Cutting-Edge Tattoo Designs from 5000 Years Ago

Friday May 18, 2018 Written by Smith

Renee Friedman thought she knew every inch of 5,500-year-old Egyptian mummy Gebelein Man, or "Ginger" as he's known (for his red hair). But then came the jaw-dropping moment when she pointed her new infra-red camera at him for the first time and saw, to her utter astonishment, tattoos. 


Turns out, the ink had been there the whole time, but nobody knew because the ink couldn't be seen with the naked eye. On his arm there was a tattoo of a Barbary sheep and a wild bull. In other words, the sort of thing you could well imagine your average suburban ink artist would be asked for.

In the ABC Science Friction podcast Ancient Ink: Unearthing the Secrets of Ancient Flesh, Dr Friedman describes the discovery as "a jump up and down" moment. 

"I said, 'Mmm, there's a smudge on his right arm, I wonder what that is?'," Dr Freidman recalls in the podcast. 

"We had believed that only females were tattooed [in predynastic Egypt]." Specifically, they had thought that only dancing girls and concubines bore tattoos in ancient Egyptian society. But seeing Ginger's ink for the first time has forced a re-think on that front.  

After the Ginger discovery, Dr Friedman promptly set about pointing her powerful camera at other mummies and sure enough, discovered tattoos on Gebelein Woman, a female mummy excavated from the same site as Ginger. Her ink included three small s-shaped markings and a music clapper or staff on her right shoulder and arm.

tatoo women

Read more about this mind-blowing discovery here, including the story about the renegade archaeologist who decided to test out the ancient inking methodology – on himself. The Science Friction podcast, produced by Natasha Mitchell, is a ripper listen as well. 

Wide tattoo 620X4654

Archaeologists have recreated the tools ancient humans used to tattoo their skin.

Images: Courtesy of British Museum