Bronze Age Tattoos: History, Tools & Symbols

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we'll explore the earliest known tattoos. Learn the reasons for these ancient body markings, who wore them, what the symbols meant, and how these marks were made.

Got Ink?

Many people have tattoos today, from bikers and sailors to stock brokers and doctors. It's even possible that you have at least one tattoo on you as you read this. There are tattoo magazines, television shows, and an entire subculture devoted to the art. While this is amazing, you might be curious to know when and how tattoos got started.

Tattoos Today
Tattoos Today

Tattoo Basics

First, however, let's get into a little of the basics of tattoos. These permanent marks on the skin are made by pigment, any color-containing substance used to dye or mark something, placed under the top layers of skin. This way, the design doesn't wash off or wear away as we shed dead skin cells. Likewise, it is still close enough to the surface that it can be seen clearly. Today, this is done with a tiny, metal needle hooked up to a machine that controls how deep into the skin it pushes the pigment and makes hundreds to thousands of small injections a minute. In the past, however, they lacked the automated needles and instead used hand-held needles of metal, bone, wood, or feathers, to tap the color under the skin layers. The name itself comes from the word tatau in Samoan which refers the tapping technique of tattooing described above.

Indigenous Tatau
Indigenous Tatau

Bronze Age Tattoos: Equipment and Styles

During the Bronze Age, the earliest appearance of tattoos that we can determine, dark pigments were most common. The style of tattoos also indicates that people used tattoos for different reasons during the Bronze Age. One design style using dots, lines, and crosses most likely marked the skin for medicinal purposes. These marks identify places of injury or pain as we shall see in the example of Oetzi, the ancient man preserved in ice. Another style of tattoo purpose and design involves specifically selected images with associated meaning, whether personal or mythical, indicating the person wearing them was of an elite status. We will see this kind of tattoo in our example of Ukok, the preserved remains of a Bronze Age ''princess'' discovered in Siberia.

Egyptian Tattoos

At one point in time, archaeologists thought the Egyptians were the oldest civilization to use tattoos, marking women almost exclusively. The earliest examples come from several mummified women buried around 2000 BCE. These women had geometric patterns of dots on their abdomens and thighs. Early archaeologists, possibly influenced by their contemporary views of class and tattoos, asserted that these women were likely dancing girls.

However, recent analysis and comparison with other objects found in their tombs indicate the tattoos are more likely part of medical rituals to protect and aid the women during childbirth. Along with these mummified women, the tombs often contained figurines of the god Bes, a dwarfed being who protected the home and hearth. In his female form of Beset, he became the goddess of childbirth.

Statue of Bes
Statue of Bes

Oetzi the Iceman

Where once we thought the Egyptians were the first to tattoo people, the frozen remains of a tattooed man in the Alps dated the earlier tattoos to 5,500 years ago. Named Oetzi by researchers, it seems his tattoos were part of a healing ritual for chronic pain. Along his spine, a number of small dots and crosses are distributed along were we see chronic lower back pain today. Additionally, Oetzi sports similar dots and crosses along his right knee and ankle. Orthopedic study of his remains shows damage and degeneration in those joints that correspond to x-rays of contemporary people who complain of significant joint paint after stress injuries and age-related deterioration.

Recreation of Oetzi

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