Surviving written records, mummies, and works of art relevant to Egyptian tattoos have more or less been ignored by earlier Egyptologists influenced by prevailing social attitudes toward the medium. Today however, we know that there have been bodies discovered dating to as early as the XI Dynasty exhibiting tattoos. One of the more famous mummies is that of Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor, at Thebes. This female mummy displayed several lines and dots tattooed on her body. Another mummy from approximately the same era was found showing this same type of line pattern. This mummy (a dancer) also had a cicatrix pattern over her lower pelvic region. The various design patterns also appeared on several figurines that date to the Middle Kingdom, these figurines have been labeled the "Brides of Death." These figurines are also associated with the goddess Hathor. Yet another mummy found dating back to about 2000 B.C. also had tattoos on her body closely resembling the markings of Amunet and the dancer. Such tattoos created by grouping dots and/or dashes into abstract geometric patterns demonstrate the long duration of tattoo in ancient Nubia, as recent excavations at the Nubian site of Aksha demonstrate. Archeologists at Aksha uncovered several mummies of both young and mature women with black-blue tattoos in exactly the same patterns as those found on the three Egyptian mummies from the Middle Kingdom.
These dot-and-dash patterns have been seen for many years throughout all of Egypt. It is believed that this pattern of tattoo was borrowed from the Nubians and the art of tattooing developed during the Middle Kingdom and flourished well beyond. The evidence suggests that body art was restricted to females, and generally these women were associated with ritualistic conduct. These mummies give us insight into how long this art form has been practiced and how the art was displayed.
Caucasian mummies in the deserts of western China were first discovered by western archaeologists in the early 20th century. They were considered exceptions...perhaps just ancient travelers or immigrants. Over the past three decades, Chinese archeologists have unearthed several hundred more of these mummies as well as the skeletal remains of thousands of individuals in and around the Tarim basin of Central Asia. The Tarim is in the enormous Taklamakan desert in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, formerly known as Eastern Turkestan.
Today, the ancient Chinese texts which mention mythical statuesque people with hair of red and eyes of green are being re-examined. Until recently, it had been assumed they are just imaginary tales, but in fact, they tell of the very real Tocharian-branch Indo-European people, relatives of the Celts and Scythians, who possibly controlled the Silk Road during Middle and Egyptian New Kingdom times right through to the classical Greek era. They certainly would have been involved in the passing of technology and culture between East and West in very early times.
The time span of the Central Asian Caucasoids is from 2500 BC to 400 B.C. There is a connection between the Taklamakan people and the Crimean Scyths, the Celts and the Picts. They likely influenced the "indigenous" tattooing of the tribal peoples of India, and possibly are predecessor to the Jomon culture of Japan (ancestors of the tattooed Ainu). There is evidence that some of the tattooing tribes of northern Asia migrated eastward to become tribes in the Americas as well.
In 1986 it was reported in news sources that some of these mummies bore tattoos forming geometric patterns. To date, images of these tattoos have not been published in any accessible form. The present Chinese government does not allow publication or dissemination of information about the Caucasian attributes of these people. In addition, tattooing has been illegal in China since the time of Emperor Qin ['Chin'], about 200 BC.
Polynesian tattooing, was the most intricate and skillful tattooing in the ancient world. It had evolved over thousands of years throughout the islands of the Pacific and, in its most highly developed forms, was characterized by elaborate geometrical designs which were often added to, reworked and added to throughout the life of the individual until they covered the entire body.
It wasn't until the late 19th century that western anthropologists made an effort to inquire into the significance of tattooing within the context of traditional Polynesian life. A few papers on Polynesian tattooing appeared in anthropologic journals around the turn of the 20th century, and around the same time several anthropologists wrote books that included descriptions of Polynesian tattooing. The vast majority of the designs, however, together with the wealth of associated traditions, myths, and religious observances have been lost forever...mostly due to the lack of written language by the ancient Polynesians.
Figurines decorated with designs have been found together with tattooing instruments at many South Pacific archaeological sites. The instruments, some of which are over 3,000 years old, consist of flat, chisel-shaped pieces of bone, about two to four centimeters long and filed sharp at one end to form a comb-like series of pointed teeth. This was then attached to the end of a long wooden handle. The artist dipped the "needles" in a black pigment made of carbon black (soot) and water. He would then applied the tattoo by striking the instrument with a small wooden mallet. This technique, which is not found in any other part of the world, was common throughout the Pacific and is still used today by traditional tattoo artists in parts of Polynesia.
In 1991, a five thousand year old tattooed man 'ötzi the ice man', made the headlines of newspapers all over the globe when his frozen body was discovered on a mountain between Austria and Italy. He is the best preserved body of that period ever found. He has a total of 57 tattoos: a cross on the inside of the left knee, six 15 centimeters long straight lines above the kidneys and several parallel lines on the ankles. The position of the tattoos suggests that they were probably applied for therapeutic reasons, most likely for the treatment of arthritis.
In 1948, 120 miles north of the border between Russia and China, Russian archeologist Sergei Rudenko began excavating a group of tombs, or Kurgans, in the Altai Mountains of western and southern Siberia. He discovered mummies were found that date from approximately 2400 years ago. The tattoos on their bodies depicted a variety of animals. The griffins and monsters are thought to have a mystical significance but some of the designs are believed to be purely ornamental. It is also thought the tattoos reflected the status of the individual.
In ancient times, people got tattoos either for identification, therapeutic reasons and/or beautification. As the years past, tattoos were considered taboo within most western cultures. Most believed that tattoos were signs of criminality or low class. Once the arena of sailors, bikers and convicts, tattooing is now heading full speed into the mainstream of modern society, bringing new profits to tattoo studios and artists in addition to attracting the attention of some prominent art museums.
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