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Archive for the 'Gemma Angel' Category

Tattoos That Repel Venomous Creatures! The Tragic Tale of Prince Giolo

By Gemma Angel, on 27 May 2013

Gemma Angel by Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

The tattooed body has been an object of spectacle and a source of fascination in Europe for at least 4 hundred years. Tattooed natives captured by European explorers were transported to Europe and put on display as curiosities or ‘sights’ from as early as the middle of the 16th century. In 1566, a tattooed Inuit woman and her child were kidnapped by French sailors and put on display in a tavern in Antwerp, The Netherlands. 10 years later, the sometime pirate and seaman Martin Frobisher returned to England from his voyage to Baffin Island in northeastern Canada with a native man whom he had abducted; this unfortunate individual caused such a stir in London, that Frobisher returned from his second voyage to the region with 3 more Inuit captives, who drew equally fascinated crowds when he landed in Bristol. Sadly, all 3 of his human cargo died shortly after their arrival on British shores, succumbing to common European illnesses against which they had no natural immunity.

A similar fate befell the Miangas islander named Jeoly, who became popularly known as ‘Prince Giolo’ when he arrived in England in 1691. Perhaps the most famous of all the tattooed ‘curiosities’ exhibited in Britain, Jeoly was purchased as a slave by the buccaneer-adventurer William Dampier in Mindanao, the Philippines, in 1690. Having failed in his ambitions to discover unexploited spice and gold wealth in the Spice Islands, Dampier returned to England broke, with only his diaries and his ‘Painted Prince’ to show for travels. On his arrival home, Dampier sold Jeoly on to business interests, and later published his journals under the title A New Voyage Around the World, in 1697. In these diaries, Dampier describes Jeoly’s elaborate tattoos in some detail:

He was painted all down the Breast, between his Shoulders behind; on his Thighs (mostly) before; and the Form of several broad Rings, or Bracelets around his Arms and Legs. I cannot liken the Drawings to any Figure of Animals, or the like; but they were very curious, full of great variety of Lines, Flourishes, Chequered-Work, &c. keeping a very graceful Proportion, and appearing very artificial, even to Wonder, especially that upon and between his Shoulder-blades […] I understood that the Painting was done in the same manner, as the Jerusalem Cross is made in Mens Arms, by pricking the Skin, and rubbing in a Pigment. [1]

Prince Giolo, 1692

Playbill advertising ‘Prince Giolo’ in London, 1692.
Etching by John Savage.
Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Australia.

Jeoly was put on display ‘as a sight’ at the Blue Boar’s Head Inn in Fleet Street in June 1692. A number of copies of the playbill advertising his public appearances survive (pictured above). The original advertisement includes a detailed etching of Jeoly by John Savage, showing the tattoos over the front of his body, arms and legs, which resemble traditional Micronesian tattoos of the Caroline and Palau Islands. [2] As well as this striking image, a somewhat embellished story of his life was printed beneath the illustration. Interestingly, this accompanying text ascribes potent protective and healing powers to Jeoly’s tattoos, claiming that his people believed them to be a defense against ‘venomous creatures’:

The Paint it self is so durable, that nothing can wash it off, or deface the beauty of it: It is prepared from the Juice of a certain Herb or Plant, peculiar to that Country, which they esteem infallible to preserve humane Bodies from the deadly poison or hurt of any venomous Creatures whatsoever.

Whilst tattooing was considered to possess magical, protective and medicinal properties in many cultures, it is more than likely that the stories claiming that Jeoly’s tattoos repelled venomous creatures were dreamed up by his exhibitors, rather than having any genuine basis in his own native belief system. Dampier himself remarked upon the ‘Romantick stories’ which circulated in England about Jeoly’s origins, openly ridiculing the marketing campaign:

In the little printed Relation that was made of him when he was shown for a Sight in England, there was a romantick Story of a beautiful Sister of his a Slave with them at Mindanao; and of the Sultan’s falling in Love with her; but they were Stories indeed. They reported also that this Paint was of such Virtue, that Serpents, and venomous Creatures would flee from him, for which reason, I suppose, they represented so many Serpents scampering about in the printed Picture that was made of him. But I never knew of any Paint of such Virtue: and as for Jeoly, I have seen him as much afraid of Snakes, Scorpions, or Centapees, as my self. [3]

In the lower foreground of the illustration, a variety of reptiles and scorpions can be seen fleeing from Jeoly’s feet, his tattoos apparently acting as some kind of aposematic deterrent. Tragically however, Jeoly’s tattoos could not protect him from the foreign infections that he was exposed to in England; he died of smallpox in Oxford sometime in 1693. Although his grave is not marked, and his name does not appear in the Parish register, Jeoly is thought to be buried in St Ebbe’s Churchyard. After his death, a fragment of his tattooed skin was removed and preserved for the Anatomy School collections at Oxford University by the surgeon Theophilius Poynter. This skin fragment was recorded in a list of ‘Anatomical Rarities’ in the Appendix of John Pointer’s 4 volume catalogue for his Musaeum Pointerianum, the cabinet of curiosities he left to St. John’s College Oxford in 1740. [4] Although the skin did not survive, having been lost by the early 20th century, this appears to be the first documented instance of the collection and preservation of tattooed human skin as an anatomical curiosity in England.

Jeoly’s tragic story of enslavement, forced re-location to Europe, public exhibition for profit, fatal illness, and the preservation of his tattooed skin for display as an anatomical rarity, speaks of the foreign body on multiple levels. From the 16th century onwards, the tattooed body of the native became a powerful symbol of foreignness, that could reliably draw curious European crowds and turn a profit for unscrupulous entrepreneurs; but the consequences for displaced foreigners like Frobisher’s Inuits and Dampier’s ‘Painted Prince’ were grave indeed. Exposed to invisible and deadly foreign bodies such as measles and smallpox, they died far from home, unable to fight off common European illnesses against which they had no natural defences.


References:

[1] William Dampier, A New Voyage Around the World, ed. N. M. Penzer (London: Adam & Charles Black), 1937, p. 344.

[2] See Tricia Allen, “European Explorers and Marquesan Tattooing: The Wildest Island Style” in D.E. Hardy (ed) Tattootime Volume V: Art from the Heart, (1991) pp. 86-101; also Kotondo Hasebe, “The Tattooing of the Western Micronesians” in The Journal of the Anthropological Society of Tokyo Vol. XLIII No.s 483-494 (1928), pp. 129-152 (in Japanese).

[3] Dampier, A New Voyage Around the World, p.346.

[4] Geraldine Barnes “Curiosity, Wonder and William Dampier’s Painted Prince“, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2006), p. 32 & 43.

Mythical Hybrids and Fantastic Beasts

By Gemma Angel, on 13 May 2013

Gemma Angelby Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

I’m going to describe a creature, and you have to try and guess what it is, based on the following three clues: 1) it lays eggs; 2) it has venomous claws; and 3) it uses electroreception to assist it in catching prey under water. You probably guessed some sort of reptile, right? Wrong. Ok, so those questions were a bit tricky. I’ll give you another three clues: 4) it’s semi-aquatic; 5) it has thick fur; and 6) despite laying eggs, it suckles its young on milk. Some of you will probably have worked out what this mysterious animal is by now. I am, of course, describing Ornithorhynchus anatinus, or as it is more commonly known, the platypus.

Growing up in Australia, I was fascinated by the native wildlife. As a curious 7-year-old recently emigrated from England, I tried to assimilate the unfamiliar Antipodean fauna into my limited understanding of the animal kingdom, largely through approximations: To me, the wombat was like a kind of stout, snub-nosed badger; sugar gliders were reminiscent of squirrels; and the echidna was a larger and longer-nosed version of the hedgehog. Kangaroos were a more difficult species to accommodate, with a face similar to a deer, and the hind legs of some sort of giant Alice-in-Wonderlandesque rabbit. But my system completely fell down when it came to the platypus. This creature was truly weird, a kind of animal cut-and-paste that defied all of the categories that I tried to fit it into. As it turned out, I wasn’t alone in my estimations of this remarkable and unique creature.

Platypus-sketch

Ornithornhynchus anatinus, John Gould (1863).

As an Australian native, the platypus has been known in Aboriginal culture for millennia – but it was not until 1797 that Europeans first encountered them. Captain John Hunter of the Royal Navy sent a pelt and a sketch back to Britain in 1798, [1] but the bizarre appearance of the creature baffled European naturalists. Some considered it to be an elaborate hoax, and Scottish zoologist Robert Knox believed the creature to be the work of an inventive Asian taxidermist. Even George Shaw, the first man to scientifically describe the platypus, admitted that “a degree of scepticism is not only pardonable, but laudable … I almost doubt the testimony of my own eyes.” [2]

Whilst it makes perfect sense that European observers would find the platypus strange, having never encountered anything like it in the Northern hemisphere outside of the bizarre chimerical creatures of mythology, it is perhaps more surprising that Aboriginal Dreamtime legends also describe the platypus as a peculiar exception within the animal realm. Known as the ‘mallangong’, tambreet’ or ‘duliawarung’ to local indigenous peoples, Aboriginal story-telling traditions use myth to explain the unique appearance and behavioural characteristics of the platypus. The platypus was believed to be the offspring of a mother duck and a father water rat, accounting for its unusual characteristics – inheriting the duck-bill, webbed feet and egg-laying abilities of their mother, and the thick fur, claws and four legs of their father. In an origin story of the platypus from Northern New South Wales, their poor mother Gaygar is ostracized by the other ducks because of her bizarre-looking hatchlings, and is forced to leave her home on Narran Lake. She takes her babies up into the Warrumbungle mountains, thereby accounting for why platypus are only found in particular regions. In another story from the New South Wales Central Coast, the animals argue amongst themselves about who is the most important creature. They form three exclusive groups, all convinced of their superiority: The animals with fur who can run across land, the birds who lay eggs, and the water creatures who can swim. All of the groups want the platypus to join them, since he shares characteristics with all of them, and each faction invites him to be part of their group. After thinking about this for some days, the platypus gathers all the animals to tell them his decision:

I don’t have to join anyone’s group to be special because I am special in my own way. Because I have fur and love to run across the land, I have a little bit of animal in me. I also have a little bit of bird in me because of my bill and the fact that my wife lays eggs. As well, I also have a bit of water creature in me because I love to swim and explore the underwater world. […] I don’t know why the ancestors have made us all different, but we must learn to accept these differences and live with each other. [3]

All of the animals listening, including people, agreed that the platypus was very wise; and the people decided that they would not hunt the platypus because he was so special. Non-human animal hybrids of Eurasian mythology have also often been considered special, such as the Griffin, which combined features of the lion and eagle, both of which were regarded as especially regal animals.

Animal-hybrids from diverse mythological traditions demonstrate the significance of animals within human culture, playing an important role in origin stories and cosmology, as well as in defining what it is to be human. In the Aboriginal story above for instance, the strange ‘hybrid’ character of the platypus reminds us to accept and learn from our differences. To early European observers, the platypus must have seemed like the ultimate foreign creature, an almost perfect embodiment of mythical animal-assemblages such as the Chimera, a fire-breathing, androgynous, composite creature of ancient Greek legend that had the head and body of a lion, a snake for a tail and the head of a goat emerging from its back. But the platypus does not merely look like an odd melding of different species; recent scientific research has revealed that the platypus also has a very complex genetic lineage. Studies on platypus venom, which is secreted from a gland in the male’s hind legs and delivered by a ‘spur’, or hollow claw-like structure, have shown that their venom contains 80 different toxins, which share genetic similarities to poisons produced by snakes, lizards, spiders, starfish and sea anenomes, as well as containing 3 proteins that are unique to the platypus. [4] Despite these genetic similarities, this research suggests that platypus venom is an example of convergent evolution, whereby similar traits in different genetic lineages can arise independently due to similar environmental pressures. The eye, wings and fins are all examples of convergent evolution. Thus it seems that whilst the platypus appears to closely resemble a range of other species – both on the surface and genetically – it is nevertheless a uniquely adapted and very special creature indeed.

Platypus taxidermy specimen at the Grant Museum of Zoology. © The Grant Museum, UCL.

Platypus taxidermy specimen at the Grant Museum of Zoology.
Photograph © The Grant Museum, UCL.

 


References:

[1] Brian K. Hall, The Paradoxical Platypus in BioScience, Vol. 49 No. 3 (March 1999), p. 211. 

[2] George Shaw, The naturalist’s miscellany – Platypus Anatinus, June 1799, Vol. 10, published by Frederick P. Nodder, (London 1813/14). Available online from the Library of NSW.

[3] Helen F. McKay, Pauline E. Jones, F. Francis & June E. Barber: Gadi Mirrabooka: Australian Aboriginal Tales from the Dreaming. Libraries Unlimited (2001), pp. 57-60 & 83-85.

[4] Ewen Callaway, Poisonous Platypuses Confirm Convergent Evolution in Nature, (October 12th 2012).

Painted Skins & Butterfly Wings

By Gemma Angel, on 1 April 2013

Gemma Angelby Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

When I first began my doctoral research into tattoo preservation three and a half years ago, I assumed that tattoo collections such as those held by the Science Museum in London were rare. Whilst collections of inked human skin are most definitely unusual, I was soon surprised and intrigued to discover that such objects exist in almost every museum archive, university anatomy department, or pathology collection that I have visited over the course of my research. The largest collections, of which the Wellcome Collection is the major exemplar, are dry-preserved and date from the 19th century – similar collections can be found across Europe, and the MNHN in Paris has a collection of 56 tattoos which are very similar to those in the Wellcome collection. Historically, these collections may be medical, anthropological, or criminological in origin.

In anatomy and pathology collections, tattoo specimens tend to be wet-preserved and date more recently, usually from the early part of the 20th century anywhere up to around the 1980s. But why are these objects preserved in anatomy and pathology departments at all? There is of course nothing pathological about tattooed skin in itself – so it seems strange that specimens like the one pictured below are displayed alongside other pathological skin specimens such as cutaneous anthrax, fibromas, keloids and glanders. What, if anything, can be learned from these tattoos in medical terms? Or are these striking collections of decorated human skin merely objects of curiosity? Often, the simple answer is that they are a little bit of both…

Tattooed human skin specimen. UCL Pathology Collections. Photograph © Gemma Angel.

Tattooed human skin specimen. UCL Pathology Collections.
Photograph © Gemma Angel.

The collection of tattoos pictured here are a case in point. These particular tattoos belonged to one individual, whose very brief case notes have been recorded and retained along with the specimen in UCL Pathology Collections. The notes provide an intriguing glimpse into the life of the individual to whom the tattoos belonged, as well as revealing something of the clinical interests and collecting practices of the doctor who preserved them:

From a man aged 79 years who had earned his living for many years as the Tattooed Man in a circus. His entire body, except for the head and neck, hands and soles of his feet, was covered with elaborate tattoo designs. He died of peritonitis due to a perforation of an anastomatic ulcer … In tattooing, fine particles of pigment are introduced through the skin, taken up by histiocytes and become lodged in the tissue spaces of the dermis. Pigment also passes to the regional lymph glands via the lymphatics. In this case, all the superficial lymph nodes were heavily pigmented.

It is clear from these brief comments that the nature and extent of this man’s tattoos were indeed of anatomical interest to the medical practitioner: The tattooed man had been so extensively tattooed that gradual migration of ink particles resulted in the collection of pigment in the lymph glands. This demonstrates that although tattoo ink is trapped permanently under the skin following healing, it does actually travel within the body over time, filtering into the body’s tissue drainage system, and collecting in the lymph glands. Whilst this is certainly an interesting anatomical observation, it is not the pigmented lymph glands that the doctor has chosen to preserve, but rather the tattooed skin itself. Without these accompanying case notes, we would never have known that this man’s tattoos had exerted any effect on another of the body’s organs and systems at all.

Reverse panel of tattooed human skin specimen Z6,  showing tattoos of a butterfly and a flying fish.UCL Pathology Collections.Photograph © Gemma Angel.

Reverse panel of tattooed human skin
specimen Z6, showing tattoos of a
butterfly and a flying fish.
UCL Pathology Collections.
Photograph © Gemma Angel.

It would be equally impossible to know whether or not these were the only tattoos he possessed – or indeed, if they all necessarily belonged to the same person. There are strong stylistic similarities between the butterfly motifs, suggesting the work of a single tattooist, or perhaps that the individual motifs were part of a larger design. But just how large or complex the design may have been, we certainly cannot tell just by looking at these 5 small tattoos. We know that they belonged to a 79-year-old man, who made his living as a Tattooed Man, only because the doctor tells us so. He or she also tells us that his body was covered in tattoos – yet only 5 small pieces have been preserved. Five carefully selected motifs, chosen by the doctor from an already complete collection, which provided the livelihood and told the life story of one unnamed man. What selection criteria did the pathologist adopt when deciding which tattoos to preserve, and which to consign to the grave? The manner in which the specimens have been excised and mounted are strikingly reminiscent of a lepidopterist‘s collection of butterflies – could this reflect the personal collecting interests of the pathologist, or perhaps even the Tattooed Man himself? Both the pathologist and Tattooed Man alike chose these butterflies – did they also share a passion for lepidoptery?

Many people will be familiar with the kind of insect specimen displays that are a staple of natural history collections – the old 19th century museum cases containing neat rows of pinned and mounted moths and butterflies, neatly organised according to subspecies and morphological characteristics. The tattooed butterflies share some remarkable similarities with these entomology collections; they are arranged one above another, and “pinned” to a support with small surgical stitches. Unusually for specimens found in pathology collections, this support is a slightly translucent black. This appears to be a deliberate choice on the part of the pathologist – the black perspex provides a contrasting ground for the display of tattoos on opposite sides of the vitrine, such that they do not visually detract from one another. These aesthetic choices suggest a nuanced interest in the collection and display of these specimens, which goes far beyond a straightforward medical interest in the anatomy of the tattoo. From the limited case notes and analysis of the specimen itself, we can learn something about the pathologist’s interest in the tattoo, but we are still no closer to being able to answer the fundamental question – why collect tattoos at all?

Butterfly display at UCL's Grant Museum. Photograph © UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology.

Lepidoptera display at UCL’s Grant Museum. Photograph © UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology.

There is no part of the body able to register the history of a life lived so much as the skin: wrinkles, scars and lines all map out our lives on the surface of our bodies as we age. The tattoo reinforces this unique capacity of the skin to record the traces of our experience, in the conscious act of permanently inscribing memory in skin. The pathologist, uniquely acquainted with death by virtue of their specialism, is perhaps best positioned amongst medical professionals to appreciate the peculiar relationship of the tattoo with mortality. It is a trace of the subjectivity of the deceased that is capable of outliving them, akin to a photograph or written memoir. From this point of view, it no longer seems surprising that tattoos are so often found in pathology collections; perhaps the pathologist who collected the Tattooed Man’s butterflies simply wished to preserve a small part of a colourful and remarkable life.

 

Pulling Teeth: Ovarian Teratomas & the Myth of Vagina Dentata

By Gemma Angel, on 4 March 2013

  by Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

In preparation for our upcoming exhibition, Foreign Bodies, several members of the engagement team went to visit UCL Pathology Collections, to have a look at a collection of foreign objects removed from the human body. We soon encountered a number of other specimens which resonated with the exhibition theme in various ways: From a liver infected with syphilis, to a ruptured oesophagus and the sword swallower’s sword that caused the fatal injury; to a feotus inadvertently discovered during a hysterectomy, which was performed to extract a large tumour on the uterus.

The UCL Pathology Collections comprise over 6,000 specimens dating back to around 1850, many of which have been absorbed from other London medical institutions over the past 25 years, and these are currently in the process of being re-catalogued and conserved. It is a fascinating, not to mention an educationally invaluable collection – not least because it contains many specimens that demonstrate gross clinical manifestations of diseases which are now very rare in the Western world. Some of these diseases, such as syphilis, are unfortunately making a comeback, so it seems more important than ever that medical students are able to recognise the clinical signs of these infections. Pathology collections are a highly valuable medical teaching resource; particularly since these kinds of collections are now unlikely to be expanded in the wake of the 2004 Human Tissue Act.

As with many historical pathology collections, UCL possesses its share of medical anomalies or curiosities. Fragments of preserved skin belonging to a tattooed man certainly seem to fall into the category of the anatomically curious – there is certainly nothing pathological about this specimen. One of the biggest surprises I encountered during my visit to the collections, was the revelation that the female reproductive anatomy can, and occasionally does, grow teeth.

Teratoma with Tooth and Hair

Dermoid cyst (cystic teratoma) with fully developed
tooth and hair. UCL Pathology Collections.

The specimen shown here (right) is a dermoid cyst, or cystic teratoma, which has formed inside an ovary. When I first came across it, I experienced a strong visceral reaction: I didn’t have to be a medical student to recognise that this tooth, entwined in long hair drifting in the liquid-filled vitrine, was out of place – so much so, that the sight of it provoked an immediate and simultaneous sense of revulsion and fascination. The term teratoma is derived from the Greek, tera, meaning monster, and literally means “monstrous growth”; it was easy for me to see how such biological anomalies could become the stuff of nightmares. Despite the ominous name, however, ovarian teratomas are usually benign, and arise from totipotent stem cells which are capable of developing into any type of body cell. One 1941 pathology text describes these tumours as follows:

Dermoid cysts are usually globular in shape and dull white in color. They contain structures associated with epidermal tissues, such as hair, teeth, bone, sebaceous material resembling fat … The following is a partial list of tissues which have been found in dermoids: Skin and its derivatives, sebaceous glands, hair, sweat glands, and bone, especially the maxillae containing teeth. Up to 300 teeth have been found in one cyst … Long bones, digits, fingernails, and skull have been found. Brain tissue and its derivatives, intestinal loops, thyroid tissue, eyes, salivary glands, may occasionally be found. Even rudimentary fetuses have been described, such as a pelvis with hairy pubes and a vulva and clitoris. Brains with ventricles, spinal cords and a few complete extremities, have been observed. [1]

Although teratomas can develop in almost any part of the body – including the brain, neck, bladder, and the testes in men – being confronted with a toothy tumour in the female reproductive organs brought to mind mythic archetypes of the sexually devouring and deadly woman. I was immediately struck by the parallels between this specimen and the image of the vagina dentata. I am not the first to make such an observation,[2] and whilst I am not suggesting that there is any explanatory relationship to be found between the biological phenomena and the myths, it is certainly an intriguing association. The toothed vagina appears in the creation myths and folk stories of many cultures, from Native America, Russia and Japan (amongst the Ainu), to India, Samoa and New Zealand. [3] Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend records this entry concerning vagina dentata:

The toothed vagina motif, so prominent in North American Indian mythology, is also found in the Chaco and the Guianas. The first men in the world were unable to have sexual relationships with their wives until the culture hero broke the teeth of the women’s vaginas (Chaco). According to the Waspishiana and Taruma Indians the first woman had a carnivorous fish inside her vagina. [4]

Many 19th and 20th century European interpretations linked the motif to Freudian concepts of castration anxiety, in which young males are said to experience an unconscious fear of castration upon seeing female genitalia. Whilst a Freudian analysis is undoubtedly culturally and historically specific, many vagina dentata legends explicitly articulate male fears of castration in the act of normal sexual intercourse, and warn of the necessity of removing the teeth from women’s vaginas, in order to transform her into a nonthreatening and marriageable sexual partner. A particularly telling collection of stories comes from India, in which the ferocious sexual appetites of beautiful young women are tamed and ‘made safe’ to men through the violent breaking of the teeth hidden inside their vaginas. [5]

Lloyd, Charles Augustus, d 1930. Lloyd, Charles A fl 1880s-1912 (Photographer) : Maori wood carving of the goddess Hine-nui-te-po, and Maui. Original photographic prints and postcards from file print collection, Box 14. Ref: PAColl-6585-10. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22708288

Māori wood carving of the goddess Hine-nui-te-pō and Māui.
Photograph by Charles Augustus Lloyd, c.1880s-1912.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The toothed vagina motif is not exclusively associated with male fears of the ‘castrating female’, however. In some traditions, the terrible power of the vagina dentata lies principally not in fears of the sexual act, but in its associations with death. The Māori legend of Māui and Hine-nui-te-pō is particularly interesting in this respect. Hine-nui-te-pō was the goddess of death and gatekeeper of the underworld, whom the trickster demigod Māui sought to kill in order to win immortality for humankind. When Māui asks his father what his ancestress Hine-nui-te-pō is like, he responds by pointing to the icy mountains beneath the fiery clouds of sunset. He explains:

What you see there is Hine-nui, flashing where the sky meets the earth. Her body is like a woman’s, but the pupils of her eyes are greenstone and her hair is kelp. Her mouth is that of a barracuda, and in the place where men enter her she has sharp teeth of obsidian and greenstone. [6]

Undeterred by his father’s grave warnings, Māui sets off on his quest with a gathering of bird companions. He proposes to kill Hine-nui-te-pō by entering her vagina and exiting through her mouth whilst she is sleeping, thus reversing the natural passage into life via birth. Māui finds the great goddess sleeping “with her legs apart” such that they can clearly see “those flints that were set between her thighs”, and he transforms himself into a caterpillar in order to crawl through her body. But his bird companions are so struck by the absurdity of his actions, that they laugh out loud and wake Hine-nui-te-pō from her slumber. Angry at Māui’s impiety, she crushes him with the obsidian teeth in her vagina; thus Māui becomes the first man to die and seals the fate of all humankind, who were ever after destined to die and be welcomed into the underworld by Hine-nui-te-pō. In this version of the myth, the vagina dentata appears as an inverse manifestation of the generative, life-giving powers of woman, which Māui attempts to subvert – he endeavours to overcome the forces of life and death, and therefore “by the way of rebirth he met his end.” [7]

Ovarian Dermoid Cyst

X ray of a dermoid cyst, showing a cluster of teeth in the pelvic cavity.

The mythical theme of the vagina-with-teeth can in most cases be read as an attempt to render the potentially dangerous sexuality of women nonthreatening to patriarchal power, through heroic acts of “pulling the teeth”. Some authors have even suggested a correspondence between this mythic construct and practices of clitoridectomy and ‘female circumcision’ in some cultures. [8] Whilst there can be little correlation between ancient stories and the observation of biological phenomena such as dermoid cysts, the removal of these peculiar tumours and their retention in pathology collections nevertheless reminds us of the remarkable complexity and diversity of human understandings of the body, and their wider cultural significance. For those readers interested in the practical removal of teratomas such as those discussed here, a demonstration of the surgical procedure can be viewed in this educational film (contains scenes of graphic live surgery).


References:

[1] Harry Sturgeon Cross and Robert James Crossen: Diseases of Women, St. Louis (1941), p.685.

[2] See, for example, Bruce Jackson: ‘Vagina Dentata and Cystic Teratoma’, in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 84 No. 333 (July-Sept 1971), pp.341-342. Available on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/539812

[3] Verrier Elwin: ‘The Vagina Dentata Legend’, in British Journal of Medical Psychology, (1943) Vol. 19, pp. 439-453.

[4] Maria Leach (ed): Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore Mythology and Legend, Volume 2 J-Z (1950), p.1152.

[5]  Verrier Elwin: ‘The Vagina Dentata Legend’, in British Journal of Medical Psychology, (1943), Vol. 19, pp.439-453. A particularly illustrative example of one of these stories is recounted by Elwin on pp.439-440:

There was a Baiga girl who looked so fierce and angry, as if there was magic in her, that for all her beauty, no one dared to marry her. But she was full of passion and longed for men. She had many lovers, but – though she did not know it – she had three teeth in her vagina, and whenever she went to a man she cut his penis into three pieces. After a time she grew so beautiful that the landlord of the village determined to marry her on the condition that she allowed four of his servants to have intercourse with her first. To this she agreed, and the landlord first sent a Brahmin to her  – and he lost his penis. Then he sent a Gond, but the Gond said, “I am only a poor man and I am too shy to do this while you are looking at me.” He covered the girl’s face with a cloth. The two other servants, a Baiga and an Agaria, crept quietly into the room. The Gond held the girl down, and the Baiga thrust his flint into her vagina and knocked out one of the teeth. The Agaria inserted his tongs and pulled out the other two. The girl wept with the pain, but she was consoled when the landlord came in and said he would now marry her immediately.

[6] Antony Alpers: Maori Myths and Tribal Legends, Pearson Education, New Zealand (1964), p.67.

[7] Ibid, p.70.

[8] See for example, Jill Raitt: ‘The “Vagina Dentata” and the “Immaculatus Uterus Divini Fontis”‘, in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 48 No. 3 (Sept. 1980), pp.415-431. Available on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1462869

Toxic Tattoos: Mercury Based Pigments in the 19th and 20th Centuries

By Gemma Angel, on 4 February 2013

  by Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

In January this year, myself and fellow Research Engager Sarah Chaney went to visit the UCL Geology Collections, to see if there were any mineral or rock samples in the collection that would fit in with our upcoming cross-collections exhibition, Foreign Bodies. Neither of us being geologists, we didn’t have particularly high expectations – how interesting can rocks be, really? As it turned out, the answer to that question is – very! We spent a fascinating hour in the Rock Room, where we quickly realised that there were many specimens that could be interpreted as foreign bodies in one way or another: The fossilised forms of plants and animals in rock; a rusted nail fused into a lump of lava; and perhaps the ultimate foreign body, a beautifully patterned fragment of meteorite.

One particular sample drew my attention – a surprisingly heavy lump of purplish-red rock with pretty pink and bright red veins (pictured below). When I asked if I could have a closer look, I was told that I would have to wear gloves to handle this piece of rock, as it was in fact toxic. The rock sample was cinnabar, the common ore of mercury. I am well aware of the toxicity of mercury from my own research – gloves are also required when I’m handling preserved tattooed human skins as part of my work at the Science Museum archives. It is speculated that one of the substances used in the dry-preservation process of human skin is mercuric sulphide, and many of the specimens betray the typical orange-red staining that this chemical causes. But there is another unexpected connection between mercury and my research. Cinnabar has been used to make bold red pigments since antiquity – and this pigment was also historically used in European tattooing.

Cinnabar ore and powder (8.5% Hg) sample, in the UCL Rock Room.
UCL Geology Collections.

 

Red mercuric sulphide occurs naturally, and has been manufactured for use as a pigment since the early Middle Ages. The pigment was referred to interchangeably as vermilion or cinnabar, although vermilion became the more commonly used term by the 17th century. [1] Vermilion is now the standard English name given to red artists’ pigment based on artificially produced mercuric sulphide. [2] Since the toxic effects of mercury were historically well known, it might seem strange that cinnabar was used in tattooing at all. In fact, mercury has been used in medicine to treat a range of ailments throughout history, most notably syphilis. In European tattooing, red pigments were not commonly used pre-20th century, with red inks tending to be used sparingly for small areas of embellishment.

Most cinnabar was mined in China and by the mid 19th century, Chinese vermilion was generally considered to be the purest form, producing a superior hue to the European variety. The cinnabar ore on which vermillion production depended was costly; as a result, European vermilion was often mixed with inexpensive materials including brick, orpiment, iron oxide, Persian red, iodine scarlet, and minium (red lead). Whilst these additives also produced a bright red pigment, their relative impermanence made it an inferior choice for artists’ colours.

This may explain why there is marked variability amongst preserved tattoos containing red inks, in terms of both permanence and vibrancy of colour: The more commonly available and cheaper European variety of vermilion used by some 19th century tattooists likely contained additives which reduced colour saturation, and made the pigment more susceptible to light-degradation over time. The Wellcome Collection possesses only a handful of tattoos containing red dye, and most of these are very degraded, such that little colour is visible. In these cases, the red has often faded far more dramatically than the black ink used in the same tattoos. However, there are one or two preserved specimens containing exceptionally bright ink, which has lost none of its vivid red colour, an example of which can be seen below.

Tattooed human skin with bold red pigment, likely cinnabar.
Science Museum object no. A687. Photograph © Gemma Angel,
courtesy of the Science Museum London.

 

Since heavy mineral pigments do not generally lose saturation over time, it is possible to speculate that the bold red ink seen here very likely contains a high concentration of cinnabar, although it is impossible to know for certain without physical testing. There are, however, historical references to the use of mercury-based pigments in tattooing, most of which can be found in 20th century medical journals. As may be expected, these sources focus on the toxic effects of cinnabar-based tattoo pigments. In particular, mercury dermatitis in tattoos was sometimes reported during the early-mid 20th century, often many years after the tattoo was acquired by the patient.

In 1930, one such case appeared in the Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology, written by Dr. Paul Gerson Unna. His patient, a 63-year-old man who had been tattooed in his youth, suddenly developed itching, swelling and blistering in the red portions of the tattoo, following a mercury-based treatment for haemorrhoids. Three years later, Dr. D. B. Ballin reported a case in which a young male patient had developed itching, swelling and oozing in the red portions of a tattoo, 2 years after he had been tattooed. The patient was treated by the removal of the affected areas using a dermal punch, and the tattooed skin samples were sent for histological testing; however, the resultant scar tissue in the punched areas later developed the same reaction.

Photograph from Ballin’s 1933 report,
Cutaneous Hypersensitivity to Mercury from Tattooing
Caption reads: “Forearm of patient showing sensitivity
to mercury as a result of tattooing.”

Throughout the 1940s and 50s, cases of mercurial sensitivity and dermatitis in red tattoos appear sporadically in the medical literature, [4] though the apparent causes of the onset of symptoms vary. According to Keiller and Warin:

In some cases the use of mercurial applications elsewhere has led to the development of sensitivity and the red areas of the tattoo have subsequently become swollen. Other cases are reported in which the sensitivity has developed spontaneously. [5]

Interestingly, there were also reports of the apparent ‘positive’ effects of cinnabar tattoo pigments in cases of cutaneous syphilis during the early 20th century. It was observed that the red portions of a tattoo were seldom effected by syphilis sores – even in cases where adjacent areas of skin tattooed in black ink were engulfed by the infection.

 


References:

[1] R. D. Harley: Artists’ Pigments c.1600-1835: A Study in English Documentary Sources, (1982) Butterworth Scientific, p.125.

[2] Rutherford J. Gettens et. al. : ‘Vermilion and Cinnabar’, in Studies in Conservation, Vol. 17 No. 2. (May 1972), p.45. Available on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1505572

[3]  D. B. Ballin: ‘Cutaneous Hypersenistivity to Mercury From Tattooing’, in Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology, Vol. 27, No.2 (February 1933), pp.292-294.

[4] See, for example: Howard I. Goldberg: ‘Mercurial Reaction in a Tattoo’, in Canadian Medical Association Journal, Vol. 80 (Feb. 1 1959), pp.203-204. Available online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1830587/ ; also R. A. G. Lane et. al.: ‘Mercurial Granuloma in a Tattoo’, in Canadian Medical Association Journal, Vol. 70 (May 1954), pp.546-548. Available online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1825326/

[5] F. E. S. Keiller & R.P. Warin: ‘Mercury Dermatitis in a Tattoo: Treated With Dimercaprol’, in The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, 5020 (Mar. 23, 1957), p.678. Available on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20361174

[6] For more on the history of tattooing and skin disease, see Gemma Angel: ‘Atavistic Marks and Risky Practices: the Tattoo in Medico-Legal Debate 1850~1950’, in J. Reinarz & K. Siena (eds.) A Medical History of Skin: Scratching The Surface, Pickering Chatto, (2013) pp.165-179.

A Dark Chapter in Tattoo History: Nazi Prisoner Tattoos

By Gemma Angel, on 28 January 2013

  by Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

Over the course of the past 3 years working on the history of preserved tattooed human skin, I have frequently met with difficult questions: Material and conservation concerns pose the question how were they preserved? Historical and anthropological approaches lead me to ask why were they collected? – which of course raises the inevitable consideration of who were these people? Who did the tattoos belong to in life, and who collected them postmortem? This has proven to be the most thorny question of all – identifying both the tattooees and the collectors of tattooed skin is challenging in itself – but quite often it is the relationship between these two groups that raises the most controversial issues.

Frequently, a relationship of power and domination emerges, in which one group has the authority to study, scrutinize, classify – and ultimately, to dissect and preserve – the bodies of others under their institutional control. This is certainly the case for tattoos collected during the late 19th century by physicians and criminologists, who studied the tattoos of criminals and military personnel in prisons, barracks and hospitals. The criminals, soldiers and common men in these institutions very likely did not give consent for their tattoos to be excised and preserved after death; a practice that was rarely questioned during the late 19th century.

Ilse Koch was the wife of Karl Otto Koch,
Kommandant of the Buchenwald and Madjanek
concentration camps. She was convicted of war
crimes in 1947 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The collecting of tattooed human skin – both for research purposes and as a kind of fetishized collector’s item – tailed off dramatically after the end of the second World War in the wake of revelations of Nazi concentration camp atrocities. Reports emerged from Buchenwald of the manufacture of everyday items such as gloves, knife sheaths, book-bindings and lampshades from the skins of murdered inmates.[1] In particular, stories of the collection of tattooed human skin, removed from the bodies of inmates at the behest of Ilse Koch, the wife of Kommandant Karl Otto Koch, caused a scandal in the Allied press. Although photographs documenting some of these objects were taken when the camps were liberated, no other material evidence of them was recovered to be entered into Koch’s trial at Dachau in 1947, or later at her second trial at Augsburg in 1950. Without material proof, Koch could not be convicted of the charges relating to the human skin objects.

The Nazis did not just collect the tattoos of prisoners as grotesque trophies of war, however – they also used tattooing as a weapon of dehumanization and control. From May 1940, prisoner numbers were introduced for all concentration camp prisoners deemed capable of work at the Auschwitz concentration camp complex – those sent directly to the gas chambers were not registered and did not receive numbers. These numbers were initially sewn onto prisoner uniforms. However, as the daily mortality rate increased and clothes were removed, this soon proved impractical as a way of identifying the dead. Tattooing of prisoner numbers was thus introduced at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1941. Tattoos were applied to either the inner or outer side of the left forearm on registration at the camp. More than 400,000 inmates were forcibly tattooed in this way at Auschwitz.

Specimen No. A.5.2 – Identification Tattoo Mark. Nazi prisoner tattoo, number A-25374.
UCL Pathology collections. Image © Gemma Angel.

 

The SS introduced number sequences beginning with ‘A’ in mid-May 1944 – 20,000 men and 30,000 women were assigned numbers in this series. One of these women was Holocaust survivor Henia Bryer, who was liberated from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. Henia still bears the number ‘A26188’ inscribed on her inner arm. She described her reasons for keeping her prisoner tattoo in a recent BBC programme:

I was offered by various surgeons to remove it, and they were very glad to do it, but I wanted to keep it on. So that when people say that it didn’t exist – these days, that the Holocaust didn’t exist, it’s a figment of your imagination – I wanted to show them. And many people don’t even know what this number means, still today. I wanted to keep it as a witness … as a sign that it really happened.

Tattoos carry with them a powerful capacity to evoke memory, and this quality is often a motivating factor for many people who choose to become tattooed with marks commemorating important life events or rites of passage. For those, like Henia, who have been forcibly tattooed, the mark may come to stand as testament to a personal and collective history of suffering and survival. For other Holocaust survivors, these marks became unwelcome reminders of trauma, and were removed by surgeons after the war. Some of these tattoos were retained in pathology collections, perhaps for reasons similar to those described by Henia above – ‘to stand witness’ to Nazi war crimes that should never be excised from the historical memory.

Original documentation record for object no. A.5.2. The provenance and date of the specimen is unknown. UCL Pathology Collections.

 

Whilst working with the UCL Pathology collections, I came across such a tattoo: a small skin specimen in a perspex vitrine, tattooed with the number ‘A-25374’ (pictured above, top). The only documentation associated with this object is the brief catalogue entry: “A tattooed identification number from the forearm of an inmate of Belsen concentration camp during World War II.” No other information is known about this individual – since only inmates of Auschwitz were tattooed, it is very likely that this person, like Henia, endured the “death marches” from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where they were later liberated. Many Nazi records were destroyed at the end of the war, and the many thousands of files that do remain are scattered across Europe – even today, it is difficult to trace the identities of inmates based on their tattooed prisoner numbers.

Nor is it known exactly where this specimen was acquired, or who preserved it. Over the past 25 years, UCL pathology collections have absorbed a number of collections belonging to other London medical institutions. A large number of the pathology specimens received by UCL arrived in a state of neglect, requiring intensive conservation and re-cataloguing – a task made all the more difficult for the lack of associated documentation. Specimens such as the one pictured above may make us uneasy, particularly when they are unprovenanced and inherited. Their histories are lost and fraught with ethical entanglements – but they cannot simply be discarded, and perhaps should not be hidden away. Henia reminds us of the need to remember past trauma, and of the role that material culture can play in this process. Nazi prisoner tattoos are a powerful reminder of the lived experience of war and genocide. As objects, their presence in pathology collections is undoubtedly troubling; yet they remain as an important testament to the horrors of the Holocaust – they are fragments of lives that should never be forgotten.

 


References:

[1] Flint Whitlock: The Beasts of Buchenwald, (2011) Cable Publishing, p.81. See also, Alexandra Przyrembel: ‘Transfixed by an Image: Ilse Koch, the ‘Komandeuse of Buchenwald’, in German History, Vol. 19 No. 3, (2001).

[2] See also: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.

Fascinus & the Winged Phallus Tattoo

By Gemma Angel, on 7 January 2013

  by Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

During a recent visit to the UCL Archaeology collections, I came across a very interesting object: a small bronze pendant in the form of an erect penis with a pair of wings, outstretched as though in flight (pictured below right). I was intrigued by this unusual item of Roman jewellery, partly because I was struck by the absurdity of a disembodied flying penis – but partly because the iconography of this motif was familiar to me.

Winged phallus pendant in bronze, measuring
6.5cm in length. From the Gayer-Anderson
classical collection (Graeco-Roman),
UCL Institute of Archaeology.

I had previously seen graphic representations of this design in the course of my own research, as tattoos on human skin. My doctoral work focuses upon the collection and preservation of tattooed human skins during the 19th and 20th centuries. The core collection that I work with at the Science Museum dates from the latter part of the 19th century in France, and much of the iconography of these tattoos is of European origin. During a research trip to Paris in 2010, I had the opportunity to see a similar collection of dry-preserved tattoos stored at the anthropology department of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (MNHN). Amongst the 54 tattoos in their collection, there was one skin fragment tattooed with a winged phallus (pictured below). Although the tattoo is very faded, the characteristic outstretched wings and erect penis are clearly discernible; in this case red ink has been used to emphasize the virility of the phallus. Whilst tattoo motifs such as this one may seem amusing, puerile or even obscene to us today, this particular image actually has a long iconographic history embedded in religious practice and ritual, going at least as far back as Ancient Rome.

Phallic charms were commonplace in Roman culture, both in the form of jewellery and other decorative household items, such as lamps and wind chimes. In ancient Roman religion and magic, representations of the winged phallus are usually referred to as fascinum, and symbolise the divine phallus or the embodiment of the Roman deity of fertility, Fascinus. The words can be used to refer to both phallus effigies and amulets, and spells used to invoke his divine protection. Fascinum are frequently associated with Liber Pater, an ancient Roman god of fertility and cultivation, often identified with Bacchus and his Greek counterpart, Dionysus. In rural areas of Italy, the festival of Liberalia celebrated the coming of age of young boys on the 17th of March, and traditionally involved processions, sacrificial offerings and song. Processions featured a large phallus which was carried through the countryside by devotees, in order to protect crops from evil and bring fertility blessings to the land and the people. At the end of the procession a wreath was placed on the phallus by a respected older female member of the community.

St. Augustine (354AD-430AD) a bishop of Hippo Regis (present-day Algeria), recounts these pagan celebrations from Varro [1], describing the ancient fertility processions with a strongly disapproving Christian bias:

Varro says that certain rites of Liber were celebrated in Italy which were of such unrestrained wickedness that the shameful parts of the male were worshipped at crossroads in his honour. […] For, during the days of the festival of Liber, this obscene member, placed on a little trolley, was first exhibited with great honour at the crossroads in the countryside, and then conveyed into the city itself. […] In this way, it seems, the god Liber was to be propitiated, in order to secure the growth of seeds and to repel enchantment (fascinatio) from the fields. [2]

Although considered obscene by the Christian clergy, fascinum were used to ward off evil, and were worn as protection charms, particularly by male children and soldiers.

Winged phallus tattoo on preserved human skin, dated 1904-5. From the collection of
the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (MNHN), Paris. Image © MNHN, Paris.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But what is the significance of the fascinum in the modern era? The rather extraordinary image below is one of a series of late 19th century tourist cards entitled “Postcards from Pompeii”, and features a number of winged phalli. As a 19th century representation of classical sexuality, which is contemporary with the preserved tattoo fragment pictured above, this image is of particular interest. The postcard depicts an old woman with a basket of winged phalli, which she offers to a young woman in the centre of the sketch. Two ‘living’ phalli can be seen straining eagerly out of the basket towards the young woman, whilst 3 others, apparently spent, sit limply in the foreground. The old woman holds a phallus in each hand, and a sign advertising her wares is visible behind the basket. Around this central scene, a number of other young women are engaged in orgiastic sexual activity with the winged phalli, whilst 3 others carrying empty urns look on, as though scandalized (background right). Although the young women depicted in the scene are drawn in classical style, the old woman has the typical appearance of a crone, more consistent with medieval pictorial conventions, suggesting an association with European concepts of witchcraft (for more on witchcraft and the winged phallus, see my previous post on lifeand6months).

The only recognisably male figure in the drawing appears on the far left, as a bust in profile atop a pillar; lower down the pillar a fount in the form of a phallus pours forth life-giving fluid into an urn. The wreath of fruits and grain crowning his head suggest that this figure is Liber Pater or Bacchus. Whilst there is a certain pornographic quality to this image, it also sheds light on European interpretations of the winged phallus: On the one hand it is associated with classical religion as a symbol of fertility, abundance and orgiastic excess, which celebrated masculine generative power; and on the other with late medieval conceptions of witchcraft, emasculating female sexuality and magical ‘penis theft’.

Women with flying phalli, illustration from Pompeii tourist album, c. 1880. Image courtesy of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Click to enlarge.

 

It is difficult to know for certain how the tattooed 19th century European man regarded the winged phallus – it may be that it was worn by soldiers as a talisman against harm, according to contemporary interpretations of ancient practices. Or it may simply be that the image of a virile, flying penis was associated with sexual prowess, and appealed to a bawdy sense of humour. It is clear, however, that the motif retained its popularity long into the 20th century. Writing on the Chicago and Oakland tattoo scene during the 1950s and 60s, tattooist Samuel Steward mentions this tattoo in his quite disparaging discussion of superstitions and folklore in modern tattooing, including the belief that, the winged phallus tattoo will assure the wearer great sexual powers’. [3] Though the magical or religious symbolism of the winged phallus may no longer have significance in contemporary European culture, the image still has its appeal. Perhaps considered more comic, playful or absurd in our present context, it still appears as a popular tattoo design, as the colourful example below demonstrates.

Contemporary example of the winged phallus tattoo, by tattooist Rachael Davies of
Five Star Tattoo, Louisville Kentucky, USA. Photograph courtesy of Rachael Davies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


References:

[1] Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC – 27 BC) was an ancient Roman scholar and writer.

[2] English translation by R.W. Dyson: Augustine: The City of God against the Pagans (Cambridge University Press, 1998, 2002), p. 292. Available online.

[3] Samuel Steward: Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo With Gangs, Sailors and Street-Corner Punks (1950-1965), (1990) p.82.

Tattooing in Ancient Egypt Part 2: The Mummy of Amunet

By Gemma Angel, on 10 December 2012

  by Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

In my previous post, I wrote about the possible connection between objects in the Petrie Museum, and ancient Egyptian tattooing practices. One of the greatest challenges in reconstructing the body modification practices of ancient peoples is in interpreting the fragmentary remains of material culture found at excavation sites. As archaeologist Geoffrey Tassie writes:

The use of many artefacts can only be inferred from their context and association, and tattoo needles are no different, although, if sufficiently well-preserved, scientific analysis of their tips may identify traces of blood or the pigment used to create the tattoo.[1]

In the absence of any such scientific testing, uncertainty remains as to whether the 7 prick points in the Petrie collection were used for tattooing. However, the decorative markings on a collection of blue faience figurines are less ambiguous. Although ancient Egyptian textual records make no mention of tattooing, there is nevertheless a considerable amount of iconographic evidence for the practice, which includes the engraved markings on faience figurines such as those on display in the Petrie Museum. Interestingly, these “tattooed” figures are invariably female, suggesting that tattooing was practiced exclusively by women.[2]

Blue faience figurine fragment,
showing tattoo markings on the
abdomen and thighs.
Image © UCL Museums & Collections

Faience figurines dating from the Middle Kingdom traditionally known as “Brides of the Dead”[3], frequently display a series of dotted geometric tattoo patterns, running in horizontal bands across the lower abdomen. Occasionally, the thighs are also decorated, as can be seen in the example shown (left). There are many examples of footless faience figurines such as these in museum collections around the world. According to Robert Bianchi, dependent upon their context, these figurines maybe interpreted ‘as guarantors of the deceased’s procreative abilities on analogy with those of the goddess Hathor’, who both represented fertility, childbirth and love, and welcomed the dead into the next life. Faience figurines are often found in tombs, interred with the dead in order to ensure resurrection.[4]

Tattooing practice in ancient Egypt is further supported by the discovery of a number of tattooed mummies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The most famous of these was discovered in Deir el-Bahari by French Egyptologist Eugène Grébaut in 1891. Dating from Dynasty XI (c.2134-1991 BC), a female mummy identified as Amunet, a Priestess of the goddess Hathor at Thebes, was found to have a number of tattooed markings on her body, which show striking correspondence with the patterns depicted on Middle Kingdom faience figurines. A design consisting of multiple diamond shapes composed of dots, are tattooed on the middle of her right thigh, similar to those engraved on the faience figure pictured above. As well as tattoos on her left shoulder and breast, and on her right arm below the elbow, Amunet also bore extensive tattooing over her abdomen: A series of dots and dashes forming an elliptical pattern of rows covers almost the entire abdominal wall in the suprapubic region (see sketch below right).

Drawing showing tattoo markings attributed
to the mummified remains of Amunet.
From Fouquet (1898), p.278

A further 2 female mummies, described as ‘Hathoric dancers in the court of King Mentuhotep,’ were excavated from pits located very near to the tomb of Amunet in 1923.[5] These women both bore similar body-markings to those of Amunet, in particular over the abdomen, which may suggest that these tattoos served fertility purposes:

Tattoos on the abdominal part of the female body would have become particularly notable when the woman became pregnant – the patterns would expand, forming an even more symbolically interesting pattern, like a web or netting design.[6]

The mummy of Amunet was unearthed at the height of the “Golden Age” of Egyptology, when the discovery of mass burials of mummified royalty and clergy became a source of popular fascination. As “Egyptomania” swept across Europe, some artists sought to commemorate the “great discoveries” of European explorers and scientists. For instance, the painting below, by French artist Paul Dominique Philippoteaux, depicts an historical event: The unwrapping of a mummy discovered at Deir el-Bahari, the same site where Amunet was buried. Although the mummy pictured dates from Dynasty XXI (c.970 BC) in the Third Intermediate Period, many of the men present in this scene were also involved in the excavation of Amunet. The eminent Dr. Daniel Fouquet takes centre stage, demonstrating to his learned audience of colleagues and lady spectators, as he unveils the mummified body of the “Priestess”, known as Ta-usa-ra. Mr. Grébaut, the leader of the expedition, also appears in the painting, second from left and wearing a fez.[7]

“Examination of a Mummy – The Priestess of Ammon” (1891)
Oil on canvas, by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux.
Photo credit: Peter Nahum at The Leicester Gallery, London.

In 1898, Fouquet wrote an article on “medical tattooing” practices in Ancient Egypt and the contemporary era, in which he describes the tattooed markings on the female mummies found at the Deir el-Bahari site. He speculated that the tattoos and other scarifications observed on the bodies may have served a medicinal or therapeutic purpose:

The examination of these scars, some white, others blue, leaves in no doubt that they are not, in essence, ornament, but an established treatment for a condition of the pelvis, very probably chronic pelvic peritonitis.[8]

Photograph showing the
tattooed abdomen of one of
female mummies found at
the Deir el-Bahari site,
possibly Amunet.

Whilst it is clear that the white scars Fouquet refers to are likely scarifications, the blue marks must be interpreted as tattoos – but whether or not they were primarily medicinal markings, or served a more ritual and symbolic function is uncertain. Based on the iconographic and material evidence of human remains, it certainly seems that some women in Ancient Egypt marked themselves as sexual beings; as Robert Bianchi writes:

The priestess Amunet and the figurines…have an undeniably carnal overtone. The eroticism that is undoubtedly associated with Egyptian tattoo of the Middle Kingdom correlates with the prevailing religious attitude that linked physical procreation with the loftier aspirations of resurrection in the Hereafter.[9]

Amunet’s mummified remains now lie in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo.

 

Did tattooing really have a medicinal purpose in the Ancient world? Check back for my next post on the history of tattooing as a therapeutic practice – and the health risks involved in becoming tattooed prior to modern antisepsis.

 


References:

[1] Geoffrey Tassie, ‘Identifying the Practice of Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia’, in Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, Vol.14 (2003), p86.

[2] According to Tassie, there is only one exception in the archaeological record – a Dynasty XII stele (a standing stone tablet) from Abydos:  ‘This depicts a figure, which is said to be male, with marks coming down over the chest. As the stele is extremely worn it is hard to distinguish whether the marks indeed represent tattoos.’ (Ibid, p.88).

[3] Robert Bianchi, ‘Tattooing and Skin Painting in the Ancient Nile Valley’, in Celenko, T. (ed.) Egypt in Africa, (1996), Indianapolis University Press, p.81.

[4] Ibid, pp.82-82.

[5] Tassie (2003), p.90.

[6] Ibid, p.91.

[7] Philippoteaux’s painting includes a plaque inscribed (in French) with the names of the sitters, as well as an historical description of the scene. From left to right: Marquis de Reverseaux (Ministre de France au Caire); Mr. Eugène Grébaut (Directeur Génerale du Service des Antiquities); Dr. Daniel Fouquet (Médecin au Caire); E. Brugshe Pacha (Conservateur du Musée); Mr. Georges Daressy (Conservateur adjoint du Musée) – pictured taking notes; Mr. H. Bazil (Secrétaire complable du Musée); Mr. J. Barois (Secrétaire Génerale du Ministére du Travaux Publies); Mr. U. Bouriant (Directeur de la Misien Archéologique française au Caire).

[8] Daniel Fouquet, ‘Le Tatouage Medicale en Egypte dans l’Antiquite et a l’Epoque Actuelle’, in Archives d’Anthropologie Criminelle, Tome 13 (1898), p.271.  Available online at Criminocorpus. Translated from the French: L’examen de ces cicatrices, les unes blanches, les autres bleues, ne laisse aucun doute dans l’espirit, il s’agit la non d’un ornement, mais bien d’un traitement institué pour une affection du petit bassin, très probablement une pelvi-péritonite chronique.

[9] Bianchi (1996), p.82.

[10] See also: Carolyn Graves-Brown, Dancing for Hathor. Women in Ancient Egypt, (2010), London  New York: Continuum Books.

Tattooing in Ancient Egypt

By Gemma Angel, on 19 November 2012

  by Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

Of all the objects on display in the Petrie Museum of Egyptology, there are two particular groups of items that immediately jumped out at me when I first began to look closely at the collections. These objects are grouped closely together in one of the densely packed cabinets towards the back of the gallery, near the sarcophagi – but no connection is explicitly made between them in the displays. This is not surprising, given that the first collection of objects – a series of tapered and sharpened metal implements – are described in the museum catalogue as “prick points” of indeterminate use:

Tool set identified as a “stock of seven prick points” for removing thorns, bronze; three bound together with thread, a fourth with thread round; three separate; cleaned and treated. No information on findplace within Madinat al-Ghurab; purpose and date uncertain.[1]

Seven “prick points” on display in the Petrie Museum,
possibly used for tattooing.
Image © UCL Museums & Collections

The prick points were excavated by Petrie at Gurob in 1880, alongside cosmetic items and fine pottery ware, which is suggestive of a cosmetic use. [2] When I first saw these objects, they brought to mind an article that I had read by Charlotte Booth, titled Possible Tattooing Instruments in the Petrie Museum. Booth carried out a close material analysis of the prick points, and found that they were made by folding the corners of a flat rectangle of bronze inwards at one end, and then beaten into a smooth finish. [3] Each of the 7 prick points were manufactured in this fashion. Interestingly, 3 of them are bound together with thread, which has become permanently fused to the surface by corrosion (pictured left: 3rd from right). Petrie believed that these objects were in fact tweezer points used for removing thorns:

Slips of bronze were made with long sharp points, and kept sometimes in a bunch of half a dozen; but they were not fastened to the tweezers. [4]

However, as Booth points out, although the points are very sharp, they do not appear to be fine enough for removing thorns from the skin. If they had served such an everyday purpose as Petrie suggested, then surely similar instruments would be more commonly found amongst toiletry objects in ancient tomb excavations? Could they perhaps have served a different, more specialised purpose?

A modern tattoo needle bundle, showing
a large number of fine needles in a
round arrangement, used for shading.
Needles may also be arranged in ‘flat’
or ‘magum’ formations.

To the eye of a tattooist, it is easy to see a resemblance between these ancient bronze points and modern tattoo needles, as they share a number of similarities: Tattoo needles are not hollow like hypodermic needles, as some people assume, but are actually solid. Groupings of very fine needles are bound together in a bundle, much like the Egyptian prick points, except that modern needles are soldered in place onto a stainless steel needle bar, rather than bound together with thread. Modern tattoo needles may be grouped in bundles of anything between 3 and 7 individual needles for line work, and as many as 14, 16 or 18 for shading and colouring. The needles operate by drawing ink up into the narrow spaces between them via capillary action as they’re repeatedly dipped into a small inkwell. This remarkably simple yet effective technology hasn’t changed in hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years. Writing on tattooing in Upper Egypt in the 1920’s, Winifred Blackman describes tattoo instruments consisting of 7 needles fixed to the end of a stick used by the Fellahin; [5] if these needles were indeed similar to those in the Petrie collection, this would suggest that the practice dates back at least 4,000 years in Egypt.

Blue faience figurine, decorated
to show hair, jewellery and tattoos.
Image © UCL Museums & Collections

Material evidence of ancient tattooing is extremely rare in the archaeological record, not least because of the difficulty in identifying artefacts and determining their original purpose. So what evidence is there that the ancient Egyptians practiced tattooing at all? The second group of objects which caught my attention at the Petrie museum provide some clues: two small blue faience figurines. Both of these objects depict nude female figures with black glazed decoration – one is broken at the waist, with only the lower portion of the torso preserved (object no. UC16724). The second figure is intact, with black detail indicating hair and what are assumed to be beads around her neck (object no. UC16725, pictured left).

Both figures are also decorated with a series of dotted lines across the abdomen, which are thought to represent tattoo markings. These markings bear striking similarity to tattoos found on ancient female mummies, which you can read more about in my next post on the Mummy of Amunet.

 

 

 


References:

[1] Petrie Museum online catalogue, object no. UC7790. See additional publications for more information on the origins of these objects.

[2] Charlotte Booth, ‘Possible Tattooing Instruments in the Petrie Museum’, in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 87 (2001), p.172.

[3] Ibid, p.173.

[4] W.M.F. Petrie, Tools and Weapons, (London, 1917), pp.51-52.

[5] Winifred Blackman, The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, (London, 1927), pp.50-55.