For decades two Egyptian mummies known as “Gebelein Man A” and “Gebelein Woman” have been on display at the British Museum. As a part of a new conservation program they were recently re-examined by researchers who discovered previously unnoticed tattoos on their arms and shoulders. The tattoos feature two animals locking horns on the man, and an S-shaped motif on the woman. This pushes back the date for figural tattoos about a thousand years and helps to redefine our current understanding of tattoos in Egypt during this time period.
It was formerly believed that only women used to wear tattoos in Egypt, but now it is clear that tattoos were not just for women. The scholars who discovered the tattoo on the man believe that the two animals locking horns are a bull and a ram, which may be symbols of power or strength, as well as male virility. The reason these tattoos were not discovered earlier is that the tattoo looks like a smudge mark under natural light. It was only after taking infrared pictures that the images became more clear. It is thought that a carbon based material such as soot was used in the ink for the tattoo.
The tattoo on the Gebelein Woman is more enigmatic. In addition to the S-shaped figures, there is also a curved line found on the woman’s shoulder. A similar image has also been observed on ceramics discovered from the same time period. It is thought that this curved line could represent sticks, batons, or clappers used in ceremonial dances. It could also be a crooked stave, which is a symbol of power and status. The S-shapes have been found on Predynastic pottery from that period, and its significance is unknown. However, some have speculated that these markings have something to do with magical knowledge.
These tattoos are estimated to be around five thousand years old. The only other body that has been preserved and found with tattoos that old are from a man found frozen in the Alpine mountains. This mummified body was named Ötzi the Iceman. What is interesting about his tattoos is that they are geometric and abstract, unlike the figural tattoos found on the Gebelein couple. There were over sixty tattoos on this man, and they were located over known acupuncture points, leading researchers to believe they were medicinal in nature. The tattoos on the Gebelein mummies on the other hand were decorations and possible status symbols.
Another interesting tidbit of information is that a tattoo kit dating back to the same period in ancient Egypt was found in another grave. Items in the kit included bone awls, pigments, resins, amulets, and incense. Taken together, it seems that tattoos were performed by skilled practitioners as a part of a ceremony or ritual. Furthermore, if the bone awls were used to poke ink into the skin, it was surely a painful process.
The result of these findings helps us to better understand the significance of tattoos in human history. It was believed that only women in Egypt’s Predynastic period received tattoos because in the cultural record only female figurines featured tattoos. Now we know that men also wore tattoos. It also pushes back the date for figural tattoos in Africa by about a thousand years. Perhaps with time, we will discover more about the lives of these two Gebelein people who now serve as one of our rare windows into the past.