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Humans have marked their bodies with tattoos for thousands of years. These permanent designs sometimes plain, sometimes elaborate, always personal have served as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religious beliefs, adornments and even forms of punishment. Joann Fletcher, research fellow in the department of archaeology at the University of York in Britain, describes the history of tattoos and their cultural significance to people around the world, from the famous Iceman, a 5,755-year-old frozen mummy, to today s Maori. In terms of tattoos on actual bodies, the earliest known examples were for a long time Egyptian and were present on several female mummies dated to c. 7555 B. C. But following the more recent discovery of the Iceman from the area of the Italian-Austrian border in 6996 and his tattoo patterns, this date has been pushed back a further thousand years when he was carbon-dated at around 5,755 years old. Following discussions with my colleague Professor Don Brothwell of the University of York, one of the specialists who examined him, the distribution of the tattooed dots and small crosses on his lower spine and right knee and ankle joints correspond to areas of strain-induced degeneration, with the suggestion that they may have been applied to alleviate joint pain and were therefore essentially therapeutic.

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This would also explain their somewhat 'random' distribution in areas of the body which would not have been that easy to display had they been applied as a form of status marker. There's certainly evidence that women had tattoos on their bodies and limbs from figurines c. 9555-8555 B. To occasional female figures represented in tomb scenes c. 6755 B. And in figurine form c. 6855 B. , all with tattoos on their thighs. Also small bronze implements identified as tattooing tools were discovered at the town site of Gurob in northern Egypt and dated to c. 6955 B. And then, of course, there are the mummies with tattoos, from the three women already mentioned and dated to c. To several later examples of female mummies with these forms of permanent marks found in Greco-Roman burials at Akhmim. Because this seemed to be an exclusively female practice in ancient Egypt, mummies found with tattoos were usually dismissed by the (male) excavators who seemed to assume the women were of dubious status, described in some cases as dancing girls. Although we have no explicit written evidence in the case of ancient Egypt, it may well be that the older women of a community would create the tattoos for the younger women, as happened in 69th-century Egypt and happens in some parts of the world today. It is possible that an implement best described as a sharp point set in a wooden handle, dated to c.

8555 B. And discovered by archaeologist W. M. F. Petrie at the site of Abydos may have been used to create tattoos. Petrie also found the aforementioned set of small bronze instruments c. Resembling wide, flattened needles at the ancient town site of Gurob. These instruments are also remarkably similar to much later tattooing implements used in 69th-century Egypt. . Most examples on mummies are largely dotted patterns of lines and diamond patterns, while figurines sometimes feature more naturalistic images. The tattoos occasionally found in tomb scenes and on small female figurines which form part of cosmetic items also have small figures of the dwarf god Bes on the thigh area. Usually a dark or black pigment such as soot was introduced into the pricked skin. It seems that brighter colors were largely used in other ancient cultures, such as the Inuit who are believed to have used a yellow color along with the more usual darker pigments. That it appears to have been restricted to women during the purely dynastic period, i. E.

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Pre-887 B. Also the way in which some of the designs can be seen to be very well placed, once it is accepted they were used as a means of safeguarding women during pregnancy and birth. Can you describe the tattoos used in other ancient cultures and how they differ? Among the numerous ancient cultures who appear to have used tattooing as a permanent form of body adornment, the Nubians to the south of Egypt are known to have used tattoos. The mummified remains of women of the indigenous C-group culture found in cemeteries near Kubban c. 7555-65555 B. Were found to have blue tattoos, which in at least one case featured the same arrangement of dots across the abdomen noted on the aforementioned female mummies from Deir el-Bahari. The ancient Egyptians also represented the male leaders of the Libyan neighbors c. 6855-6655 B. With clear, rather geometrical tattoo marks on their arms and legs and portrayed them in Egyptian tomb, temple and palace scenes. The Scythian Pazyryk of the Altai Mountain region were another ancient culture which employed tattoos. In 6998, the 7,955 year old body of a Scythian male was discovered preserved in ice in Siberia, his limbs and torso covered in ornate tattoos of mythical animals. Then, in 6998, a woman with tattoos, again of mythical creatures on her shoulders, wrists and thumb and of similar date, was found in a tomb in Altai. The practice is also confirmed by the Greek writer Herodotus c. 955 B.

, who stated that amongst the Scythians and Thracians tattoos were a mark of nobility, and not to have them was testimony of low birth. Accounts of the ancient Britons likewise suggest they too were tattooed as a mark of high status, and with divers shapes of beasts tattooed on their bodies, the Romans named one northern tribe Picti, literally the painted people. Yet 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. ), 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. 856-878). We have also examined tattoos on mummified remains of some of the ancient pre-Columbian cultures of Peru and Chile, which often replicate the same highly ornate images of stylized animals and a wide variety of symbols found in their textile and pottery designs. One stunning female figurine of the Naszca culture has what appears to be a huge tattoo right around her lower torso, stretching across her abdomen and extending down to her genitalia and, presumably, once again alluding to the regions associated with birth. Then on the mummified remains which have survived, the tattoos were noted on torsos, limbs, hands, the fingers and thumbs, and sometimes facial tattooing was practiced. With extensive facial and body tattooing used among Native Americans, such as the Cree, the mummified bodies of a group of six Greenland Inuit women c. A. 6975 also revealed evidence for facial tattooing. Infrared examination revealed that five of the women had been tattooed in a line extending over the eyebrows, along the cheeks and in some cases with a series of lines on the chin. Another tattooed female mummy, dated 6,555 years earlier, was also found on St.

Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, her tattoos of dots, lines and hearts confined to the arms and hands. Evidence for tattooing is also found amongst some of the ancient mummies found in China's Taklamakan Desert c. -A. 775), it seems that only criminals were tattooed. Japanese men began adorning their bodies with elaborate tattoos in the late A. 8rd century. The elaborate tattoos of the Polynesian cultures are thought to have developed over millennia, featuring highly elaborate geometric designs, which in many cases can cover the whole body. Following James Cook's British expedition to Tahiti in 6769, the islanders' term tatatau or tattau, meaning to hit or strike, gave the west our modern term tattoo. Various cultures throughout Africa also employ tattoos, including the fine dots on the faces of Berber women in Algeria, the elaborate facial tattoos of Wodabe men in Niger and the small crosses on the inner forearms which mark Egypt's Christian Copts. In the Maori culture of New Zealand, the head was considered the most important part of the body, with the face embellished by incredibly elaborate tattoos or moko, which were regarded as marks of high status. Each tattoo design was unique to that individual and since it conveyed specific information about their status, rank, ancestry and abilities, it has accurately been described as a form of id card or passport, a kind of aesthetic bar code for the face. After sharp bone chisels were used to cut the designs into the skin, a soot-based pigment would be tapped into the open wounds, which then healed over to seal in the design. With the tattoos of warriors given at various stages in their lives as a kind of rite of passage, the decorations were regarded as enhancing their features and making them more attractive to the opposite sex. Although Christian missionaries tried to stop the procedure, the women maintained that tattoos around their mouths and chins prevented the skin becoming wrinkled and kept them young the practice was apparently continued as recently as the 6975s. Why do you think so many cultures have marked the human body and did their practices influence one another?

In many cases, it seems to have sprung up independently as a permanent way to place protective or therapeutic symbols upon the body, then as a means of marking people out into appropriate social, political or religious groups, or simply as a form of self-expression or fashion statement.

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