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The Discovery of Mummy's Tattoos



“Ang Gong Kia!” (which refers to a kid with red and green patches on their body in hokkien dialect), “Barbarian!”, “Hooligan!” are the common names we give to people with tattoos in today’s world. Often, a negative connotation is associated with tattoo as well as the wearer of the tattoo in this society. However, in recorded history, tattoos held a completely opposite meaning to that of today. Let us take a walk through ancient Egypt’s tattoo culture, where the first tattooed mummy was found-a Nubian (dating to 400 BC)

Back in ancient Egypt, tattoo was common and culturally acceptable. It was generally known as the cradle of tattoo art. Tattoos designs were either plain or elaborate, but it always holds a personal relation to one by acting as an amulet,  signs of religious belief, status symbols or even as a form of punishment (just to name a few).



Seven “prick points” on display in the Petrie Museum, possibly used for tattooing. Image © UCL Museums & Collections

Resembles Ancient Egyptians' hand tool Paul Roe ©britishink tattoos 1998-2015

The inventor of tattoo in Ancient Egypt was believed to be the olden women of a community who created it to protect the younger women spiritually and physically. They used metals, bamboos and woods as their common tattoo tools. With a history background dated back to c. 3000 B.C- a sharp point set in a wooden handle- was discovered at the site of Abydos. Following it, a set of small bronze instruments, which resemble wide, flattened needles was also found at the ancient town site of Gurob. Both tools were believed to be the tools used for tattoo.  By tying them together in a bunch, a repeated patterns of multiple dots could then formed.

Below shows how a tattoo can be handmade:

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As human remains are not preserved well and are commonly covered in bandages, it is difficult to find evidences of tattoo frequency from the Egyptians. The first tangible examples of Egyptian tattoos date back to the Middle Kingdom, about 2000 BC where several tattooed mummies of women were found at Deir el-Bahari (opposite modern Luxor) in an area associated with royal and elite burials. The markings mainly consist of dots and dashes, often grouped into geometrical patterns and are usually placed on the chest, the abdomen, the arms or the legs.

Fun-fact #1: Did you know? 

Tattoo practice was exclusive to the females only in Ancient Egypt.

Although tattoos are rare on human remains, they seem to be more frequent on female representations as it indicated their status.

There's evidence that women had tattoos on their bodies and limbs from:

  1. figurines c. 4000-3500 B.C.
  2. occasional female figures represented in tomb scenes c. 1200 B.C.
  3. figurine form c. 1300 B.C.,

all with tattoos on their thighs.



All content and images on this blog – unless stated otherwise – are © Trustees of the British Museum.

The meanings and functions of tattoos varies, some showing association to a social group, others having medical or protective purposes. The naturally mummified woman from Sudan in the exhibition bears a monogram of St Michael tattooed on her inner thigh. It combines in one symbol the letters forming the name Michael (MIXAHΛ) in Greek and the monogram is topped with a cross. The tattoo suggests that the woman was of Christian faith, and may indicate that she hoped to place herself under the protection of the Archangel – one of the patron saints of Nubia.

All content and images on this blog – unless stated otherwise – are © Trustees of the British Museum.

Placing the name of a powerful heavenly protector on one's body by a tattoo or amulet was very common in antiquity. The tattooing of ancient Egyptian women had a therapeutic role and functioned as a permanent form of amulet during the very difficult time of pregnancy and birth. Christian women who were pregnant often placed amulets with divine or angelic names on bands on their abdomens to insure a safe delivery of their child. This is supported by the pattern of distribution, largely around the abdomen, on top of the thighs and the breasts, and would also explain the specific types of designs, in particular the net-like distribution of dots applied over the abdomen. During pregnancy, this specific pattern would expand in a protective fashion in the same way bead nets were placed over wrapped mummies to protect them and "keep everything in."

The placing of small figures of the household deity, Bes, at the tops of their thighs would again suggest the use of tattoos as a means of safeguarding the actual birth, since Bes was the protector of women in labor, and his position at the tops of the thighs a suitable location.

Thus, tattoos may be a taboo thing to do in today's world, but it holds a sacred significant to ancient Egyptians. Though we wear the same fashion marking on us, but it bears a completely different meaning compared to the past.

Fun-fact #2: Did you know? 

Amunet, a Priestess of the goddess Hathor at Thebes, was originally written off as a highly-ranked concubine by excavator due to the location she was found. This was only revealed after reading her burial inscriptions, which the excavator did not bothered to.