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Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Tattoos, Sex and Dancing Girls - With a Nubian Connection

The title reflects a few myths about tattoos in ancient Egypt, and a few debatable points.

There are lots of myths about tattoos in ancient Egypt e.g. prostitutes wore tattoos of Bes, low status women only were tattooed, Amunet was a 'dancing girl'.

There are also some interesting, possible Nubian connections. Here I look at the myths and possible Nubian link.

To the left is a 'paddle doll' from the Egypt Centre perhaps showing tattoos or scarification. Such items are found in Nubia and Egypt

In 1891, two ancient Egyptian female mummies were uncovered from Middle Kingdom Deir el-Bahri; they bore tattoos of geometrically arranged dots and dashes. Their burial places were adjacent to those of a number of ladies who held the title ‘King’s Wife’ and thus, the tattooed ladies were considered to be members of the king’s harem (I have blogged about this site previously). A few years later, another two female mummies were discovered in the same region. The decorations on the bodies bore striking resemblance to faience and wooden figurines of barely clothed women of the same period (a wooden version from the Egypt Centre is shown above). From the New Kingdom on, Egyptologists noticed that semi-clothed women were frequently depicted sporting depictions of the deity Bes, and suggested that these were tattoos, the marks of dancing girls - or even prostitutes. One might suggest that tattooing in Egypt was therefore associated with prostitutes and was erotically charged. Reality is a little more complex and as is often the case, ideas of the past are strongly coloured by modern preconceptions. In our own society the wearing of tattoos has been negatively associated with immorality and low social status and this preconception seems to have influenced an understanding of ancient Egyptian tattoos. In the late 1920s, for example, the conviction of a rapist was overturned because a small butterfly tattoo was found on the female victim. The tattoo was considered to have sexual implications and thus the woman was thought to have misled the man who raped her. 

Much confusion also arises from the conflation of New Kingdom depictions of Bes on scantily clad women's legs, with Middle Kingdom marks on the bodies of elite women and ‘fertility dolls’. All the evidence suggests that the only Egyptians in Dynastic Egypt to have tattoos were women, and that these women would be elite court ladies and priestesses of Hathor, perhaps decorated to ensure fertility, but not for the simple amusement of men. The origins and precise meaning of the tattoos however remain unclear.  

Much of the textual evidence for tattooing in Egypt comes from the Graeco-Roman Period, when it is clear that tattooing and branding were considered negative. Slaves were branded and tattooing was used as a punishment. Cultic tattooing, however, is also mentioned. Sextus Empiricius says that the majority of Egyptians were tattooed, and evidence suggests that both men and women were indeed tattooed in this period. However, the extent to which this took place was probably exaggerated by Classical writers to support their ideas of the ‘weird’ nature of the Egyptians. Evidence from bodies themselves suggests a less ubiquitous practice. Maspero’s excavations at Akhmim in Middle Egypt ‘yielded several female mummies of the Graeco-Roman period with tattoo marks on the chin and sides of the nose.’ While the discolouration and partial decomposition of mummified bodies means that we would not expect evidence of tattooing on every mummy, one might expect a little more available evidence than merely the Akhmim bodies. 

Prior to the Graeco-Roman Period, evidence for tattooing is largely archaeological. One of the few possible textual references comes from the Bremner-Rhind Papyrus (British Museum EA 10188). This papyrus is dated to the Fourth Century BC, but the archaizing language suggests an earlier prototype. The relevant phrase can be translated as ‘their name is inscribed into their arms as Isis and Nephthys . . . ’ The problem is that this may represent scarification rather than tattooing, and like all textual evidence, may suggest an idea rather than a reality. 

Firm evidence for tattooing must ideally come from the bodies themselves. As with the Graeco-Roman Period, the evidence does not suggest ubiquitous practice. In fact, only four mummified bodies are known, and these all from the Middle Kingdom, all from Deir el-Bahri, and all female. 

Perhaps the most well known tattooed lady is that of the Eleventh Dynasty (c. 2055–2004 BC) Priestess of Hathor, Amunet, discovered in 1891 in a tomb at Deir el-Bahri. Unfortunately, there appear to be no pictures of Amunet’s tattoos. The body often shown as Amunet in publications is actually that of her companion, an unknown lady from the same tomb who was also tattooed. Amunet had tattoos on top of the abdomen, above thighs and breasts and on lower legs and arms in a geometrical pattern of dots and lines. Her titles ‘Sole Lady in Waiting, Priestess of Hathor’ showed that she was a high status lady of the court. Although, the title Xkr.t nsw wat.t had been translated in the past as ‘Sole Royal Ornament’, and connected with concubines, a better translation may be ‘Sole Lady in Waiting’. Ladies holding the title ‘Sole Lady in Waiting, Priestess of Hathor’ were often wives of important officials. The much published tattoos of Amunet’s companion were very similar to her own. 

Amunet and her companion were buried close to the temple of King Mentuhotep Nebhepetre, in an area which seems to have been given over to other royal ladies, several of whom were priestesses of Hathor, and which are sometimes considered a harem. Even if these women were royal wives, we should not equate this with prostitution or low status. Indeed, there is even doubt that these ladies were married to the king.  

Two other female mummies, again from the Eleventh Dynasty and from Deir el-Bahri, were found by Herbert E.Winlock in 1923 near the Mentuhotep temple. These bodies appear to exhibit scarification, as well as tattooing, and the pattern of designs is like that of Amunet with geometrically arranged dots and dashes. Winlock identified them as ‘dancing girls’, apparently as their tattoos were the same as the patterns on the faience figurines which he believed to be dancing girls. However, the titles of these women, if they had any, remain unknown and they were buried with few objects, though it is possible that they had been moved from a former grave. Winlock states that their graves had been robbed during the building of Hatshepsut’s Temple. Thus, their status is unclear.  

It has been argued that elite women were not tattooed but the case of Amunet and her companion, and perhaps also of the two other Deir el-Bahri women, would suggest otherwise. Amunet’s title shows she was a court lady and she was buried near the king wearing bead collars and necklaces. Her companion in the same tomb, given its situation, appears also to be of high rank. As for the other two, the fact that they were buried on such an important site suggests that they may have been court ladies, and like many women buried here could have been priestesses of Hathor. Such women may have danced, though they are not shown doing so, and have no titles suggesting that they did so. They may or may not have been sexually intimate with the king, but they were certainly of high status. 

It has been suggested on the basis of the actual skulls, and from iconographic depictions, that some of these women were black Nubians. While representation of skin colouring as black is now known to have religious overtones, associated with Osiris, and with fertility and rebirth, rather than depicting skin colour in life, the evidence from the shape of the skull is harder to dismiss. However, the skull identification was carried out some time ago and so was possibly not as accurate as might be expected today. One scholar identifies Amunet and the two tattooed ladies found later, as light-skinned, but another, suggests that the mummification process may have reduced the melanin in the skin. Interestingly, an archaeological study has shown that some of these women had extremely narrow pelvises, a trait associated with at least some ancient Egyptian women. A new examination by a modern physical anthropologist may help resolve the matter. 

As well as these four tattooed bodies, a number of Middle Kingdom figurines have been found which not only have similar decorations, and possible Nubian origins, but are also sometimes considered concubines. These figurines fall into two main groups: faience fertility figurines classified by the British Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch as type 1, and wooden ‘paddle dolls’. Both are Middle Kingdom. There are, of course, other types of fertility figurines, but it is these two types which most approximate the Middle Kingdom mummified bodies.  

Pinch’s type 1 fertility figurines, faience ‘dolls’ decorated with geometric patterns strikingly similar to those on the mummified tattooed ladies, are discussed first. These figures date to the late Middle Kingdom–Second Intermediate Period and many are made of faience, stone, wood or ivory. Most are found in tombs, though one was found in a domestic context at Kahun. They are found in both male and female burials, as well as in votive deposits to Hathor, with the bands around their bodies being similar to the ‘Libyan bands’ worn by priestesses. While Pinch, the authority on these artefacts, is doubtful of accepting the idea of their Nubian origins, the connection does seem difficult to refute. While not identical, examples of Nubian pottery of the same date do exhibit similar patterns, and like the Egyptian figures, are without feet. The similarity of design does suggest a cross-fertilization of ideas surrounding them, particularly as Nubia was at least partly under the control of Egypt at this time.  

The decoration on the mummies, and also on the type 1 fertility figurines, bears some similarity to the decoration on paddle dolls, common in the Middle Kingdom. Such dolls, with emphasized pubic area and long hair, appear to symbolize the feminine erotic, and are usually considered fertility figures rather than children’s playthings. Interestingly, at least one of these paddle dolls sports a depiction of Taweret who, like Bes, is associated with women and childbirth. The two seem closely linked and Keimer illustrates an example of Taweret with a Bes face. We have seen that, in the New Kingdom, Bes was depicted on the thighs of some women. These paddle dolls are common in Upper Egypt and Nubia. 

The geographical distribution of paddle dolls, the possible Nubian origins of the faience and pottery figurines, and the possible Nubian origins of the Mentuhotep Nebhepetre have all been linked to evidence of a Nubian connection for tattooing. In each individual case, the evidence is not clear, with the paddle dolls being the most convincingly Nubian. It is probably going too far to claim that these dolls are somehow depictions of the tattooed ladies; the paddle dolls wear long hair, while our ladies are shown on their chapels with short hairstyles. However, perhaps together, the paddle dolls, faience dolls and Deir el-Bahri women, provide some support for a relationship between female body decoration and Nubian influence, at least in the Middle Kingdom. 

In support of Nubian origins for our ladies, Nubian women were decorated with similar tattoos between the Sixth and Eighteenth Dynasties, that is, they were contemporary with the Deir el-Bahri ladies. C-group women (2000–1500 BC), in cemeteries near Kubban discovered in 1910, also had tattoos, like those of Amunet and the other three women. Moreover, the Nubian women were buried with pottery dolls exhibiting the same tattoos. Other C-Group tattooed women have also been found exhibiting similar dot and dash patterning. One expert states that all the tattoos found in Nubia are on females, but there is at least one instance of a tattooed male from the later period in Nubia. A Nubian connection may be accepted with caution. 

An alternative suggestion is that the origins of Dynastic Egyptian tattooing may be sought in Egyptian prehistory. There are several depictions of female Predynastic figurines patterned as though tattooed. However, we do not know if this practice continued unbroken into Dynastic Egypt, or again if these patterns represent tattoos, body paint or scarification. 

We may ask how the tattoos were executed. An early Dynastic flint flake set in a wooden handle, found at Abydos, was said by Petrie to be a tattooing instrument. Petrie writes “The flint set in wood did not seem capable of bearing any strain, but it was explained by my friend Prof Giglioli as a tatuing [sic] instrument of usual form . . .”. This suggests that Professor Giglioli had seen similar contemporary items. Another instrument, consisting of wide, flat needles found together, was uncovered from Eighteenth Dynasty Gurob. The latter is now deposited in the Petrie Museum. 

Interestingly, tattooing seems to have either continued, or been revived, in more recent times in Egypt. At least one drawing of an Egyptian woman is known, as well as bone figurines, a luster ware dish and other artefacts of the Fatamid Period (AD 969–1171), apparently showing tattoos. Of course these could also indicate body paint.  

Ethnographic evidence shows that, at times, tattooing may be associated with the elite, and at other times, subordinate groups. It is frequently practised as a means of healing and protection, and thus is not always intended as mere sexual ornament. For ancient Egypt, it is certainly evident that tattooing in the Middle Kingdom was associated with some high-status women. As to the meaning of the tattoos, all that can be said is that there is some suggestion that the body decorations are associated with fertility. The faience dolls and paddle dolls are very clearly fertility figures and these have designs which appear similar to the tattooed mummies. As for the later Bes body decorations, Bes, if not an erotic symbol, was associated with women in childbirth, and hence fertility and/or protection. This, of course, need not rule out a connection with eroticism, as the fertility and eroticism are difficult to untangle. What can be ruled out is the association of tattoos and low-status women. Additionally, the paucity of tattoos suggests it was not common practice. 

The positioning of the tattoos on the abdomen and upper breasts and thighs of these mummified bodies, and also on the dolls, has suggested to some an erotic connection. However, some of the tattooing also occurred on the lower legs and arms; and besides, position near female genital areas may be associated with either fertility or protection. It is also possible that the tattoos may be marks of devotees to Hathor, given that these dolls are often given as votive offerings to Hathor, and that Amunet, and possibly the other mummified ladies, were Priestesses of Hathor.  

By the New Kingdom, women are sometimes shown with depictions of Bes upon their thighs, often assumed to be tattoos. These appear in a different tradition to the geometrical designs of the Middle Kingdom, though the difference may be superficial. The Bes ‘tattoos’ are sometimes cited as supporting the link between tattoos and eroticism in ancient Egypt and both associated with low status. However, this link is open to question for four main reasons. Firstly, we do not know if these were tattoos, scarification, or make-up. The suggestion that these may have been tattoos is supported by the interpretation of a dotted design on a Nubian Meroitic female mummy from Aksha as a Bes figure. However, the Meroitic Period is equivalent to the Ptolemaic Period of Egypt, that is, it is much later than the Egyptian New Kingdom. Secondly, Bes was associated with women and childbirth, and had an apotropaic role, thus to assume a mere erotic role limits, or even twists, the nature of Bes. Thirdly, it is possible that all Egyptian women had depictions of Bes painted upon their thighs, though they are not shown on higher status women because such women were usually depicted clothed. Fourthly, in the New Kingdom, nakedness was not simply equated with social status. Indeed, in the Amarna Period, even the royal family were shown semi-naked. The women with the depictions of Bes were very possibly high status women. It has even been suggested that one was a priestess of Hathor. There is no reason to think of these women as prostitutes. Indeed, the earliest evidence we have for prostitution in ancient egypt is for men prostituting themselves!

Finally, we need to consider the link between Bes and the erotic. Certainly Bes is sometimes shown on the thighs of women holding musical instruments, wearing hip girdles and sporting long flowing locks. The presence of a small monkey appears to enhance the erotic feel. The problem is to disentangle the erotic from the fertility aspects, which is probably largely impossible for an ancient society. It is very likely that such a distinction simply was not made in ancient Egypt.
(Much of this is taken from 'Dancing for Hathor': Women in Ancient Egypt but the book has the references in it)


  1. Is there any evidence of tattoos at acupuncture sites as are claimed on the mummy of the Iceman?

  2. Not as far as I know, but I don't know enough about acupencture