Celebrated and well known in the body art industry but perhaps less so in archaeology is an example of preserved tattooing from ancient Egypt.
Middle Kingdom in Thebes
That examples takes the form of actual tattoos preserved on a Middle Kingdom mummy from Thebes (modern day Luxor).
At Deir El-Bahari lies the mortuary temple (not only of the much later Hatshepsut) but also of the Pharoah Mentuhotep dating to the 11th Dynasty and the founding of the Middle Kingdom, approximately 2160 to 1994 BCE.
Amunet, Priestess of Hathor
Excavated in 1891 by Eugene Grebaut (successor to Maspero as Director of the Antiquities Service), the mummy is that of a woman named Amunet, who served as a priestess of the goddess Hathor at Thebes.
Mortuary Complex of Amunhotep II
Buried within the Pharaoh’s mortuary temple precinct, all the tombs there were plundered except for this one which was found in the very northernmost corner of a triangular court.
It belonged to the “King’s Favorite, Amunet.” Her body was tattooed and her neck was loaded with necklaces and bead collars.
Well Preserved Mummy
On her bandages were the names, not only of the “King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Son of Re, Mentuhotep,” but of his daughter and some of his other ladies as well.
She was likely a concubine as well as a priestess and was apparently depicted in temple reliefs with other concubines.
Her mummy was in an excellent state or preservation. Her tattoos comprise a series of abstract patterns of individual dots or dashes placed upon her body with no apparent regard for formal zoning of the artwork.
An elliptical pattern of dots and dashes is tattooed on her lower abdomen beneath the navel. Parallel lines of the same pattern are found on her thighs and upper arms.
Although the elliptical patterns and the location on the lower abdomen might suggest that Amunet’s tattoos could be related to fertility, we don’t really know what they meant. Could they be curative like Ötzi’s? Or possibly even sensual, protection during birth, or simply stylish? The speculation about this ancient body art could go back and forth. But it’s interesting to note that, to date, the only tattooed mummies recovered in Egypt have been female.
Frequently Asked Questions
Amunet had a number of tattoos on her body, including a pattern of dots and dashes on her abdomen, and other designs on her arms and legs.
The purpose of Amunet’s tattoos isn’t clear, but they may have been intended to serve as protective amulets or to indicate her status as a priestess. They may not have all had the same purpose.
No. Although Amunet’s tattoos are among the oldest known tattoos in the world, there are other examples of even older tattoos, such as those found on the 5,300-year-old “Iceman” mummy discovered in the Alps, Ötzi.