soot (4). Friedman notes that the infrared signature of the Gebelein tattoos, though not yet tested, indicate a carbon-based pigment (1).  The benefit of using soot was that it had antiseptic properties, which helped in the prevention of infection.

Bronze points from Gurob, interpreted by C. Booth as tattooing needles (3) (Photo: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL)

With this interesting recent discovery on Egyptian mummies, I thought it would be relevant to discuss tattooing practices further south.  Tattoos have been found on Nubian remains from C-Group (2,500-1,500/1,100 BC) and Meroitic (300 BC-AD 350) cemeteries at sites including Hierakonpolis, Kubban, Semna South, and Aksha.  The majority of these tattooed individuals are adult women, though men and adolescents were also tattooed.  Their tattoos were applied anywhere from the thighs to the head and are mostly abstract geometric motifs.

Meroitic Tattoos from Aksha

However, like the Predynastic Egyptian mummies in the British Museum, there are a few individuals bearing figural tattoos. These individuals, an adult woman and an adolescent of uncertain sex, were discovered at the Meroitic cemetery of Aksha by André Vila (5). The identification of their three figural tattoos is debated.

The first appears to be an anthropomorphic figure, possibly identified as the god Bes. This would imply an association with fertility and childbirth. However, unless he's holding something in his hand(s), Bes is generally depicted with his arms down by his sides.  The upward arms may indicate jubilation, though the motif is simply too abstract to identify it with any certainty.

Meroitic Figural Tattoos from Aksha (Photo: author's illustrations after Vila 1967)

The second tattooed motif from Aksha is unidentified, but may represent a plant or flying birds (6). If indeed it represents a plant, vegetation was a symbol of fertility, regeneration, and life in ancient Egypt—could it have had the same significance in Nubia? Lastly, the third motif was identified by Vila as a row of ostriches (5). Birds in general were an essential component of life along the Nile. Ostrich feathers appear in Egyptian depictions of Nubians bringing tribute, and ostrich eggs appear in Predynastic tomb assemblages. However, because of the uncertainty surrounding the identification of these motifs, the significance of these figural tattoos is up for deliberation.

Neolithic figurines from el-Kadada (Photo: author's illustrations after photos by Jürgen Liepe)

Geometric tattoos

If these figural motifs are hard to identify, the geometric motifs are significantly more difficult to interpret.  These often consist of groupings of dots in the form of lozenges and zig-zag lines.  It has been suggested that dotted tattoos in Egypt, possibly applied using tattoo-needle bundles, conveyed number symbolism (2).  Groupings of 9 or 12 dots do occur in diamond- and lozenge-shaped motifs on some Nubian examples, however, the number of dots is mostly inconsistent across a single body.  Similar decoration appears on Neolithic figurines from sites throughout Nubia.  They may have served to indicate group affiliation, significant life events, beautification, or medical concerns (such as eye disease) (7).  A man from Aksha was found to have several geometric facial tattoos, which could have served any of the above listed functions.

Reconstruction of tattoos on man from Aksha (Photo: author's illustration after Vila 1967)

Unfortunately, studies of tattooing in the ancient world are limited by the available evidence.  Even in cases where skin is preserved, it is often only partially preserved.  Additionally, these tattoos can be difficult to spot with the naked eye—a challenge highlighted by the fact that 'Gebelein Man A' has been displayed "almost continuously since his discovery over 100 years ago" (1) and it is only now that his tattoos have been recognised.  Hopefully, with the increasing use of infrared technology in museums, more tattoos can be identified on human remains from Egypt and Nubia, so that we can build a better understanding of their importance across thousands of years of ancient history.

Erin Ingram is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto in the Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations department. Her article on tattooing and scarification practices in ancient Nubia will be published in the next issue of Beiträge zur Sudanforschung. Her dissertation research focuses on heart scarabs and their role in the funerary beliefs of the ancient Egyptians.


  1. Friedman, R., et al., "Natural mummies from Predynastic Egypt reveal the world's earliest figural tattoos," Journal of Archaeological Science XXX (2018, in press): 1-10.
  2. Tassie, G. J., "Identifying the Practice of Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia," Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 14 (2003): 85-101.
  3. Booth, C., "Possible tattooing instruments in the Petrie Museum," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 87 (2001): 172-175.
  4. Poon, K. W. C. and T. I. Quickenden, "A Review of Tattooing in Ancient Egypt," The Bulletin of the Australian Centre for Egyptology 17 (2006): 123-136; Poon, K. W. C., In situ chemical analysis of tattooing inks and pigments: Modern organic and traditional pigments in ancient mummified remains, PhD diss., University of Western Australia., 2008, 283-284.
  5. Vila, A., Aksha II: Le Cimetière Méroïtique d'Aksha, Paris, 1967.
  6. Ingram, E., "Tattooing and Scarification in Ancient Nubia: Teenage Rebellion or Cultural Norm?" Beiträge zur Sudanforschung 12 (2018, in press): 79-107.
  7. Kendall, T., "Scarification in the Nile Valley from Antiquity to the Present," in T. Celenko (ed.), Egypt in Africa, 84-86, Indianapolis, 1996.

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