The Ancient History of Tattooing

This is an excerpt from a fantastic book,
Ancient Inventions, by Peter James and Nick Thorpe…

It is hard to determine how far back the art of tattooing goes, as human flesh is almost never preserved in the archeological record. But rare finds of human corpses with the skin intact have enabled us to glimpse early examples of the tattooists’ art. The remarkable “Iceman” found melting out in the Similaun glacier, in Italy, in September 1991, having died there some 5,300 years ago, was marked with the oldest tattoos ever seen. They consist of three sets of lines on his back, another group on the right ankle and a cross on the left knee. The powedered charcoal used to create the blue markings was probably applied with small needles.

From Egypt and Sudan there are occasional finds of female mummies with facial tattoos going back some four thousand years. It seems as though these had some erotic significance, since the mummies are thought to be those of concubines, and some centuries later dancers and musicians would sport tattoos of their patron god, Bes, on their thighs. The tattoos found on the mummies were dark blue and were applied, archeologists believe, by prickign dye into the skin with a device made of fish bones set into a wooden handle.

In 1948 the most remarkable example of ancient tattooing yet found was discovered in the Pazyryk burial mound on the borders of the USSR, China and Mongolia. A man aged about sixty, probably the chief of a nomadic tribe, had been buried around 400 B.C. in a felt-lined wooden chamber under the mound. After grave robbers had ransacked the tomb, ice flowed in through their exit hole to fill the chamber, thereby miraculously preserving its contents. The surviving skin of the chief was covered with elaborate tattoos, including monsters, a donkey, a mountain ram, deer, birds, a goat, and a fish.

The Pazyryk find dramatically confirms the statements of classical writers that various barbarian peoples to the north and east of Greece regarded tattoos as a symbol of nobility. According to Herodotus, who wrote in the lifetime of the Pazyryk chieftain, the Thracians of the Balkans “consider tattooing a mark of high birth, the lack of it a mark of low birth.” Another classical source indicates that the Thracians learned the art from the widely traveled Scythians, a nomadic tribe from Russia, who may well have had cultural ties ties with the builders of the Pazyryk tombs.

In ancient times the art of tattooing flourished worldwide. It has deep roots in the Far East (and is still highly regarded in Japan), but little is known of its earliest days there, except that tattooing was carried out as punishment on criminals during the Han Dynasty of China (202B.C. – A.D. 220). By A.D. 297, however, decorative tattooing had begun in Japan, when Chinese court records note that Japanese men and boys tattooed their bodies. Judging by its representation on terra-cotta figurines, Mayan chiefs in first-millenium B.C. Central America were frequently tattooed. They too, saw tattooing as a mark of high status.

According to Roman writers, tattooing was rife in Britain. Julius Caesar noted during his expeditions that “All the Britons dye their bodies with woad [an herb], which produces a blue colour and gives them a wild appearance in battle,” while the third-century A.D. author Herodian described their tattoos as “pictures of all kinds of animals.”

Following the conquest of Britain in A.D.43, Roman legionnaires took to tattooing and spread the custom throughout the empire. Te art flourished until the reign of Constantine, the first Christian emperor (A.D. 306-373). Early christians marked their faces and arms with the sign of the cross, but tattooing later came to be seen as a pagan practice; Constantine banned facial tattoos on the grounds that they disfigured “that fashioned in God’s image.” In A.D. 787 the Church Council held at Calcuth, in northern England, forbade all tattooing and it then became rare. It did not die out completely, however, even among royalty. After William the Conquerer’s momentous victory at the battle of Hastings in 1066, the body of the fallen English king Harold was identified by his tattoos, including the name of his mistress (Edith “Swan-neck”) over the heart.

Despite such notable exceptions, the great revival of the art in the West only really came about during the eighteenth century, as a result of encountering masterpieces of tattooing in the Far East and the Pacific, where tattooing had never fallen out of favour.

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