Skin Seamstresses and Healing Tattoos of the Ancient World
Ötzi, known as the “Iceman,” is a heavily tattooed mummified male, who lived approximately 5,300 years ago in the Ötztal Alps. Scientific analysis of his remains suggests that he had rheumatism as well as a whipworm infection, which likely caused him significant discomfort toward the end of his life. Interestingly, of his 57 tattoos, 80% are consistent with pressure points used in classical Chinese acupuncture for the treatment of rheumatism. The other 20% are located either on or near acupuncture spots associated with the healing of other lingering health issues — like gastro-intestinal problems — so, more likely than not, the Iceman’s ink was meant for a bit more than looking like a badass.
Today, a lot of people tend to think of tattoos as idiosyncratic; when deciding what to get, they often choose something that’s important to them — or, at the very least, they opt for a tattoo they think will make them look cool. But, in many ancient cultures, tattoos were regarded as communal or medicinal or both.
The Yupiget, indigenous to St. Lawrence Island located off the coast of Alaska, used tattoos throughout their history. “As a general rule, expert tattoo artists were almost always respected elderly women. Their extensive training as skin seamstresses facilitated the need for precision when stitching or puncturing the human skin with tattoos.” While they would stitch geometric patters into the skin for artistic expression, “tattoos were also utilized as a curative agent.” Like many other indigenous peoples of the surrounding regions, the Yupiget “regarded living bodies as inhabited by multiple souls, each residing in a particular joint or bodily area. As noted, these regions were often tattooed.”
It’s important to consider that the available information about these practices is fairly new, dating back to the 20th century, but the tattooing traditions of the Alaskan and Arctic indigenous peoples have been a part of their cultures for much longer that that — with the first recorded footnote dating back to 1576. But, if tattoos were deeply integrated into their cultural traditions, medicinal practices, and beauty trends, what were they made of and how did they work?
According to the Encyclopedia of the Arctic (edited by Mark Nuttall in 2004):
“The typical tattoo kit consisted of a bone or steel needle, sinew thread, and a compound liquid pigment composed of lampblack, urine, and lubricating seal oil; in some regions, graphite, and plant juices were used. Oftentimes, tattoo pigments were believed to possess apotropaic properties and, as the needle and sinew were drawn through the skin, the tattoo artist chanted special words to facilitate the process. Several sittings were required to complete the desired pattern.”
A similar tradition emerged in Ancient Egypt; women, predominantly, were known to use tattoos for cosmetic, cultural, ritual, and medicinal purposes. This, however, is not to say that men didn’t dabble in the art form. Apparently, some ancient ink was recently discovered on a mummy that was actually recovered by archaeologists some 100 years ago. The coolest thing about it is that the markings on his body as well as the marking found on the Iceman are very close in age. Not only does this discovery confirm that the men of Ancient Egypt also partook in the practice, evidence of it is now pushed back by a millennium.
“Dark smudges on his arm were thought to be unimportant until infrared scans revealed that they were tattoos of two slightly overlapping horned animals. One is interpreted to be a wild bull with a long tail and elaborate horns; the other appears to be a Barbary sheep with curving horns and a humped shoulder.”
Still, women were the main tattoo enthusiasts of Ancient Egypt. Back in 2014, a partially limbless body of a female was discovered “at the archaeological site of Deir El-Madina Village on Luxor's west bank by the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology.” Because so little of her was actually available, piecing her history together was a difficult challenge. But, the researchers were able to see that her skin was inked with roughly 30 designs across her torso, like “lotus blossoms and seated baboons, indicating magical properties of healing or protection against illness.” Based on their positioning, scientists assumed the tattoos were intended to be seen.
If we take all of the data we have on the prevalence of tattooing in the ancient world, we can easily see that the practice was widely accepted by a variety of cultures — from the Peruvians, based on a Peruvian male specimen with a tattooed mustache dating back 8,000 years, to the Ancient Scythians and Thracians, who used tattoos to mark their high status. And yet, at some point in history, the practice of tattooing became a symbol of the taboo.
When Alexandre Dumas (1802 - 1870) described Milady de Winter in his seminal work, The Three Musketeers (1844), he mentions that she is branded with a fleur-de-lis tattoo, indicating her criminal past. In an interview with the Smithsonian, Joann Fletcher — a research fellow in the department of archaeology at the University of York in Britain — makes a great observation about how tattoos became regarded as a destructive:
“Amongst the Greeks and Romans, the use of tattoos or ‘stigmata’ as they were then called, seems to have been largely used as a means to mark someone as ‘belonging’ either to a religious sect or to an owner in the case of slaves or even as a punitive measure to mark them as criminals. It is therefore quite intriguing that during Ptolemaic times when a dynasty of Macedonian Greek monarchs ruled Egypt, the pharaoh himself, Ptolemy IV (221-205 B.C.), was said to have been tattooed with ivy leaves to symbolize his devotion to Dionysus, Greek god of wine and the patron deity of the royal house at that time. The fashion was also adopted by Roman soldiers and spread across the Roman Empire until the emergence of Christianity, when tattoos were felt to ‘disfigure that made in God's image’ and so were banned by the Emperor Constantine (A.D. 306-373).”
The rise of monotheism dictated a whole new way of looking at the art form people have been enjoying for thousands of years. Due to the new perspective on it, tattooed individuals were deemed lower class, and included sex workers, criminals, and soldiers. Furthermore, this view was extended to colonized people, with their rich tattooing traditions being interpreted as “savage.”
In modern times, we tend to see the body as an expanding tableau of tattoos, which signify important moments or expanding world views. While the way we view tattoos and their uses has changed many times throughout history, one thing that hasn’t changed is that we get them. From tattoos that were inked thousands of years ago to the tattoos being inked at this very moment around the globe, the art form has been with us throughout the millennia and will likely accompany us into the future.