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There has been a revelation this week concerning the tattoos that were found on the preserved flesh of Ötzi, whose mummified body was found lying high in an Alpine pass back in 1991. Although these 57 tattoos caught the attention of researchers  many years ago, withbuch_iceman_05_02_09-42lr suggestions that many of the chosen locations on his body indicated they may have had a similar purpose to modern-day acupuncture, it is only through recent analysis that the actual components of the tattoo material have been determined.

The research is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, by Maria Anna Pabst et al, for which this is the abstract:

The Tyrolean iceman, a 5300-year-old mummy, presents tattoos on different parts of his body. Skin samples of several line tattoos and a cross tattoo were investigated by optical microscopy and various electron microscopy techniques (TEM, EFETEM, EELS, EDXS, electron diffraction). The epidermis of the investigated skin areas was mostly lacking. The tattooing particles are distributed in the connective tissue and could be identified as soot. In some areas between the soot particles, different silicate crystals are present such as almandine and quartz, along with some not exactly definable crystals. The crystals possibly derived from stones of the fireplace from which the soot was taken for tattooing.

Additionally, in the medial part of the right leg, putative ash particles were seen in the tattooed area. Furthermore, in non-tattooed skin areas, a vivianite crystal and small grains of CaPO4 and nearby Fe, P and O could be detected, these having formed most probably after the death of the Tyrolean Iceman during his long period in the mountains. On the surface of two leg specimens, a small layer with brown granules was visible by means of optical microscopy, and these were identified as melanin granules in the stratum basale of the epidermis.

Although soot was the main component, the presence of almandine and quartz crystals may have been intentional, as they added a glittering effect to the soot, although it’s also possible that these silicate crystals were accidental inclusions, coming from stones used in the hearth from where the soot was sourced.

According to Professor Pabst, the tattoos may well have been administered using a thorn – although presumably a bone needle would equally have sufficed, maybe one that was incised or engraved, if there was an element of ritual in the application involved. The designs of the tattoos appear largely to have been in the guise of series of parallel lines, in combinations of single, double and up to  a maximum of seven – and on one knee, a cross was also found. Moreover, the fact that the majority of these tattoos would have been hidden by clothing suggests that they were not primarily for display purposes, thus strengthening the theory that a pragmatic motive was at work.

But although there is evidence that Ötzi was in his early 40s and suffering from a variety of illnesses including arthritis and an aching stomach, for which acupuncture treatments are common, there is nothing to indicate exactly how old he was when the tattoos were etched into his flesh – or whether they were associated with a rite of passage, as can be observed in modern tribes (see Discovery video on linked page), or deeds he had accomplished. For example, some modern-day urban gang members in places like Compton, Los Angeles, bear striking ink designs specifically because they have achieved some task deemed worthy of marking, during the course of a career that is by necessity, violent, fractious and confrontational.

But despite the fact that Ötzi died a violent death under mysterious circumstances, and it’s not inconceivable that he had upset someone in a position of power to the extent that they felt it necessary to eliminate him, ostensibly there is nothing about his tattoos to suggest they may have identified him as a member of a specific group or clan of people. Instead, a consensus of opinion holds that his tattoos were therapeutic, such was their strategic placement on disparate areas of his body and limbs. And unlike a gang member from our world, Ötzi’s chief ailments during his later years appear to have been self-inflicted pathologies like arthritis, rather than stab wounds, broken bones or scars.

Back in 2007, the Smithsonian ran a piece, ‘Tattoos – The Ancient and Mysterious History’, which begins by saying that prior to the discovery of Ötzi, the oldest known tattoos on bodies came from the mummies of Egyptian women who had lived around 4,000 years ago, a good 1,300 years later than the Tyrolean man discussed here. Again, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest exactly why only women from this era bore tattoos, but it has been suggested that these too may have been therapeutic, perhaps as an aid to the travails of giving birth.

Early evidence we have of humans wearing tattoos that may have been mainly intended for display purposes comes from the Tarim Basin, located in modern day China, and which dates to about 3,000 years ago, the best example being that of Cherchen Man, whose face was adorned with striking yellow and purple patterns. Although upon their first discovery it was thought that he and many of the mummies found in the region were European, more recent genetic analysis indicates that the Tarim Basin was populated by people who had travelled in from many directions, as we see from this brief video clip.

As is noted, this area may have been a type of cultural cross-roads, where people from distant lands with different technologies and ideas would not only have exchanged their knowledge, but their genes as well. The question as to how it was that acupuncture appears in Europe long before it does in China might not have an immediate solution, but it can be no coincidence that with places like the Tarim Basin, ideas such as tattoos and therapeutic medical treatment could certainly have passed through such cultural hubs. Of course the question with Ötzi is whether acupuncture originated in Europe and was transported East to China, where the first acupuncture is known from around 3,000 years ago, or whether it originated (unseen in the archaeological record)  in China before 5,300 years ago, and was transmitted to Europe, via somewhere like the Tarim Basin. (for a fuller account of the general story, this PBS documentary is probably worth watching, (though I haven’t yet had the time.) For all we know acupuncture may have had an unknown centre of origin, spreading independently to Europe and China at different times, although how far back into prehistory that may have been can only be speculated upon.

There are some quite good online visual resources for anyone wishing to study Ötzi further; for example the Südtiroler Archäologiemuseum in Bolzano, northern Italy, has a series of excellent high resolution images which can be examined in detail, and New Scientist carries a selection of these – some are shown as captured in white light and ultraviolet.

There’s a photoscan of the entire body from the same museum, whilst down in Madrid, an exhibition is just getting under way, whereby the public can view not only a replica of the mummy, but replicas of the entire assemblage of items and possessions that were found nearby. You’ll need to visit the Museo Arqueológico Regional in Alcalá de Henares, Madrid between now and November 22nd, 2009 to catch the exhibition, ‘Ötzi, el Hombre que Vino del Hielo’, and if I get time it’s possible I’ll be tempted to drop by, not least because the rest of the museum is supposed to be pretty good in its own right.

image: copyright South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology / Eurac / Marco Samadelli / Gregor Staschitz)

Reference: The Tattoos of the Tyrolean Iceman: a Light Microscopical, Ultrastructural and Element Analytical Study by M.A. Pabst, I. Letofsky-Papst, E. Bock, M. Moser L. Dorfer, E. Egarter-Viglf and F. Hofer

Journal of Archaeological Science Article in Press, Corrected Proof

doi:10.1016/j.jas.2009.06.016

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