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“Of Mummies and Men: The Discovery of a Female Tattooed Mummy” Cédric Gobeil (EEG Study Day, April 2018)

In the last talk of the Essex Egyptology Group study day Cédric Gobeil told us about an exciting discovery in the 2014/15 season of a female mummy with several tattoos. He began by giving us some context for the discovery, and showed us some photos of Bernard Bruyère’s excavations of the eastern & western necropolises. Bruyère wasn’t interested in the human remains, he was only interested in the amulets etc that he could find on these mummies. So he unwrapped all the mummies that he found, which sadly has the knock on effect of damaging the mummy. The remnants were put back into some of the tombs and just left there.

The female tattooed mummy was found in TT291 in the western necropolis, which wasn’t the tomb where it was initially buried. Nobody knew there was anything in TT291 so when Gobeil first entered the tomb and discovered it was full of pieces of mummies & pieces of debris he got rather a shock! The tomb contents included skeletons, mummies, wrappings, coffin bits and whole coffins. The skeletons were generally mummies which had been unwrapped & deteriorated. The original context of the tomb contents was completely destroyed – some of the bits of coffin didn’t even come from the western necropolis – but there are some hints in Bruyère’s notebooks. Gobeil called in specialists like physical anthropologists, and the contents were conserved and investigated.

The first stage was to conserve all the mummies & other objects. Lots of the mummies were in plastic bags from the 1920s and they are now stored in acid free paper. They’ve also been numbered & tagged, and catalogued in a database. Whilst doing this work they discovered that one of the torsos had several tattoos on it.

At this point Gobeil took a step back and gave us some context for what was previously known about tattoos in Ancient Egyptian culture. At first the only evidence we had for tattoos came from figurines, particularly from the Pre-Dynastic and Middle Kingdom periods. It wasn’t clear from those whether they were designs on figurines, designs that would’ve been painted on the skin or tattoos. The first tattooed bodies found were female, and the placement of the tattoos was always the breast or pubic areas. So the theory was that they were to do with sexuality and eroticism. All these were geometrical figures or dots. There is later evidence from vignettes of figurative art tattoos, but no physical evidence of these. Once again the tattooed individuals were always female, like the fragment of decoration on a house altar of a tattooed dancing girl that Gobeil talked about in the first talk of the day.

The torso that they found had several tattoos. When they photographed it and used software to enhance the photos they discovered 20 or more tattoos. Using photographs to identify them also allowed them to correct for the skin shrinkage that occurred during mummification. The most obvious one is on the neck, there are several more on the back and also on the upper arms. There were no tattoos on the breast or pubic region, in distinct contrast to previously known tattooed individuals. In another contrast, all the tattoos are symbolic and figurative art.

Gobeil now talked us through the various tattoos. I’m afraid that the following is a bit of a long list, but I thought a summary wouldn’t get across the sheer extent & variety of symbols on this woman’s body. On her neck she had 3 wadjet eyes, 2 baboons and 1 nefer symbol arranged symmetrically. In fact the tattoos on her back were the only ones that weren’t a symmetrical set – only one scapula had been tattooed. On it was a symbol found on ivory wands, of a seated baboon with a wadjet eye. Her shoulder and upper arm tattoos were laid out as they were on a stela – if you look at someone side on the shape of the body here is reminiscent of a stela. On her upper arms were several different symbols. She had snakes facing forwards. There were also cross signs (a bit like four petalled flowers) of unknown meaning (but they also show up on reliefs in TT218 to do with a female offering ritual). She had handles of sistrums tattooed in a place that suggests they symbolically turned each of her arms into a sistrum. There were also 2 Hathor cows facing each other. On her front above the armpits were snakes over sun discs (like a uraeus on a sun disc), the goddess Wadjet wearing the red crown plus other unidentified symbols. And on her lower back there were lotus flowers blooming from her buttocks.

Who or what was she? It’s not clear. All of her symbols are also found in votive graffiti on the Hathor temple. This suggests that she might in some fashion be linked to Hathor. But probably not a priestess, as texts say that they don’t exist in the New Kingdom or later because women were considered too impure. There were also other roles for women in temples so this shouldn’t be ruled out. Texts also talk about rḫt, wise women, who can cure snake bites. So are her tattoos part of a ritual piece of a magic?

She was not the only tattooed individual they have found in TT291. Gobeil told us about three more examples of body parts with tattoos. One of these was a left arm which had a walking lion smelling a lotus flower motif – which also shows up in the Book of the Dead. This was not tattooed on the arm as part of the funerary process – all the tattoos they’ve discovered were made during the life of the individual. They have also found a hip with more tattoos that look like a belt and which raises the possibility that representations of “naked women wearing belts” might actually be naked women who have tattoos. Another pair of legs attached at the hip (from a woman) had a tattoo on the thigh of a band holding 5 lotus flowers (like a garter). These examples are unlikely to be all of them – they haven’t yet had time to examine all of the human remains from the tomb in this sort of detail.