Thursday, 17 March 2016




The practice of tattooing has origins deep in our past. Cultures across the world have used tattoos to adorn, heal and protect their bodies.  Recently, as part of an upcoming exhibition “Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art.,” the nearby Royal Ontario Museum has launched the hashtag #ROMink for visitors to send in photographs of their own tattoos.

While you might think that the transient nature of the human body means that tattoos have only been preserved photographically, hundreds of tattooed specimens can already be found in museums throughout the world. In this Throwback Thursday, we look at seven museums with tattoos in their collections.

1. ÖTZI, THE ICEMAN, in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Italy

Ötzi's mummified body and reconstruction. Source. 

In 1991, the body of a man now commonly known as Ötzi was discover melting out of a glacier in the Ötzal Alps, in the border region of Italy and Austria. Despite having died some 5,500 years ago, his body dried out in the high altitude of the mountains and excellently preserved its soft tissue. He has been subjected to perhaps more scientific study than any other human. 

Tattoos were made from charcoal rubbed into incisions rather than needles. Source.

With 61 markings across his body, Ötzi is the world’s oldest tattooed human.  His tattoos are located mostly grouped in lines and crosses around his degenerating joints and lower back. This seems to indicate that his tattoos had a therapeutic function, undergoing an early form of pain-relieving acupuncture on multiple occasions.

2. CHIRIBAYA ALTA MUMMY in the Chiribaya Museum, Peru

The tattooed right hand of the Chiribaya Alta mummy. Source.

Since she was discovered in 1990, the 1000-year-old female mummy of Chiribaya Alta in southern Peru has drawn scholarly interest for the two sets of markings she bears: fine swirling symbols along her hands and wrists and uneven circles on her upper back and neck. 

The bottom decorative tattoos are thought to be stylized apes, birds, reptiles and plants. Source

The use of different tattooing materials suggests that the former were solely decorative, while the latter - closely corresponding to Chinese acupuncture sites - were therapeutic in intention, like those found on Ötzi. 

3. THE SIBERIAN ICE PRINCESS in the Anokhin Museum, Russia &
4. THE PARZYRYK CHIEF in the State Hermitage Museum, Russia

The Siberian Ice Princess' mummified body. Source

Some of the most spectacular body art in the ancient world have been found adorning the remains of the Scythian Pazyryk people discovered in southwestern Siberia. High in the Altai Mountains, subterranean tombs dug into permafrost and flooded with frozen water preserved the remains from the nomadic tribe who lived in the 3rd-5th centuries BC. 

Her mythological deer tattoo with griffon's beaks on its face, antlers and back. Source.

Two of the best examples, a 25-year-old women called the “Siberian Ice Princess” and a 50-year-old man dubbed the “Parzyruk chief” as seen below, are covered with elaborate tattoos depicting a variety of animals and mythical creatures in action: running, stalking prey, and twisting in S-shapes, which scholars call “the pose of agony.”

Diagram of the Pazyryk Chief's tattoos showing a fish on his right leg, a tiger with a spiralling tail on his back and chest, and rams, deer and mythical monsters on his arms. Source.  

According to Greek historian Herodotus, tattoos for the nomadic Scythians were status symbols and not having them signified low birth.

5. SUDANESE MUMMY in the British Museum, UK

In 2005, British Museum archaeologists discovered on the bank of the Nile a cemetery of mummies dried out by the African heat. One of the mummies, a 20 to 35 year old female who lived around 700 AD, was so well preserved that archaeologists could make out a tattoo on the inner thigh of her right leg.

Tattoo with the naked eye, left, and infrared technology, right. Source.

The tattoo to be a monogram written in ancient Greek that reads Μιχαήλ, transliterated as M-I-X-A-H-A, or Michael. At the time, the shapes of letters and creating designs with them captivated the imaginations of many literate populations across the Mediterranean. Curators think her tattoo represents the Archangel Michael featured in the Bible, who was made a patron saint of Christian Nubia. Perhaps she used it for protection.

6. MOKOMOKAI in the American Museum of Natural History, USA

Mokomokai in the Hall of the People of the Pacific. Source.

The mokomokai of the New Zealand Maori - human heads reserved through baking and smoking - provided a mean of preserving the remains of family members, but also the family and personal information recorded in their elaborate unique ta moko facial tattoes. Maori culture was ravaged with the introduction of muskets by European traders in the 1820s. Aside from promoting conflict between enemies, this led to the trafficking of many mokomokai to Europeans, who sold them on to Western museums, degrading the tradition. While there has been success in repatriating the mokomokai, other museums have kept them in storage, and Maori campaign to bring home their ancestors is ongoing.

7. 20th CENTURY HUMAN SKINS in the Medical Pathology Museum at Tokyo University, Japan 

Dr. M. Fukushi's son holding up a wet-preserved specimen. Source.

Dr. Masaichi Fukushi was intensely interested in preserving traditional Japanese tattoo style, fearing that the art would be lost with the wearer. In his lifetime, he took over 3000 photographs and catalogued over 2000 designs. What is special though, is that in 1926 he began physically collecting tattoos. 

With the permission of his patients prior to death, he performed autopsies and removed their tattoos to be preserved. Today, the collection consists of around 105 preserved human skins, including a number of full body suits, but is not available for public viewing.  


Should museums be collecting tattoos to preserve the art form for future generations? 

Does age or ethnicity matter to whether human remains should be exhibited? 

No comments:

Post a Comment