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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.

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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.

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