The oldest tattooed body known to
date was discovered in 1991. It is that of a Bronze Age man who
died over 5,000 years when he was apparently caught in a snow storm
during a hunting trip on a mountain between Austria and Italy. Together
with the body were clothing, a bow and arrows, a bronze ax, and
flint for making fire.
The skin is of great interest because it bears several tattoos:
a cross on the inside of the left knee, and six straight lines 15
centimeters long above the kidneys. Professor Konrad Spindler of
Innsbruck University speculated that the tattooing could have been
ornamental, or that it might have been used for magical purposes
or to denote social status.
"I don't like superlatives," said Spindler, "but this is the only
body of a Bronze Age man found in a glacier and certainly the best
preserved corpse of that period ever found. Other Bronze Age corpses
found in German, Scandinavian, or British peat moors didn't have
much of the inner organs and skin left intact."
The world's most spectacular tattooed mummy was discovered by Russian
anthropologist Sergei Ivanovich Rudenko in1948 during the excavation
of a group of Pazyryk tombs about 120 miles north of the border
between China and Russia. The Pazyryks were formidable iron age
horsemen and warriors who inhabited the steppes of Eastern Europe
and Western Asia from the sixth through the second centuries BC.
They left no written records, but Pazyryk artifacts are distinguished
by a sophisticated level of artistry and craftsmanship.
The Pazyryk tombs discovered by Rudenko were in an almost perfect
state of preservation. They contained skeletons and intact bodies
of horses and embalmed humans, together with a wealth of artifacts
including saddles, riding gear, a carriage, rugs, clothing, jewelry,
musical instruments, amulets, tools, and, interestingly, hash pipes!
(described by Rudenko as "apparatus for inhaling hemp smoke"). Also
found in the tombs were fabrics from Persia and China, which the
Pazyryks must have obtained on journeys covering thousands of miles.
Rudenko's most remarkable discovery was the body of a tattooed Pazyryk
chief: a thick-set, powerfully built man who had died when he was
about 50. Parts of the body had deteriorated, but much of the tattooing
was still clearly visible. The chief was elaborately decorated with
an interlocking series of designs representing a variety of fantastic
The best preserved tattoos were images of a donkey, a mountain ram,
two highly stylized deer with long antlers and an imaginary carnivore
on the right arm. Two monsters resembling griffins decorate the
chest, and on the left arm are three partially obliterated images
which seem to represent two deer and a mountain goat.
On the front of the right leg a fish extends from the foot to the
knee. A monster crawls over the right foot, and on the inside of
the shin is a series of four running rams which touch each other
to form a single design. The left leg also bears tattoos, but these
designs could not be clearly distinguished.
In addition, the chief's back is tattooed with a series of small
circles in line with the vertebral column. This tattooing was probably
done for therapeutic reasons. Contemporary Siberian tribesmen still
practice tattooing of this kind to relieve back pain.
No instruments specifically designed for tattooing were found, but
the Pazyryks had extremely fine needles with which they did miniature
embroidery, and these were undoubtedly used for tattooing
In the summer of 1993 another tattooed Pazyryk mummy was discovered
in Siberia's Umok plateau. It had been buried over 2,400 years ago
in a casket fashioned from the hollowed-out trunk of a larch tree.
On the outside of the casket were stylized images of deer and snow
leopards carved in leather. Shortly after burial the grave had apparently
been flooded by freezing rain and the entire contents of the burial
chamber had remained frozen in permafrost.
The body was that of a young woman whose arms had been tattooed
with designs representing mythical creatures like those on the previously
discovered Pazyryk mummy. She was clad in a voluminous white silk
dress, a long crimson woolen skirt and white felt stockings. On
her head was an elaborate headdress made of hair and felt - the
first of its kind ever found intact. Also discovered in the burial
chamber were gilded ornaments, dishes, a brush, a pot containing
marijuana, and a hand mirror of polished metal on the wooden back
of which was a carving of a deer. Six horses wearing elaborate harnesses
had been sacrificed and lay on the logs which formed the roof of
the burial chamber.
"We wouldn't be as happy if we had found solid gold," said Natalya
Polosmak, the Russian archaeologist who discovered the tomb. "These
are everyday things. Through them we see life as it was."
What can we conclude from these fragmentary survivals of ancient
tattooing? Considering the number of tattooed mummies which have
been discovered, it is apparent that tattooing was widely practiced
throughout the ancient world and was associated with a high level
of artistic endeavor. The imagery of ancient tattooing is in many
ways similar to that of modern tattooing. Egyptian tattooing was
related to the sensual, erotic, and emotional side of life, and
all these themes are found in tattooing today. Inca tattooing is
characterized by bold abstract patterns which resemble contemporary
tribal tattoo designs. All of the known Pazyryk tattoos are images
of animals. Animals are the most frequent subject matter of tattooing
in many cultures and are traditionally associated with magic, totemism,
and the desire of the tattooed person to become identified with
the spirit of the animal. Tattoos which have survived on mummies
suggest that tattooing in prehistoric times had much in common with
modern tattooing, and that tattooing the world over has profound
and universal psychic origins.
Copyright 1995 by Christopher Gotch
and Steve Gilbert This article is an excerpt from the revised edition
of Art, Sex and Symbol by Ronald Scutt and Christopher Gotch, now
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