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Research Papers

Identifying the Practice of Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia

Author:

Geoffrey J. Tassie

Web Editor, GB
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Abstract

Tattooing was practised by many ancient societies, including the ancient Egyptians and Nubians. Egypt, for example, boasts iconographic and physical evidence for tattooing for a period spanning at least 4000 years – the longest known history of tattooing in the world. The second oldest physical evidence for tattooing worldwide was recovered from Middle Kingdom contexts in Egypt and C-Group contexts in Nubia (the Hanslabjoch ice man being the oldest). It has been suggested that tattooing was also practised in the Predynastic period as evidenced by figurines with geometric designs, however, no physical evidence for tattooing has yet been found for this early period. Strangely there is almost no mention of tattooing in ancient Egyptian written records. Historical and ethnographic records indicate that tattooing was also practised much more recently in the Coptic, Islamic and modern eras. Unlike many past societies, tattooing in Egypt appears to have been a custom practised almost exclusively on women. Tattooing tools have not yet been positively identified from ancient Egypt. Ethnographic sources suggest that bundles of metal rods were used in Egypt’s more recent history. This paper discusses physical and iconographic evidence for tattooing in ancient Egypt and investigates whether five copper rods found at Kafr Hassan Dawood, a Predynastic to Early Dynastic site in the East Delta, could be physical evidence for tattooing during this early period.

Keywords: Egypt Iconography Tattoo 
How to Cite: Tassie, G.J., (2003). Identifying the Practice of Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology. 14, pp.85–101. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/pia.200
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Published on 15 Nov 2003.
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