The History Of Tattoos: Before The Birth Of Christ

Many people in todays society seem to think that tattooing is something new. Learn the rich history of tattoos before the birth of Jesus Christ.

Many people feel that tattoos provide magical protection against sickness or misfortune, or they serve to identify the wearer's rank, status, or membership in a group. Regardless of why people get tattooed, they have been doing it for centuries.

Tattoos have existed since long before the birth of Jesus Christ. The earliest evidence of tattoos was found on the now famous Iceman that was found in the Otzal Alps between Austria and Italy in 1991. Carbon 14 dating done on the bones and tissue of the Iceman proved that he had died some 5,300 years ago (3,300 B.C.). Professor Konrad Spindler of the Innsbruck University speculated that the blue tattoos adorning the skin of the Iceman were simply ornamental, were for magical purposes, or perhaps they were used to indicate his social status among his group or tribe. They may also have been done to relieve pain or ailments that he suffered from or to keep him from getting sick. Why the tattoos were done is not clear but the fact that he was extraordinarily well preserved after spending 5,300 years under ice gave the professionals that studied the body, the unique opportunity to identify the images that graced his skin. In all, he had a total of 58 tattoos that were likely done with charcoal and were mostly made up of simple dots and lines. Coincidentally, he also had an earring.

Tattooing was also a custom in Egypt during the Third and Fourth Dynasties (2686 - 2493 B.C.) while the pyramids of Gizeh were being built. Evidence found in archaeological and anthropological digs suggests that the Egyptians had already started the process of tattooing with needles by that point. The clay dolls that the children played with at the time, were also adorned with tattoo like designs and they further served to prove that tattooing was alive during this time.



Another tattooed Egyptian of note was Amunet, who was a priestess of the goddess Hathor at Thebes during the eleventh dynasty (2160 - 1994 B.C.) Amunet's mummy was very well preserved and had parallel lines tattooed on the arms and thighs as well as an elliptical design below her navel. Statuettes decorated with designs similar to the ones found on Amunet were buried with male mummies and were supposed to arouse the sexual instincts of the dead fellow and ensure his resurrection. Egyptologists feel that the statuettes, called "brides of the dead," were symbols of fertility and rejuvenation. When the Egyptians passed on their culture the art of tattoos traveled with them to Crete, Greece, Persia and Arabia.

In Libya (which is quite close to Egypt), male and female mummies with tattoos have been discovered. Some of the male mummies were tattooed with sun worshipping images (I assume it may have been Ra -- the Egyptian sun god). The mummies that were found in the tomb of Seti I (dating from about 1300 B.C.) were tattooed with pictures symbolizing a fierce goddess named Neith, who led warriors into battle. Tattoo needles used during the Bronze Age (about 200 - 500 B.C.) are on display in Bornholm's Museum in Rønne, Denmark.

The Polynesians were very artistic and used elaborate geometrical designs in the tattoos that they did as far back as 1,200 B.C. The Lapita's used flat, chisel-shaped pieces of bone that were roughly two to four centimeters long and were sharpened at one end and resembled a comb. The instrument was dipped in pigment which was made of water and soot and the instrument was then hit with a small mallet to drive the pigment into the skin. The Lapita's took their tattoos very seriously and started with a design on one area of the body and then continued the design until their bodies were entirely covered with tattoos (something I hope to accomplish someday). The Lapita people were also very skilled potters and showed their love for tattoos on the pottery that they made. The Lapita colonized the Solomons, Hebrides, Figi, Tonga and Samoa where the art of tattooing was continued.

Anthropologist Sergei Ivanovich Rudenko discovered the next part of the puzzle in 1948. He discovered a Pazyryk chief who had been mummified and was extremely well preserved. The Pazyryks were powerful iron age horsemen and warriors who lived in Eastern Europe and Western Asia from 600 to 200 BC. The chief was approximately 50 years old at the time of his death and was heavily tattooed with interlocking designs which were primarily made up of beasts. His chest was adorned with griffins. His right arm had tattoos of a donkey, a mountain ram, two deer and another unidentified carnivore while his left arm was tattooed with two deer and a mountain goat. The chief's suit of decoration continued on his right leg which featured a fish from his foot to his knee on the front and a monster and four rams in a design on the remaining part of his right leg. His left leg was also tattooed but the design was indistinguishable since it was not as well preserved as the rest of his body. His back was also tattooed with small circles along his vertebra which were likely done for therapeutic reasons to relieve some sort of pain that the chief had been having. The Pazyryk tombs that Rudenko discovered were very well preserved and contained skeletons and intact bodies of horses and embalmed humans as well as a wealth of artifacts including saddles, riding gear, clothing and - believe it or not - hash pipes! (Rudenko described them as "apparatus for inhaling hemp smoke"). There were also fabrics from Persia and China found in the tomb which indicated that the Pazyryk's had traveled to those areas of the world.

In 1993, another Pazyryk mummy was discovered but this time it was a female. She was buried in a larch tree casket that had deer and snow leopards carved into it. She was tattooed with creatures similar to those found on the chief. She had been tattooed approximately 2,400 (400 B.C.) before she was found. This mummy was discovered in the Umak plateau in Siberia by an archaeologist named Natalya Polasmak who said "We wouldn't be as happy if we had found solid gold," . Gilded ornaments, dishes, a brush, a pot containing marijuana, and a hand mirror of polished metal were also found in the tomb. It is believed that the Pazyryk's tattooed animals on themselves for magic, totemism and to absorb the character of the animals that they had tattooed on them. It is believed that the female mummy was therefore tattooed with the rams, deer, fish and griffins as a way of honouring them and / or adopting the qualities that made these animals exceptional ie, ferocity, quickness, cunning etc. The discovery of the second mummy also made it clear that in the Pazyryk culture, both men and women who had established a certain class or stature in the group, were allowed to be tattooed.

Nubian mummies dating back from about 400 B.C. (the same time as the Pazyryks) had the Egyptian god of revelry (Bes) tattooed on them. Bes also served as the patron god of music and dancing girls and had the distinction of being the master of ceremonies at orgies. He was portrayed in Egyptian works of art as an ape-like dwarf who wore an animal skin. It would seem that Egyptian gods were popular icons to tattoo on yourself during that period of time as the likeness of other gods (such as the Egyptian sun god, Ra) have also ben found on mummies that have been discovered to this point.

The Scythians died out close to the time of Jesus' birth (2 B.C.). They were victims of intermarriage and conquest and died out as a result. Archaeologists found a royal tomb, which contained the skeletons of a prince, a princess and an infant outside the town of Ordzhonikidze in the southern Ukraine in 1920. Just after the Second World War, archeologists found a well preserved Scythian chief with some fantastic tattoos in the Altai Mountains of Southern Siberia. The chief's tattoos represented different totems and game animals. They were done in a very distinct style, which was repeated in their wood carvings, leather, jewelry, embroidery, weaving, and other art forms that they worked at.

It is clear that tattoos have appeared on every continent throughout history and in basically every culture. The reasons that tribes, cultures and other peoples have had themselves tattooed is for a varied number of reasons. As you have seen from the above history -- tattoos did not used to carry the negative connotation that many people feel that they do today. Before organized religion and the banning of tattoos by these religions, tattoos were accepted if not deeply desired in many cultures. I hope you enjoyed this brief history of tattoos before the birth of Jesus Christ and have learned something from it. Tattoos were not meant to keep our ancestors from meeting God through ancient history -- as some people believe they do today.

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