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Tattoo History

Tattoos have been around for thousands of years, the earliest known example tracing back to an Iceman from the area of the Italian-Austrian border dated at approximately 5,200 years old. Humans have used tattoo designs as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religious beliefs, adornments and forms of punishment.

Tattoos in Ancient Egypt

In Ancient Egypt, tattoos seemed to be exclusively a female practice. It had been assumed that they were marks of prostitutes, or meant to protect women against sexually transmitted diseases. Nevertheless, female mummies with tattoos had been buried in an area associated with royal and elite burials.

Joann Fletcher of the department of archaeology at the University of York in Britain says that she believes the tattooing of ancient Egyptian women had a therapeutic role and served as a permanent form of amulet during pregnancy or birth. The spots on the body where these tattoos are located supports the idea since they were largely found around the abdomen and on top of the thighs and breasts. The design of the tattoos found, some being a net-like distribution of dots applied over the abdomen. Throughout pregnancy, these dots would expand in what was considered a protective manner. Sometimes, a tattoo of the household deity Bes is found at the tops of their thighs suggesting that it served as a means of safeguarding the actual birth, since Bes was the protector of women in labor.

Though there is not any written evidence, it is assumed that the older women of a community would design and apply the tattoos for the younger women using an implement best described as a sharp point set in a wooden handle.

Most tattoo examples on mummies are dotted patterns of lines and diamond patterns. A dark or black pigment, like soot for example, is applied to the pricked skin. Brighter colors were used in other ancient cultures.

Tattoos in other ancient cultures

Among the Greek and Romans, tattoos were used to mark someone as belonging to a certain religious sect, or as the owner of slaves. Tattoos were even used as a form of punishment to mark criminals. When a dynasty of Macedonian Greek monarchs riles Egypt, the pharaoh Ptolemy IV (221-205 B.C.) evidently had been tattooed with ivy leaves to symbolize his devotion to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. The tattoo fashion was then taken up by Roman soldiers and utilized across the Roman Empire until the spread of Christianity, when tattoos were banned by the Emperor Constantine (A.D. 306-373).