Infrared light has helped in identifying two tattoos on the shoulders of seven mummified bodies at a site called Deir el-Medina in Egypt. Prior to these discoveries, tattoos have only been found on six mummies over more than a century of research and exploration at ancient sites in Egypt. As reported by Anne Austin, who is an archaeologist at the University of Missouri, these tattoos have been discovered on the bodies of mummies dating back to at least 3,000 years ago.
Austin said, “The infrared photos which display the wavelengths of light invisible to the naked eye are transforming what’s known about tattooing in ancient Egypt.”
The design and placement of the tattoos vary completely in the 13 tattooed Egyptian bodies which consist of 12 women and a man. The tattoos were first discovered on a female body found in 1891. The world’s first figurative tattoos were discovered in the year 1991 in Italy, on Otzi the Iceman, which is an approximately 5,300-year-old Neolithic Mummy. Experts in the U.K. found figurative tattoos on two ancient Egyptian mummies last year.
Recently, a British archaeologist from the University of Oxford, Renee Friedman used infrared imaging to reveal tattoos on the body on one male and one female body housed at the British Museum in London. It is estimated that these people lived in Egypt shortly before the rise of pharaoh around 5,100 years ago. The discoveries at Deir el-Medina challenge the old idea that tattoos on women were a symbol of fertility or sexuality in Ancient Egypt. These tattoos appear to be indicative of women's role as healers or priestesses.
An Egyptologist, Kerry Muhlestein of Brigham University, Utah said, “Everything about the new tattoo discoveries is surprising because so little is known about this ancient Egyptian practice.”
The identities of the tattooed bodies are still unknown but the artisans and craftworkers at Deir el-medina are known to build and decorate royal tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. The discoveries of tattoos on more Egyptian mummies may help researchers find out in what ways these markings were used by the ancient people.