The Gebelein Tattoos

The Gebelein Tattoos

January 3, 2019

Photography by © The Trustees of the British Museum, 2019

All images © The Trustees of the British Museum, 2019

The oldest known figural tattoos were recently discovered on the bodies of two 5,000-year-old Egyptian mummies. Known as Gebelein Man A and the Gebelein Woman, the preserved remains of a man and a woman have been housed by the British Museum since 1900. Daniel Antoine, curator of physical anthropology at the British Museum, and Renee Friedman, researcher of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford, re-examined the mummies using infrared imaging and radiocarbon dating after tattoos were found on proximate remains from the same period. Described as “hiding in plain sight” for the past century, the tattoos were a paradigm-shifting find for the researchers.1 The tattoos are dated between 3351 and 3017 BCE, and are incredible both for their age and imagery. The Gebelein Woman’s tattoos are S-shaped motifs, which also decorate Predynastic pottery of the same period.2 On Gebelein Man A—a young man murdered by a surprise stab to the back, then mummified naturally—appear to be two horned animals, a bull and a Barbary sheep. Friedman speculates that these tattoos might be “symbols of strength” or talismans for protection.3

In addition to shifting the timeline for tattooing in Africa back by a millennium, the discovery disproves the prevalent understanding that tattooing was an exclusively female practice in ancient Egypt. Before the discovery of tattoos on the Gebelein mummies, the earliest tattoos in Egypt were thought to be found on mummies from 2000 BCE. The thousand-year gap in known tattooing can most likely be attributed to shifting preservation practices: artificial mummification, which became a cultural practice well after the natural mummification process which famously preserved the Gebelein mummies, left only bandages and bones.

While indices of tattoo culture from this period are rare, historians and scientists assert that tattooing most likely existed as a more widespread practice than the few enduring specimens might suggest. Otzi “the Iceman,” a mummy discovered in 1991 in a glacier bordering the Italian Alps, is thought to be a rough contemporary of the Gebelein mummies. Dated at around 5300 years old, his 61 geometric tattoos were likely applied by puncturing the top of the skin and rubbing charcoal in the perforations.4 Originally thought to have some therapeutic or medical purpose, new discoveries of tattoo clusters on Otzi’s chest hint toward other aims which are more aesthetic in their nature.5 Similarly, the discovery of tattoos on Gebelein Man A recontextualizes the purpose and significance of tattooing in Predynastic Egypt, dissociating tattooing from theories which gave it meaning based on presumptions that it was an exclusively female practice.

When Egyptian tattooed mummies were first introduced into the contemporary Western imaginary, Egyptologists and excavators—the majority of which who were European and male—interpreted the discoveries according to their own biased understandings. When they thought tattooing was exclusively a female practice in Predynastic Egypt, they assumed that these tattooed women were of “dubious status.”6 In other words, they concluded that tattoos were the mark of sex workers, and served to protect women against sexually transmitted infections.7 It wasn’t until the past 20 years that researchers began to question this understanding of early Egyptian tattooing.

Prior to the findings of tattoos on any male Egyptian mummies, and following the understanding of tattooing as a symbol of the ‘demeaned’ woman, Egyptologist Joann Fletcher disputed such claims by concluding that the marks were mobilized as “symbolic protection” for women during childbirth.8 A research fellow in the department of archaeology at the University of York, Fletcher cites evidence from the environmental context of female tattooed mummies—many of which were excavated from a burial ground reserved for the elite. Fletcher concluded from a funerary inscription that at least one of the female mummies she examined, a woman described as “probably a royal concubine” in past academic papers, was actually be a “high-status priestess named Amunet.”9 Thus, while the ‘meanings’ of early Egyptian tattoos still remain nebulous, Fletcher’s findings reveal a more expansive range of implications, rather than ones tied purely to class status.

The discovery of tattoos on Gebelein Man A are crucial, as they disrupt the contemporary prevalent beliefs of tattooing and gender in Predynastic Egypt. Because the Gebelein Man is one of the best preserved mummies of today, and because archaeologists are limited by burial techniques like wrapping that prevent detection of tattoos, Antoine posits that tattooing practices are more widespread than the scope of just this one finding. As such, this implies that there are probably other tattooed men of the period. The Gebelein mummies serve as fertile ground for theories that can potentially complicate the whore/priestess dichotomy that Fletcher and male researchers before her have created around Predynastic tattoo culture.

Very much like the layman’s reception of contemporary tattooing, there is much speculation from anthropologists as to the status, meaning, and purpose of tattoos on mummies. Their status as research objects may still remain nascent, but their presence already magnetizes important contemporary questions—especially those of gender, society, and politics. Perhaps, rather than inciting ultimately speculative questions about the meaning of these historical tattoos, such parallels might direct our focus towards the changing social, political, and economic conditions that have accompanied the historical development of tattooing.

1. Katherine Hignett, “Gebelein Man: World’s Earliest Figural Tattoos Found on 5,000-Year-Old Egyptian Mummy,” Newsweek (March 2, 2018).
2. Laurel Geggel, “Oldest Tattooed Woman Is an Egyptian Mummy,” Live Science (March 3, 2018).
3. Ibid.
4. Carl Engelking, “Scientists Have Mapped All of Otzi the Iceman’s 61 Tattoos,” Discover (January 30, 2015).
5. Ibid.
6. Joann Fletcher, “Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History,” Interview by Cate Lineberry,
Smithsonian (January 1, 2007).
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.