Tattooing In Ancient Egypt

By: April Carson


Tattooing has been practiced all over the world for thousands of years. One of the most well-known cultures to practice tattooing was ancient Egypt. There are many examples of tattoos on mummies, reliefs, drawings, statues and engravings that depict individuals with tattoos applied using various methods - needles, thorns and dyes, for example. In some cases the tattooing seems to have been applied as a form of punishment or humiliation, but on other occasions it is more likely that tattoos were used as a sign of rank and status.


In Ancient Egypt, tattooing was practiced by both men and women throughout all eras of their history. There are many tattooed mummies from the dynastic period of ancient Egypt, when people were usually mummified with a specific design or motif. The tattoos were probably applied by pricking the skin with a sharp instrument and rubbing soot into the wound to create an image in black ink. In some cultures however, this practice was considered too barbaric (a common phrase is to be 'tattooed by the finger of God'). The Egyptians however, considered it a high honor to have tattoos.


It also seems that tattoos were practiced as early as the Predynastic Period (c. 6000-3150 BC). By examining mummies from this time period researchers have discovered that tattooing was done on men and women alike. They were mostly simple linear patterns, but there was one instance of a complex design that incorporated several miniature figures. The most stunning example is the tattooed Predynastic male found at Qustul (c. 3600 BC). He wore intricate tattoos on his arm, leg, chest and back that seemed to mimic gold jewelry he wore in life. They were lines and dots in the shape of squares, triangles, circles and semicircles, which replicated a beadwork design on a goatskin bag found in his tomb.


In the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-2613 BC) tattooing became more common among women than men. It was usually done on the thighs and breasts. The best preserved female tattoos come from a tomb at Naqada (c. 3100 BC). They consist of diamond-shaped patterns embellished with small triangles and tiny rosettes, executed in dark blue on light skin using fine needles.


The Middle Kingdom (c. 2040-1640 BC) brought more elaborate designs, such as hunting scenes and plant-like patterns. The new tattooing was done with an awl in the Predynastic manner on men and women alike.


In the New Kingdom (c. 1540-1070 BC), facial tattoos still seem to have been uncommon, while there is some indication that they were already popular on the bodies of Nubian women. In contrast, all known examples from the Middle Kingdom period show heavy reliance on facial tattoos as a means of depicting status and social class.


With the passage of time, tattooing became more elaborate and varied during this period. New materials such as iron ore were used to make a wider variety of dyes, and the tools also made a dramatic change with the introduction of new technologies. As the tattoo needles became finer, they were thrust into wooden handles which then evolved into beautifully crafted works of art in their own right. Other tools included tweezers with delicate scoops at one end for efficiently removing excess dye from the skin before insertion of the needle.


On a more personal level, tattoos in ancient Egypt appear to have been a surprisingly individualistic type of expression. While it is true that symbols such as the Eye of Horus were used to denote rank and status within the upper class, they were not used for commoners. In fact, it would seem that choices of subject were left up to the tattooee and were not dictated by any social taboos or pressures. The only milestone would be that of youth as children (perhaps around 5 years old) could not be tattooed until their 'ka' was deemed strong enough to endure such a process, that is, once they had outlived their first bout with childhood diseases. Women were only to be tattooed on the thighs, men on the arms and chest. They would usually wear their hair short (in a boyish fashion) or else entirely shaved, save for perhaps just a single sidelock.


The tattoos themselves seem to have differed not only between the sexes but between classes as well. The lower class worked in the fields and did hard labor, so these tattoos would probably have been of a more general nature- geometric shapes and symbols that had some sort of symbolic meaning to the wearer themselves. The upper class, however, was comprised mainly of artisans, priests, or soldiers who bore designs unique to each man. However it is thought by many scholars that tattoos were not exclusive to either class.


Many of the tattoos worn by the Egyptians are thought to have held some sort of religious significance, but it is difficult to discern much meaning from simply looking at image that has been imprinted into skin. Some designs are thought to be an expression of a man's dedication to certain gods. For example, a snake tattoo would symbolize a follower of the fertility god. Some tattoos were worn as amulets with the purpose of warding off illness or harm.


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