Ancient Ink

Historian uncovers mummy tattoos.

We know them in our popular culture as “ink.” We see them daily on athletes, baristas and co-workers. And thanks to archaeologist Anne Austin, a postdoctoral scholar in Stanford’s history department, we now know that ancient Egyptians used tattoos to depict mystical symbols.

Austin, working with the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology, was examining a mummy at an Egyptian village when she realized some markings on the skin were notably elaborate in their design. In collaboration with mission director Cédric Gobeil, Austin identified an array of tattoos, using infrared imaging to detect some that were hidden because of mummification. Tattoos have been seen on Egyptian mummies previously, but only as simple markings such as lines. Austin found likenesses of cows, lotus blossoms and eyes that were shaped to evoke a goddess.

DECIPHERED: Despite the effects of mummification, some tattooed symbols can be interpreted with 
 the naked eye.

“This discovery is particularly exciting because it opens a new door in Egyptology,” Austin said by email. “Prior to this discovery, we had very little evidence that Egyptians had their own practice of tattooing. After identifying the many tattoos on this mummy, I had a closer look at several of the other mummies . . . and identified at least three more with tattoos. We think that there are still many more to be discovered.” •


Photo credits: Anne Austin (2)