Five years ago, archaeologist Anne Austin stood in an ancient Egyptian tomb, staring at strange markings on the neck of a mummified woman.
She placed a scanning device over the mummy to cast infrared light, an invisible light often used to detect heat. Almost like magic, several tattoos revealed themselves, Austin said.
Since then, Austin has used infrared photography to study tattoos on seven Egyptian mummies.
“It’s almost like taking something that’s totally invisible and making it visible again,” said Austin, an anthropology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “It’s this thrill of discovery and also the magic of having technology that can do things we previously could never do.”
The mummies that she studies are located at Deir el-Medina, a village where craftsmen built tombs during the New Kingdom era, 3000 to 1500 B.C. Austin recently presented her findings at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.
Infrared photography can see beneath the skin to detect the tattoo. The tattoo ink and the skin also absorb the light differently, allowing there to be contrast between the two, Austin said.
Researchers also have to edit the photos because mummification shrinks the skin.
“We would stretch the photos like we’re stretching the skin back to real life,” Austin said. “And then we can see the actual figures that were originally on the body.”
The history of tattooing in ancient Egypt is largely unknown. Before researchers discovered the tattooed mummies at Deir el-Medina, only six individuals were found with them.
One mummy Austin studied had a tattoo of the Wadjet eye, an Egyptian mark that symbolizes protection, with two seated baboons and the hieroglyph for goodness. The symbols translate to “do good.”
Given where the tattoos are located on the woman’s body, it’s possible she spells and sang to practice religion or medicine, Austin said.
“We proposed maybe she acted like a healer in her community. The tattoos are placed in parts of her body, like her voicebox and on her arms. We suggested maybe they enable her ‘to do good’ in her community,” she said.
The Egyptian texts at Deir el-Medina do not say much about the tattoos and describe the women as prostitutes and servants. But those texts were mainly written by men, so the tattoos could tell a different history, Austin said.
“Maybe [the tattoos] represent text, but on women’s bodies,” she said. “The history of studying tattoos in ancient Egypt has been focused on thinking of ways to eroticize a female body. I’m pushing back on that to say the evidence I’m pointing to many more functions of these tattoos than symbols of sex.”
Austin plans to return to Deir el-Medina in January.
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