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Ötzi the Iceman’s 61 tattoos weren’t made in the way archaeologists first thought

In World
April 09, 2024

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Found high in the Tyrolean Alps in 1991, Ötzi the Iceman had dark skin and eyes and was likely bald. His remarkably well-preserved remains, frozen beneath ice for about 5,300 years, revealed 61 tattoos inked all over his body.

How and why Ötzi, perhaps the world’s most studied corpse, got the body art has long been a source of fascination. Initial analysis suggested the tattoos were incised with a blade and then impregnated with black pigment. Now, the latest research strongly suggests a single-point puncture tool, tipped with carbon pigment, could have been behind the markings.

“One of the threads we identified is that a lot of the work that was done on his tattoos initially was done by scholars who were excellent scholars but they were not themselves tattooed and didn’t have personal experience with the tattooing process,” said Aaron Deter-Wolf, lead author of the new study.

Ötzi's tattoos, captured with image-processing software, might have been part of an ancient healing technique, according to research. - EURAC Research-Institute for Mummy Studies/Marco Samadelli

Ötzi’s tattoos, captured with image-processing software, might have been part of an ancient healing technique, according to research. – EURAC Research-Institute for Mummy Studies/Marco Samadelli

“Over the years, I’ve had numerous conversations with professional tattooists and when you get talking about it and looking at the pictures, they say, oh, no, oh, no, those absolutely are not cut into the skin … but that hadn’t been shown in a scientifically sound setting,” explained Deter-Wolf, a prehistoric archaeologist at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology who has a tattoo similar to one of Ötzi’s on his wrist.

The study, published in the European Journal of Archaeology on March 13, reviewed existing literature on Ötzi’s tattoos and drew on present-day experiments replicating ancient tattooing techniques.

“Most of them were on the lower legs and ankles. One on the left wrist and there’s a set of them on the lower back around the cervical spine,” Deter-Wolf said.

“They’re lines that are in some cases crossed but more often parallel to one another. They range from two (lines) to five or six of them.”

Scientists have analyzed nearly every part of Ötzi and his belongings, painting an intimate picture of life in the late fourth millennium BC. And now, the new study provides a better understanding of how the oldest known tattoos in human history were created, though questions still remain about the meaning behind the body art.

A demonstration of hand-tap tattooing depicts the use of a bird-bone point with a handle. The design, created during a 2022 study of ancient tattooing tools and techniques, is not one of Ötzi's tattoos. - Candice Nel, after Deter-Wolf et al. 2022

A demonstration of hand-tap tattooing depicts the use of a bird-bone point with a handle. The design, created during a 2022 study of ancient tattooing tools and techniques, is not one of Ötzi’s tattoos. – Candice Nel, after Deter-Wolf et al. 2022

A scientific celebrity

Originally, researchers believed Ötzi froze to death, but a 2001 X-ray revealed an arrowhead in his shoulder, which would have been fatal. The iceman also had a head injury, possibly sustained at the same time, and his right hand shows a defensive wound.

The mystery over Ötzi’s violent death, who he was and how he ended up on a mountain pass has sparked interest far beyond the field of archaeology. Each year, thousands visit his mummified remains, which are on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.

The existing body of science on Ötzi is astonishingly comprehensive. Stomach contents yielded information on his last meal and where he came from, study of his DNA has revealed his ancestry and appearance, his weapons showed he was right-handed, and his clothes gave a rare look at what ancient people actually wore.

In a February 2016 study, Deter-Wolf compiled a database of dozens of examples of ancient tattoos, including body art found on Egyptian, Chinese and Incan mummified remains, that pinpointed Ötzi’s body art as the oldest known examples of tattooing. The feat was possible thanks to nondestructive digital imaging technology and collaborations between archaeologists and tattoo artists.

“Once we all put our heads together, we come up with a lot better and more informed hypothesis about how these things work,” he said.

Ötzi had tattoos on several areas of his body. - EURAC Research-Institute for Mummy Studies/Marco Samadelli

Ötzi had tattoos on several areas of his body. – EURAC Research-Institute for Mummy Studies/Marco Samadelli

The 2016 study suggests that tattoos are a long-standing and widespread cultural practice, with different means of permanently inserting pigments beneath the skin. The techniques include hand poking or tapping with the use of a single-point tool that may or may not have a handle; incision; and subdermal tattooing, or skin stitching, using a needle to thread an ink-soaked filament or sinew.

Deter-Wolf and his colleagues also experimented with different traditional techniques in a September 2022 study. Using eight tools fashioned from animal bone, obsidian, copper and boar tusk, along with a modern steel needle, New Zealand-based traditional tattoo artist and study coauthor Danny Riday inked tattoos on his leg.

The tattoos on Ötzi ’s body have rounded edges consistent with a hand-poked tattoo, most likely made with a bone or copper, Deter-Wolf said. In contrast, incision tattooing creates edges that are pointed because of the way the lines are cut into the skin.

“There’s a variation within the line because you’re putting in all of these individual punctures so closely to each other and how much they overlap results in kind of a stippling effect when you look at it under high enough magnification.”

A bone awl Ötzi carried in his tool kit was a potential candidate but has yet to be studied in detail to confirm whether microscopic wear marks are consistent with a tattooing function. However, Deter-Wolf thinks it’s unlikely.

“It’s strongly evocative in (the) context (of a) woodsman’s kit rather than a tattooing kit.”

The new knowledge about how Ötzi’s tattoos were likely made was “particularly exciting” because the puncture method used showed a continuity with present-day tattoo techniques, said Dr. Matt Lodder, a senior lecturer of art history and theory, and director of American studies at the University of Essex in the UK.

“The real magic of Ötzi’s story to modern eyes is how familiar it feels — anyone who has been tattooed, particularly if you’ve been tattooed with hand tools, can relate to the sensations he would have felt whilst being tattooed, the process he went through to heal his tattoos,” said Lodder, who is also the author of “Painted People: Humanity in 21 Tattoos.” He was not involved in the study.

“That we can empathise so strongly with a man who lived five millennia ago is a remarkably powerful link to our shared human past.”

A reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman is on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. Based on his DNA, scientists now believe he had dark skin and eyes and may have been bald. - South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Ochsenreiter

A reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman is on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. Based on his DNA, scientists now believe he had dark skin and eyes and may have been bald. – South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Ochsenreiter

Unresolved mystery of Ötzi’s tattoos

Why did Ötzi have so many tattoos? One explanation put forth in the scientific literature is that they were an ancient healing technique, a bit similar to an early form of acupuncture, rather than body art. Many of the tattoos could have been an ancient way to treat joint pain in his lower back, knees, hip and wrists.

“We don’t disagree with the idea that they could have been therapeutic. I think all of it’s on the table. Just because something has given us a therapeutic treatment doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have culturally symbolic value,” Deter-Wolf said.

Marco Samadelli, senior researcher at the Institute for Mummy Studies at Eurac Research, a private research institute in Bolzano, said the work was of a “high scientific standard.”

“The authors do not claim with absolute certainty the puncture tattoo technique with a single-pointed instrument, but give extensive and plausible explanations,” he said via email.

Samadelli urged the team to continue their study of Ötzi’s tattoos and how they were made.

“To date, there are no plans to examine the bone awl and horn tooth found with the Iceman to see if they were used as hand-tipped tools, but I hope Aaron Deter-Wolf will maintain his interest and apply to the scientific committee of the Ötzi Museum to analyze and study them.”

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