The Curse of the Ice Mummy! Are prehistoric tattoos art?

The Curse of the Ice Mummy! Are prehistoric tattoos art?

Tattooing is more popular than ever but did you know its roots lie deep in the prehistory of human beings. Tattooing dates back to the Stone Age and many are surprised to learn that ancient tattoos have survived the ravages of time preserved in the skin of mummies. Yayo sent out low grade Indiana Jones clone Matt Haddon-Reichardt to get the low down on prehistoric ink.


Art is ancient and defines what it is to be human. It is one of the dividing lines drawn in the sands of time between us and our prehistoric, proto-human ancestors. No other creature on the planet communicates through the symbolism of art. Many people know of the prehistoric paintings and engravings that adorn caves across the world, with striking geometric patterns and images of extinct beats and the hunters who stalked them. But fewer people know that tattooing has its roots in the Stone Age and that some of the best preserved prehistoric art is not on the walls of caves but embedded in human skin. But can we really call these primitive marks art?


 "The technique to produce the tattoos is known as scarification."

The earliest known tattoos belong to Otzi an ice mummy discovered in the Alps back in 1991. Otzi’s body dates back 5000 years making his tattoos older than Stonehenge and the pyramids of Giza. While the numerous marks on his skin are clearly tattoos the debate rages amongst scientists as to whether they can be regarded as art.


Otzi expert Dr Andreas Putzer does not think the tattoos are art.

“All the tattoos are in places that are normally covered by clothing, so they probably weren’t decorative. Blue-black lines are found in various places on Otzi’s body; near the lumbar spine, on the knee and ankle joints, and on one calf. The technique to produce the tattoos is known as scarification. They made a cut to the skin with a sharp object, probably with a flint stone, and rubbed a carbon paste into the skin. In all probability they are an early example of acupuncture. Severing nerve fibres during treatment can relieve pain. All the tattoos are located at points where the body is subject to wear and tear.”


“Nobody could know who produced these tattoos."

Mummies are very rare and mummies preserved well enough to allow the study of their tattoos are even rarer.

“We don’t know how common tattoos were in this period because the Iceman is the only mummy from this time,” Dr Putzer explains.

“Nobody could know who produced these tattoos. Generally in modern tribal communities the tattoos were made by shamans and they had a high social status in their community. We don’t know how tattoos fitted into the Copper Age culture Otzi was from. You have to consider that most of the prehistoric art was made in organic material which hasn’t survived the ravages of time, but I believe Otzi’s tattoos were functional and had no meaning.”


It is clear that body modification is an ancient practice but Social Anthropologist Elizabeth Ewart isn’t so certain that Otzi’s tattoos should not be regarded as art.

“Body arts can be understood in many different ways, many traditional practices have symbolic significance. Today when somebody tattoos a very personal message, they are also communicating. Minimally to themselves about the importance of the person or thing referenced, but also to the important person in their lives and indeed beyond to the wider public.”


"It certainly seems true that humans have modified their bodies in various ways since very ancient times."

Elizabeth’s position on the debate as to whether ancient body art is art is more nuanced than Dr Putzer’s.

“It certainly seems true that humans have modified their bodies in various ways since very ancient times, probably starting with shell beads that were used at least 80,000 years ago. Body art has a long history, whether it be powdered wigs and corsets of old, or tattoos and piercings more recently. The inspiration for designs and practices draws on a big wide world of practices. Other meanings aside from personal ones, encoded in body arts might be political or about group belonging. They may also be about social or personal status within a particular group.”


While the debate continues over whether we should call Otzi’s tattoos art, there is another Ice Mummy whose tattoos are so well preserved their beauty is undeniable. 2500 years ago a princess was buried in Siberia and her tattoos are some of the most beautiful works of art you will ever see.  

The tattooed bodies of a young woman and two men were found in the Republic of Altai in Russia. Buried in a kurgan, a tomb constructed of earth and stones, the bodies lay undisturbed until 1993 when scientist Dr Natalia Polosmak and her team uncovered them during a summer excavation. The bodies, dating back to the 5th century BCE, were preserved by the regions sub-zero temperatures mummifying the remains and preventing the decay of the beautifully detailed tattoos.


 'It is a phenomenal level of tattoo art. Incredible.' 

Of the 3 bodies it is that of the woman that has attracted the most interest due to her extensive tattoos. She is referred to as the Siberian Ice Maiden, but also known as Princess Ukok, the Altai Princess, and Ochy-bala. She is estimated to have lived to the age of 25 and by the time of her death had both her arms tattooed. The tattoos feature pictograms of animals and display a remarkable level of artistic design and craftsmanship.

"It is a phenomenal level of tattoo art. Incredible," Dr Polosmak told the Siberian Times.

The tattoos feature stylised representations of animals reminiscent of signs of the zodiac and mythological creatures. Evidence from other excavations indicates that the tattoos would have most probably been applied using bone needles and pigments derived from ash and animal fat.


Princess Ukok was from the nomadic Pazyryk people whose ancestors still inhabit the cold, inhospitable region she was buried in. Dr Polosmak believes the tattoos were more than just decorative body art.

"Tattoos were used as a mean of personal identification; like a passport now, if you like. The Pazyryks also believed the tattoos would be helpful in another life, making it easy for the people of the same family and culture to find each other after death," Dr Polosmak stated.

The body art is obviously the work of a highly skilled tattooist and according to Dr Polosmak would have been a sign of a person’s status in society.

“The more tattoos were on the body, the longer it meant the person lived, and the higher was his position.”


 "Compared to all tattoos found by archaeologists around the world, those on the mummies of the Pazyryk people are the most complicated, and the most beautiful."

While she is called a ‘princess’ it is not clear what position she would have possessed within her community. Experts have speculated that she may well have been a healer, a holy woman or revered folk tale narrator rather than a princess. The archaeological team found six horses complete with saddles and bridles buried close by. Entombed with her body were ornaments made from bronze, wood, felt and gold as well as a container filled with cannabis. Whatever her exact role in life the beautiful detail of her tattoos combined with her elaborate burial show she was of great importance to those who interned her below the frozen earth.

The 2 men buried with the princess are believed by archaeologists to have been warriors. One of the warriors has a tattoo on his right shoulder and like the princess the level of preservation is so good the archaeological team have been able to clearly reconstruct the design. The tattoo, which starts on his shoulder and stretches down his chest, features a horse with raptor heads for a mane. The warrior’s tattoo, like those of the princess, points to him being someone of status within his society.


More ancient tattooed mummies have been discovered elsewhere in the world but the tattoos of the Siberian ice mummies are perhaps the most sophisticated and eye catching. Dr Polosmak certainly thinks so:

"Compared to all tattoos found by archaeologists around the world, those on the mummies of the Pazyryk people are the most complicated, and the most beautiful."

So were Otzi’s tattoos art? Was the Siberian Ice Maiden a Princess? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.



 A Final thought from the author:

"Excavating tattooed mummies may be a gift to science but are unwitting archeologists unleashing dark forces from ancient curses? The local residents in Altai, where the mummy was uncovered, still venerate the bodies of their ancestors and Shamanism remains a powerful religion despite the efforts of the former USSR to stamp out indigenous beliefs. The Altai believe the disturbance of the tomb to be sacrilege and that the removal of the body has angered the spirit of the Ice Maiden. While excavating the burial chamber members of the team reported feeling the presence of the Ice Maiden’s spirit and at night experienced terrifying nightmares. The near fatal crash of a helicopter being used to transport the team off site was attributed to the angry spirit. Locals blame the removal of the body for all kinds of natural disasters from forest fires to earthquakes. The suicides of several people have been linked to the curse. Now the body has been returned to its homeland locals hope the curse will be lifted but controversy remains over archaeologist’s rights to excavate tombs across the world."



Images credited to Yayo, MNHR, Public Domain and individual right holders.