Julia Green, Staff Writer
As the Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass once stated, “For the first time, we will make these dead mummies come alive.” Not to be taken literally, Hawass was referring to the excavation and research of Egyptian mummies that to this day, are still being unearthed and studied. University of Missouri–St. Louis students and faculty were given the chance to learn about mummies for themselves at the “Embodying the Goddess: Tattooing and Religion in Ancient Egypt” event April 4 in the Millennium Student Center.
The presentation featured a variety of different experts from their respective fields. Anne Austin is an assistant professor in the UMSL anthropology and archaeology department. Her work on ancient Egyptian health and health care practices led to the focus of the event, the discovery of ancient Egyptian tattoos. Chelsea Holloway has been a licensed tattoo artist in St. Louis since 2008. Four years ago, she opened Earth Alchemy Tattoo Collective on Cherokee Street. Chelsea studied fine art and graphic design at St. Louis Community College and the Art Institute at Pittsburgh. Lisa Çakmak is the associate curator of ancient art at the St. Louis Art Museum who has worked extensively with Egyptian material in St. Louis. Reverend Rebecca Turner is the pastor of Christ Church United Church of Christ and a vibrant social justice congregation in Maplewood. Aaron Deter-Wolf is the prehistoric archaeologist for the Tennessee Division of archaeology, and for the past decade has been a leading researcher in the archaeological study of tattooing.
A mummy may get endowed with myriad tattoos to enhance the powers and abilities as a direct correlation to the roles of the mummies. “The mummy Dr. Austin talked primarily about was an older woman,” Deter-Wolf said. “The hypothesis is that she may have been a wise woman who acted as a healer and possibly leader in the cult of the goddess Hathor. Her tattoos might have demonstrated her revered status and endowed her with certain supernatural powers or abilities related to her role.”
The act of worshipping more than one god is called polytheism; it is what ancient Egyptians believed in as they worshipped in various forms. “During this period in Ancient Egypt, they believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses, who were worshipped by different groups in different settings,” said Deter-Wolf. Austin agreeably remarked, “Everyone in Egypt worshipped a variety of gods. There is no separate name for religion in ancient Egypt because it was so pervasive in everyday life, they didn’t need to name it separately.”
Tattooing has been a conversation of minuity in previous times. An object of organic substance may undergo bacteria decomposition or other organisms that are living. Some people are against tattooing while others see tattoos as figure decoration.
“There are several possibilities as to why ancient tattooing has been rarely discussed,” Deter-Wolf said. “First, certain items like skin may biodegrade and not be available for study. Secondly, evidence may be overlooked by archaeologists. Finally, evidence may have been deliberately ignored by scholars with prejudices against tattooing.”
While not everything is known about the roles tattoos played in ancient society, with researches now willing to study them, progress in that area of knowledge is sure to increase.
“Depictions of marked human bodies appear in ancient art dating back some 40,000 years before present,” Deter-Wolf said. “It is impossible to know for certain if the marks on these figures are intended to depict tattoos, but they are still an intriguing piece of indirect evidence.”
Dr. Austin’s findings have located recent truth due to technology advancements.
“The first tattooed mummies were discovered in the late 19th century,” Deter-Wolf said. “Dr. Austin’s work has discovered new evidence thanks to the use of new technologies and analyses.”
Since the genesis of the existence of tattooing, mummies were given ancient names and titles. It may be that tattoos can help someone live longer or die shorter. “The earliest physical evidence of tattooing appears on the mummy known as Ötzi, discovered in an Alpine glacier in the 1990s,” Deter-Wolf said. “Ötzi has more than 60 tattooed marks on his body and died around 3200 BCE. Two tattooed mummies from Egypt recently identified by the British museum date to about the same period. Based on this evidence we know tattooing has existed for at least 5,000 years.”
Of the tattoos examined, none seemed to point toward the possibility of being a pharaoh during their lifespans. “Of the thousands of bodies studied from ancient Egyptian cemeteries, none show a strictly Pharaonic tradition of tattooing,” Deter-Wolf said.
There were also Dynasty XI Mummies. “Three women found in 1891 and 1922 had tattoos, one of whom was identified as a priestess of Hathor, though there is ‘no definitive evidence’ that these tattoos are associated with Hathor,” Deter-Wolf said.
The attitudes that are directed toward Egyptian tattoos are colorful and intricate. “Two nearly complete mummies turned out to be those of dancing girls who had once been inmates of Neb-hepet-Re’s Harim.”
As the saying goes, “Inside every mummy is a story waiting to be told.” Professors and researchers such as the ones present at “Embodying the Goddess: Tattooing and Religion in Ancient Egypt” embody this idea and will continue to uncover the wealth of knowledge buried with the ancient deceased.