Childbirth Protective Tattoos Found on Ancient Egyptian Mummies

A tattoo on the left hip bone of a mummified Egyptian woman buried in Deir el-Medina. (Image credit: Anne Austin/University of Missouri-St. Louis)

Lower back tattoos may seem like an early 21st century fad popularized by celebrities wearing low-rise jeans, but new archaeological evidence from Egyptian mummies shows the practice is actually more than three millennia old. .

At the New Kingdom site of Deir el-Medina (1550 BC to 1070 BC), researchers Anne Austin and Marie-Lys Arnette discovered that tattoos on the flesh ancient and the tattooed figurines of the site are probably related to the ancient egyptian god Bes, who protected women and children, especially during childbirth. They published their findings last month in the Journal of Egyptian Archeology (opens in a new tab).

Deir el-Medina (opens in a new tab) is on the west bank of the Nile, opposite the archaeological site of Luxor. From 1922, around the same time as King TutThe tomb of was found, the site was excavated by a French team. Known in New Kingdom times as Set-Ma’at (“Place of Truth”), it was a planned community, a large neighborhood with rectangular grid streets and housing for laborers in charge to build tombs for Egyptian rulers. While the men left for several days in a row to work on the tombs, the women and children lived in the village of Deir el-Medina. A prominent feature of the site is the so-called Great Pit, an old dump full of pay stubs, receipts and papyrus letters that helped archaeologists better understand the lives of ordinary people.

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But nothing in the Great Pit mentions the practice of tattooing, so the discovery of at least six tattooed women in Deir el-Medina was surprising. “Finding evidence of tattoos can be rare and difficult because you need to find preserved, exposed skin,” said the study’s lead author. Anne-Austin (opens in a new tab), a bioarchaeologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told Live Science in an email. “Since we would never unpack mummified folks, our only chance of finding tattoos is when the looters are gone skin exposed and it’s still present for us to see millennia after a person’s death.”

A tattoo on the lower torso and legs of a mummified Egyptian woman. (Image credit: Anne Austin/University of Missouri-St. Louis)

The new evidence Austin uncovered came from two graves she and her team examined in 2019. Human remains from one grave included a left hip bone of a middle-aged woman. On the preserved skin, patterns of dark black coloration were visible, creating an image that, if symmetrical, would have run down the woman’s lower back. Just to the left of the horizontal lines of the tattoo is a depiction of Bes and a bowl, images related to ritual purification during the weeks after childbirth.

The second tattoo is from a middle-aged woman discovered in a nearby grave. In this case, infrared photography revealed a tattoo that was difficult to see with the naked eye. A reconstruction drawing of this tattoo reveals a wedjat, or Eye of Horus, and a possible image of Bes wearing a feathered crown; both images suggest that this tattoo was related to protection and healing. And the pattern of zigzag lines may represent a swamp, which ancient medical texts associated with cooling waters used to ease the pain of menstruation or childbirth, according to Austin.

Additionally, three clay figurines representing female bodies that were found in Deir el-Medina decades ago have been re-examined by the study’s co-author Marie-Lys Arnette (opens in a new tab)an Egyptologist from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who suggested they also show tattoos on their lower backs and upper thighs that include depictions of Bes.

A reconstruction of a tattoo on the lower torso and legs of one of the mummified Egyptian women. (Image credit: Anne Austin/University of Missouri-St. Louis)

The researchers concluded in their paper that “when placed in the context of New Kingdom artifacts and texts, these tattoos and depictions of tattoos would visually relate to images referring to women as sexual partners, pregnant women, midwives and mothers participating in postpartum rituals used for the protection of mother and child.”

Sonia Zakrzewski (opens in a new tab), a University bioarchaeologist from the University of Southampton in the UK who was not involved in the current study, told Live Science in an email that “the newly described tattoos are extremely complex compared to earlier Egyptian tattoo practices”, and that “images of pregnant women are extremely rare in Egyptian art.” Because childbirth and the fertility of the soil were linked in Egyptian thought, Zakrzewski suggested that “these tattoos imprint protective representations – including gods – on their bodies, almost as if the person had their own magical amulet. portable with it”.

Tattooing in Deir el-Medina is even more common than people thought, according to Austin, although it is unclear how widespread it may have been elsewhere in Egypt during this time. “I hope more scholars will find evidence of tattooing so we can see if what is happening in this village is unique or part of a larger ancient Egyptian tradition than we simply have. not yet discovered,” she said.