The word ‘tattoo’ derives from the Tahitian word tatatau, which means ‘to strike properly’ and which the explorer, Captain James R. Cook recorded as ‘tattow.’ In traditional societies, permanent body decoration has a psychological or practical purpose, or sometimes both. Sending out a range of social signals, body decoration plays an important part in expressing and reinforcing social relationships, values, and society itself. As with temporary forms of body decoration, e.g. hairstyles, painting and make-up, permanent body decoration helps to define boundaries of social groups and sub-groups within society by marking differences in status and role. Permanent body decoration is often applied when an individual goes through a rite of passage and attains a new social status, such as adulthood. Their very permanence allows the permanent forms of body decoration to perform tasks that the more transitory forms do not. Thus, they demonstrate permanent social relationships between an individual and society. While the reasons for tattooing can change over time, the result is still a permanent marking, an enculturalization of the body.
The study of tattooing and enculturalization of the body in past societies, and the recognition of ancient tattooing needles both on archaeological sites and in museums have been only recently undertaken. Recent examples which are being taken up in study with a kind of fervor, are the practices of tattooing in ancient Egypt and Nubia. To receive the most benefit from these studies, a holistic approach is most appropriate, utilizing the available archaeological material including iconographic data, and comparing and contrasting this with ethnohistoric and ethnographic evidence from the region to provide possible parallels for ancient remains and popular practices. In this approach, cognitive, socio-religious and socio-sexual aspects are all incorporated into the analysis and interpretation of the evidence.
While the textual record from ancient Egypt makes no direct reference to the practice, it has long been recognized that the ancient Egyptians indeed tattooed themselves; there is much iconographic evidence, as well as a number of tattooed desiccated human remains, for example, excavated tattooed mummies from Deir el-Bahari in 1922-23. However, the identification of actual tattooing needles has proved to be a difficult task; they have not yet been positively recognized in archaeological contexts – some may have been mislabeled as awls or sewing needles. The use of many artifacts can only be inferred from their context and association, and tattooing needles are no different, although, if found sufficiently well-preserved, scientific analysis of their tips may identify traces of blood or the pigment used to create the tattoo.
From at least 2000 BC, evidence indicates that Nubian and Egyptian women were tattooed. These tattoos seem to have been primarily concerned with anxiety about fertility, as well as protection during childbirth, and were also linked to the goddess Hathor and therefore, sex, love, music and dance. Although there has been much discussion as to whether or not the Predynastic Egyptians practiced tattooing, no physical evidence has been recovered, and it was left to scholars to give their various interpretations of the patterns on Predynastic figurines; most concluded that the geometric designs on Predynastic figurines did not constitute conclusive evidence of tattooing. However, the discovery of three tattooed mummies at Deir el-Bahari seems to provide physical evidence demonstrating that tattooing took place in ancient Egypt in Dynasty XI – if the mummies are accepted to be culturally Egyptian rather than Nubian women. The identification of tattooing needles in archaeological contexts would help to provide a fuller picture of this practice. However, if the evidence for tattooing needles is indeed as much a matter of context as of form, then many tattooing needles may have been overlooked in past archaeological investigations. Some of the many awls and needles found on archaeological sites may, in fact, have been used as tattooing needles. Although finding metal rods is not unequivocal proof of Predynastic tattooing needles, their value as a means of supporting the already extant theories of ancient tattooing cannot be underestimated.
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