Infrared Imaging Reveals Female Egyptian Mummy Was Covered in Tattoos

May 9, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

An egyptian sarcophagus in the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester NY
Photo credit: Liz Lawley/flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). An egyptian sarcophagus unrelated to the tattooed mummy.

Depictions of animals and flowers adorned her body.

Ink covers the mummified remains of an Egyptian woman, discovered near Deir el-Medina in Egypt. Only a few other ancient Egyptian mummies have been found with tattoos, and none nearly as intricate as the ones on this woman’s body.

She is the first mummy from dynastic Egypt to sport tattoos of actual objects, including lotus blossoms on her hips, cows on her arm, and baboons on her neck, according to an article in Nature News. Wadjet eyes, which might have been meant to protect her from evil, mark the mummy’s neck, shoulders, and back.


“Any angle that you look at this woman, you see a pair of divine eyes looking back at you,” said bioarchaeologist Anne Austin of Stanford University, who presented her finding last month at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

The mummy’s skin was so darkened from the resins used in mummification that many of the tattoos were not visible to the naked eye. Austin used infrared imaging to peer more deeply into the skin. She then had to digitally stretch the images, which had been distorted by the mummy’s shrunken skin. Altogether, Austin tallied more than 30 tattoos.

Austin wrote: “Radiographic data together with analysis of the tattoos demonstrates that tattooing in Egypt was used to permanently and publicly display female religious identities.” Some of the images on the mummy’s body were symbols associated with ancient Egyptian deities.

It appeared that the tattoos were not added all at once, but rather were slowly accumulated throughout the woman’s life, suggesting to Austin “that one’s religious identity could evolve and grow throughout adulthood.”

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