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The Scientific Study of Tattooed Mummies

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 conferred powers that could be called upon while giving birth or hunting. Yet starting around the 17th century, missionaries and colonists intent on “civilizing” Indigenous people put a stop to tattooing in all but the most remote communities. Until recently, Western archaeologists largely ignored tattooing. Because of these scientists’ disinterest, tools made for tapping, poking, stitching or cutting human skin were cataloged as sewing needles or awls, while tattooed mummies “were regarded more as objects of fascination than scientific specimens,” said Aaron Deter-Wolf, a prehistoric archaeologist at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and a leading researcher in the archaeology of tattooing. In Egypt, Anne Austin, an archaeologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has found dozens of tattoos on female mummies, including hieroglyphics suggesting the tattoos were associated with goddess worship and healing. This interpretation challenges 20th-century male scholars’ theories that female tattoos were simply erotic decorations or were reserved for prostitutes.