Abridged Guide to Ancient European Tattooing
This research will explore the tattoos found on Ötzi the Iceman and the Pazyryk culture mummies and how their ancient markings inspired me to research and then recreate ancient methods of tattooing from Europe.
Who were these tattooed people?
The tattooed and mummified remains of several individuals of different cultures have been found over the last 30 years. Ötzi was a copper age man living between 3350 and 3105 BC whose mummified body was discovered in September 1991 in the Ötztal Alps (hence the nickname “Ötzi”) on the border between Austria and Italy. Ötzi’s skin eventually tallied a total of 61 tattoos.1
The Pazyryk culture was a Scytho-Siberian representative of the Pazyryk culture that thrived on the Eurasian Steppes in the 5th century BC The mummified humans were found in the Siberian permafrost, in the Altay Mountains. The Siberian Ice Maiden was found undisturbed in a subterranean burial chamber in 1993. She was found tattooed with an animal-style deer tattoo on one of her shoulders, and another on her wrist and thumb.2 She is one of the most significant Russian archaeological findings of the late 20th century. Two years later The Horseman was found because he was buried with his mount, he is elaborately tattooed with an elk covering his right shoulder and has two long platted braids reaching to his waist. The Horseman was estimated to be between 25 and 30 years old at his death which from the markings on his body appear to be from either an enemy’s weapon or animal horn. The Pazyryk burials are a remarkable feat of preservation due to the layers of permafrost that encapsulated the mounds.3
What’s significant about these mummies and their tattoos?
Radiological examination of Ötzi’s bones showed “age-conditioned or strain-induced degeneration” corresponding to many tattooed areas in the lumbar spine and wear-and-tear degeneration in the knee and especially in the ankle joints.4 It has been theorized that because many of these tattoos are on meridians, acupuncture and acupressure areas of the body, or over arthritic joints that the tattooing may have been a treatment to release pain.5 The preserved skin of the Ice Maiden and the Horseman are some of the best examples (and often replicated ) of ancient tattooing. These tattoos are some of the earliest figural tattoos and give us insight into an otherwise lost culture.
We can date tattooing as an art form at least back 5,300 years to Ötzi. We have tools from the Americas dating between 5,520 and 3,620 years ago indicating the Native American cultures were likely practicing this art at the same time.6 As we continue through history, we see more and more evidence of tattooing in different ancient cultures. We have tattoo ink recipes from Rome and descriptions of tattoos from the Volga River and we have ancient methods of tattoo removal that were in use up until the late 20th century.7 The history of the art form survives in our modern world.
I am an inked individual with a love of tattooing and fascination with the art form. My journey led me delve into the history of ancient historical tattoos as well as explore types of inks and methods of application. From there the natural course was to experiment and recreate a few historical inks and utilizing those inks in period application methods such as bone needles for tapping and puncture methods to recreate tattoos of early Europe.
During my research into and tattooing with historical methods and inks, I came to know what these people must have gone through to get a tattoo. My appreciation for the peoples who did this thousands of years ago is immense. Creating the inks and the needles for this took hours on its own. Filing the bone and bronze wire to points to be used was a start. The inks themselves took time to turn materials into usable inks, but my real appreciation comes from the time spent tattooing. In total I tattooed 3 designs, a replica of Ötzi’s 3-line wrist tattoo, a Scythian deer and a Tiwaz rune. The wrist tattoo was done with lamp black ink, and the deer and tiwaz rune were done with Aetius’ formula. Each tattoo took multiple pass with the needles and ink to get dark lines, but Aetius’ ink proved the more difficult to work with. Total time for the 3 lines, just under 45 min and they have a nice rich black finish like Otzis. 6 hr 12 min from start to finish on the deer, and while it is dark, that is due to many more passes with the needle and ink, in all, one must think how long it must have taken to ink the Ice Princess.
For nearly 6,000 years, mankind has been adorning themselves with markings, whether for medicinal, religious, or purely for decoration. We can see an evolution not only in artistic form but as motive and meaning. From Ötzi’s tattoos which corresponded to pressure points where the tattooing might have been a medical practice to the tattoos of the Ice Maiden and the Horseman where the tattooing was more decorative form of self-expression and adornment. While there are cultures even today that use tattooing a as medicinal form of healing, we can see the evolution of an art form towards a pure expression of individualism. With a quarter of the US population alone sporting at least one tattoo, one could say we are all suffering for art. My experimentations with the various inks, have taught me that while the inks may have worked the ancients might have literally suffered.