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November 2002-April 2009Excavating Hierakonpolis
Bernie examines the bones from Tomb 9.
Skin still adhering to the pelvis was covered in tattoos, making it possible to reconstruct the design. Click to see the diamond design of tattoos.
Ivana models the tattoos.
Tattoo on the hand
Tattoos along the rib cage
It's hard to work when someone is staring at you!
More of the leather sleeve was found still wrapped around the arm.
The tattooed lady's maxilla showed she had lost all of her upper teeth!
Photos courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition. Click on images for larger versions.
by Renée Friedman

Nubians at Hierakonpolis: Week 5, Part 2

Although the excavations were over, it was not the end of the discoveries, but the one that was the most exciting was the Tale of the Tattooed Lady.

The Tattooed Lady

We had made good progress in the analysis and examination of most of our finds, but we had to wait for the physical anthropologists to provide answers for perhaps the most important aspect of any cemetery excavations: who were the people buried there. When physical anthropologists Bernadette Dickman from Belfast, Ireland, and Sean Dougherty from Indiana University, Bloomington, arrived and were finally able to stand upright (they had an unfortunate run in with a bad bowl of guacamole while in transit and it stayed with them for some time), we had many questions for them, especially with regard to Tomb 9--just who was the owner of all that fancy leather?

When Tomb 9 was discovered within the first week of the season, we were both short handed and overwhelmed, so we thought it best to pack away the fragile human remains and the copious amounts of soft tissue and wait for the skilled hand of the specialists. We carefully wrapped them in acid free tissue and aluminum foil and put them in the bone storage room. Once the Cipro kicked in and Bernie was ambulatory, we hauled the box out for her perusal. Even in her weakened state, she was able to answer the first of our questions: Boy or Girl? The pelvis was definitely that of a female.

With this vital piece of information we can now definitely state that the cut-work leather garment is a skirt, as Fran reconstructed it, and that such leather work can no longer be considered restricted to male apparel. Further, it would seem that the fine leather work which left its impression on the ear may well be a hairnet (and not underwear!), as we suggested earlier. It was great to have confirmation of our initial impressions, but that was not all that Bernie was able to see during her examination of the physical remains.

[image] Ear impressions suggest that a fine net of cut out leather was worn on this lady's head.

Carefully brushing away the thick crust of dirt adhered to most of the bones and soft tissue, her examination was almost like an excavation as more and more details emerged. Aside from containing the important clues for determining sex, the pelvis also retained portions of the skin that once covered it. A close look at that showed it was not just well preserved, but it was tattooed!

Quickly we gathered up the loose pieces of tattooed skin and remarkably we were able to connect some pieces with that still in place and reconstruct the elaborate pattern spreading across her abdomen, around her hip and on to her back. Although faint at first, we were able to draw out the chain of diamonds design with a mild cleaning in alcohol and water mixture. Now clearer, it wasn't any easier to record, as the designs occurred on a three-dimensional curving surface. After many false starts, it seemed the best way would be to simply get out a blue magic marker and a volunteer. The marker was easy to find, the volunteer less so. In the end, recourse was had to a piece of paper wrapped around the appropriate part of the female anatomy and it worked just fine, as our artist Ivana Milosavljevic illustrates.

The pattern within each diamond is made up of lines of dots. The number of dots per line is always four, suggesting that a comb with four sharp teeth was used to apply the pigment to the skin in a way described in ethnographic literature from Polynesia. In this method a comb with sharp teeth, often made of bone, is dipped in the pigment (possibly soot) and then positioned over the area to be tattooed and pounded into the skin with the rapid application of pressure (i.e., some sort of hammer!), some times repeatedly to make sure the pigment is well embedded. Painful no doubt, but evidently effective.

Further examination of other body part to which skin still adhered showed that body ornamentation wasn't restricted to the pelvis--she was covered with them. Another set of tattoos appeared over the rib case as a dotted zigzag running up along the front of the torso from at least the level of the waist to just below the breast. Another set of tattoos seems to have surrounded or decorated the breast, but our evidence breaks off at this point.

The back of the lower left arm also revealed a line of dots running from the wrist to the elbow and this was augmented by a single diamond, delicately placed, on the back of the left hand on the skin between the thumb and forefinger.

In fact just about everywhere there was skin preserved, close scrutiny revealed tattoos. We can only assume that the decoration was symmetrical, but we have little skin preserved from the right side of the body.


Click for detail.

As far as we can tell there was no tattooing of the face. While the skin on the face is not completely present, conditions were good enough to preserve the eyes, including the dark iris, which appeared after judicious brushing much to just about everyone's amazement if not chagrin. It is hard to study folks who stare back!

How much of these tattoos were commonly seen is a good question. Adhering to the arm bones, Bernie also found further pieces of the brown and white patchwork leather garment, which Fran believed to be a sleeve. It is not often that assumptions, even if based on the most careful observations, are proved to be so correct--here was not only the matching sleeve, but it was found in place over the arm!

It is possible that given her age, she wasn't anxious to exposing those tattoos too often, for she was no spring chicken! Definitely on the other side of 30 and possibly pushing on toward 50 at the time of her death, she had a full, if worn, set of lower teeth, but had lost every tooth in her upper jaw prior to her death and in most cases (a few front teeth being the only exceptions) long before, as the sockets have been completely reabsorbed.

In ancient Egyptian documentation, tattoos are associated with musicians and entertainers. We don't know what significance they may have had in Nubian society, and we have no idea why the lady in Tomb 9 should be so heavily tattooed while, for example, the lady in Tomb 10, whose skin was also extremely well preserved, had no tattoos at all. However, we do have one tantalizing clue. Although an older woman, the tattooed lady in Tomb 9 did not suffer from a great deal of osteoarthritis in her back. In fact, lipping (additional bone growth around the edges of the vertebrae because of strain) occurs only on three lumbar (lower back) vertebrae, suggesting a localized trauma to the spine--perhaps one too many back-flips in her youth?

[image] Musical entertainers and acrobats are often shown with tattoos in New Kingdom Egypt. This drawing of an acrobatic dancer (Ramesside period, ca. 1300 B.C.) is of especially interest. Note the tattoos on her lower arm (see larger image) and across her rib cage, and take a good look at her "loin cloth"!

From the examination of the skeletal material we now know that older women were buried in tombs 9, 10, 19, and 22, a younger woman in tomb 14; older men in tombs 18 and 20 with a younger man in tomb 17 (lower burial). Unfortunately not enough remained in tombs 6,12, 13,15 and 16 to determine sex, though all appear to have been adults. Children were buried in tombs 11, 17 (upper), 23 and 21, with infant bones in tomb 15 also. Thus it appears to be a cross section of a full population, and one that appears relatively healthy, wealthy and long lived. We had hoped that the sex of the occupants might help us explain the variations in orientation and architecture of the grave, but it just doesn't seem to work. More likely it seems that we may have revealed two separate family groupings, or possibly two different phases within the cemetery. Although more work is needed to tightly date the Egyptian pottery, it does look as if the southern side of the cemetery, and thus the more elaborate brick architecture, is earlier in time than the northern side, where above-ground tumuli are harder to distinguish. Clearly we have only just scratched the surface of this cemetery and with less than a quarter of it explored, it is too early to come to meaningful conclusions. See the final map.

However, it is certainly safe to say that this cemetery, possibly the last one in existence, has given us a better than expected opportunity to gain a better understanding of many fascinating aspects of ancient C-Group Nubian culture, one that apparently stood firm and proudly in the face of Egyptian culture and influenced it in various ways. But there is so much more to learn. Who knows what other secrets are lurking beneath its sands.

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