Mysterious tattoos on a 3,000-year-old female mummy have triggered new interrogations about the role of women in the religion of Ancient Egypt. Her body is decorated with elaborate tattoos representing lotus flowers, cows, and baboons as well as wadjet eyes – a very religious symbol.
The mummy was first discovered at Deir el-Medina, Egypt, in 2014. Based on the soft-tissue of her skin and the shape of her pelvis, researchers established that it was a woman.
Anne Austin, from French Institute of Oriental Archaeology, then noticed sophisticated ink drawings imprinted on the neck of deceased. First, she thought the symbols had been painted on the skin, but quickly realised they were in fact tattoos. They had been difficult to spot because the the mummy's skin is distorted due to the passing of time and covered in resin.
Working with her colleague Cedric Gobeil, she took X-rays of the skin and in 2016, infrared imaging, to get the full picture of the number of tattoos present on the mummy's body.
In total, about 30 tattoos ornate the woman's remains. "Pairs of wadjet eyes adorn her back neck, shoulders, so that from any angle you look at her, you see divine eyes staring back at you", Anne Austin told IBTimes UK.
Religious power back to women
While the wadjet eyes appear as the most obvious religious symbols, other tattoos on the mummy also belong to the realm of the sacred. Some of the drawings, such as the cows, are clearly associated with the goddess Hathor, one of the most important divinity in Ancient Egypt. The embodiment of joy, love and motherhood, Hathor was often depicted as a woman with the head or ears of a cow, or simply in cow form.
The researchers say these tattoos could have been a symbol of the deceased's piety during her lifetime. It could also suggest that she was an important religious figure, central to rituals.
"This mummy is interesting because it comes from a period of Ancient Egypt - the New Kingdom - when we thought women went through a vacuum of religious power, when they were rarely if ever called priestesses of goddesses like Hathor. But this tattooed mummy challenges this view that women were losing influence on the religious sphere", Austin says.
This hypothesis is further confirmed by the fact her tattoos were displayed in 'public places', that could be seen by all even when she was dressed – constantly reminding everyone of her association with the divine.
More than hits the eyes
The discovery is also interesting because it is the first evidence of this kind of detailed tattooing with symbols actually representing figures from the 'real' world. Previously, researchers had recovered three women buried in Egyptian graves who all displayed tattoos – but these were Nubian style tattoos, patterns of dots and dashes which puzzled experts as to their significance.
This mummy has therefore renewed their interest for the practice of tattooing in Ancient Egypt. The next step will be to have a look at other mummified specimens discovered in the past.
"It is interesting to think that we have recovered many mummified bodies yet not many of those appeared to have tattoos. After finding these tattoos, we went back and identified several other mummies with tattoos we had missed, so it is easy to imagine that they may have been overlooked on other bodies. We really need to look closer at ancient mummies, to check if they have tattoos that we may have missed", Austin concludes.