Inked mummies, connecting tattoo artists to their ancestors

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In the 1970s, hunters came across eight 500-year-old bodies preserved by the arctic climate near Qilakitsoq, an abandoned Inuit settlement in northwest Greenland. Later, when scientists photographed the mummies with infrared film, they made an intriguing discovery: five of the six females had delicate lines, dots, and arches tattooed on their faces.

For thousands of years, tattoos were more than just body decoration for Inuit and other Indigenous cultures. They served as symbols of belonging, signified coming of age rituals, channeled spiritual beliefs, or bestowed powers that could be invoked during childbirth or hunting. Yet from around the 17th century onwards, missionaries and settlers determined to “civilize” indigenous peoples put an end to tattooing in all but the most remote communities.

The practice was so extinct in Greenland that Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, who spent her childhood there, worked for a decade as a Western-style tattoo artist before realizing that her Inuit ancestors had also been tattoo artists, albeit of a very different nature. .

Today, Ms. Sialuk Jacobsen uses historical documents, artifacts, and Qilakitsoq mummies – many of which are now on display at the National Museum of Greenland – to research traditional Inuit tattoo designs. Then, she pricks or sews the patterns on the faces and bodies of Inuit women, and sometimes men, by hand, helping them to connect with their ancestors and reclaim part of their culture.

“I am very proud to tattoo a woman,” she said. “When she meets her grandmothers in the next world, it will be like looking at herself in a mirror.”

Without the physical traces left by ancient tattoos, modern practitioners like Ms. Sialuk Jacobsen would have little evidence to guide their work. Fortunately, as more and more indigenous tattoo artists around the world resurrect lost traditions, a small group of archaeologists trace tattooing through time and space, uncovering new examples of its role in historic and prehistoric societies. . Together, scientists and artists show that the urge to ink our bodies is deeply rooted in the human psyche, spanning the globe and expressing itself through the centuries.

Until recently, western archaeologists largely ignored tattooing. Due to the disinterest of these scientists, tools designed to tap, prick, sew or cut human skin were cataloged as sewing needles or awls, while tattooed mummies “were seen more as objects of fascination than specimens. scientists, ”said Aaron Deter-Wolf, a prehistoric archaeologist in the Tennessee Division of Archeology and leading researcher in tattoo archeology.

Even when the body of the 5,300-year-old Ice Man Ötzi was found in the Italian Alps in 1991 with visible tattoos, some press reports at the time suggested the markings were proof that ‘tzi was “probably a criminal,” Mr. Deter-Wolf mentioned. “It was very biased.”

But as tattooing became more common in Western culture, Mr. Deter-Wolf and other scientists began to examine tattoos and preserved artifacts to gain insight into how the people of the region lived. past and what they believed.

A 2019 survey of Ötzi’s 61 tattoos, for example, paints a picture of life in the Copper Age in Europe. The dots and dashes on the mummy’s skin correspond to common acupuncture points, suggesting that people had a sophisticated understanding of the human body and may have used tattoos to relieve physical ailments like joint pain. In Egypt, Anne Austin, archaeologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, found dozens of tattoos on female mummies, including hieroglyphics suggesting that the tattoos were associated with the worship and healing of the goddess. This interpretation challenges the theories of 20th century male scholars that female tattoos were merely erotic decorations or were reserved for prostitutes.

The scientific study of tattooed mummies also inspires practitioners like Elle Festin, a tattoo artist of Filipino descent living in California. As the co-founder of Mark of the Four Waves, a global community of nearly 500 members of the Filipino diaspora united by tattooing, Mr. Festin has spent more than two decades studying and designing Filipino tribal tattoos. use to help those living outside the Philippines reconnect with their homeland. One of its sources is the “fire mummies” – people of the Ibaloi and Kankanaey tribes whose heavily tattooed bodies were preserved by a slow-burning fire centuries ago.

If the clients are descended from a tribe that made fire mummies, Mr. Festin will use the mummy tattoos as a framework to design their own tattoos. (He and other tattoo artists say that only people with ancestral connections to a culture should receive tattoos from that culture.) So far, 20 people have received fire mummy tattoos.

For other clients, Mr. Festin is becoming more creative, adapting centuries-old models to modern life. For a pilot, he said, “I would put a mountain below, a frigate above and the patterns of lightning and wind around it. “

Yet while mummies offer the most conclusive evidence of how and where people of the past inked their bodies, they are relatively rare in archaeological records. More common – and therefore more useful for scientists following the tattoo imprint – are artifacts such as tattoo needles made of bones, seashells, cactus thorns, or other materials.

To show that such tools were used for tattoos, rather than for sewing leather or clothing, archaeologists such as Mr. Deter-Wolf reproduce the tools, use them to tattoo pigskin or their own bodies, and then examine them. replicas under high power microscopes. . If the tiny wear patterns created by the repeatedly pierced skin match those on the original tools, archaeologists can conclude that the original artifacts were indeed used for the tattoo.

Through such painstaking experiments, Mr. Deter-Wolf and his colleagues are pushing the tattoo timeline back to North America. In 2019, Mr. Deter-Wolf authored a study that showed modern Puebloan ancestors tattooed cactus thorns around 2,000 years ago in what is now the American Southwest. This year, he published a find showing that people were tattooing with turkey bone needles in what is now Tennessee about 3,500 years ago.

Dion Kaszas, a Hungarian, Métis and Nlaka’pamux tattoo artist and scholar in Nova Scotia, learns how to create his own bone tattoo needles from Mr. Deter-Wolf and Keone Nunes, a Hawaiian tattoo artist. Its goal, he said, is “to go back to this ancient technology; feel what our ancestors felt. Because there are few examples of Nlaka’pamux tattoo remaining, Mr. Kaszas uses designs of baskets, pottery, clothing, and rock art. Research from other cultures shows that tattoo designs often mimic the designs of other artifacts.

For Mr. Kaszas and others, tattooing is not just a way to revive an indigenous language almost silenced by colonialism. It also has the power to heal the wounds of the past and strengthen Indigenous communities for the future.

“The job our tattoos do to heal us is a different job from the job our ancestors used them for,” Kaszas said. “It is a form of medicine, so that people look at their arm and understand that they are connected to a family, a community, the earth.”

While people from many cultures have reclaimed their tattoo heritage over the past two decades, there are many more who have seen theirs entirely obscured by colonization and assimilation. However, as scientists pay more attention to tattooing, their work may shed more light on lost traditions.

Dr Deter-Wolf hopes archaeologists in other parts of the world begin to identify tattoo artifacts using the methodology he and other North American scientists have pioneered, pushing his imprint even further. He also oversees an online, open-source database of tattooed mummies, intended to correct popular misinformation and illustrate the geographic distribution of these specimens. The list includes mummies from 70 archaeological sites in 15 countries – including Sudan, Peru, Egypt, Russia and China – but Deter-Wolf expects it to grow as the Infrared imaging and other technologies uncover more inked skin on existing mummies.

Back in Greenland, Sialuk Jacobsen hopes that the Qilakitsoq mummies also have more secrets to deliver. She encourages museum directors to examine other parts of the mummies’ bodies, such as their thighs, with infrared imagery. Inuit women in other parts of the Arctic receive thigh tattoos as part of childbirth rituals, but although historical drawings show thigh tattoos on women Greenlandic, there is no tangible evidence yet.

If the Qilakitsoq mummies have tattoos on their thighs, Ms. Sialuk Jacobsen may one day copy the designs from women in the Qilakitsoq region, drawing a line between past and future generations.

“Our tattoos are very selfless,” she said. They are not only for the woman who receives them, but also for her grandmothers, her children and all her community.


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