World’s Oldest Tattoo Art Found In British Museum On Egyptian Mummy

(A 3,000 year-old female mummy with an intricate neck tattoo. Photo Credit: Realm of History)

The mummy with the oldest known tattoo artwork is in a museum in Great Britain and has been for 100 years. But a recent infrared examination of the mummy’s skin revealed a tattoo of animals on his arm.

According to The Independent, the mummy got his tattoo about 5,200 years ago proving tattoos really are forever. The tattoo had been hidden well and previously, all academics and museum visitors alike had been able to see were faint, dark smudges on the man’s right arm. But recent infrared examination has revealed the marks are in fact tattoos depicting two animals: a giant wild bull and a wild North African goat-like creature.

5,200 years ago when the tattoos were brand new, the man likely wore them in order to help project an image of strength and virility. Throughout much of the ancient world, both types of animal found tattooed on the mummy were often associated with male power, virility, fertility, and creation. The bull portrayed in the larger of the man’s two tattoos represented a now-extinct species of giant wild bull, known as the aurochs. They were feared, admired and often worshipped throughout parts of the ancient world.

Along with a Copper Age European of almost identical vintage, found preserved in an Alpine glacier, the ancient Egyptian is the oldest tattooed individual ever discovered. However, the Alpine mummy often dubbed the Otzi Iceman, only had seemingly abstract groups of dots tattooed on him. But the Iceman’s age is estimated at 5,300 years, making him 100 years older than the tattooed Egyptian mummy. The Egyptian, on the other hand, bears the earliest known example of tattoos in the figurative art form.

Scientists at the British Museum have also discovered a second ancient Egyptian individual with tattoos, dating from the same period. This second mummy, a woman, had more abstract designs tattoed on her. She is said to have a series of small S-shaped marks on her right shoulder and a line with a slightly curved upper end on her right arm. The motif on her arm may represent a staff of office which would indicate a symbol of authority. She is by far the earliest woman in the world so far discovered with tattoo designs on her skin.

Although these are the oldest known tattoos, scientists suggest that tattooing may be older than 5,300 years, and likely done around the globe.

Examination of the Egyptian’s tattoo art suggests they were made with a carbon-based pigment, probably soot.


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