Ötzi The Iceman’s tattoos have been recreated on living skin to discover how they are made

A research team consisting of archaeologists and a professional tattoo artist has finally uncovered the secrets encoded on the skin of Ötzi The Iceman. The body of Ötzi, probably the most famous prehistoric corpse in the world, was covered in tattoos, but until now scientists weren’t sure how the markings were made on the old guy’s skin.

Ötzi and his tatts are said to have lived and died some 5,200 years ago and are the only solid evidence for body ink during the European Copper Age. “Among his various attributes, the Iceman exhibits some of the world’s oldest preserved tattoos, consisting of sixty-one carbon pigment spots on his abdomen, lower back, lower legs, and left wrist,” the authors of the new study write.

These designs are abstract and schematic in nature and ‘consist of nineteen groups of parallel or intersecting linear marks… aligned primarily along the long axis of the body.’

These tattoos were first noticed by researchers shortly after Ötzi was discovered in a melting glacier in the Alps in 1991 and have led to numerous theories, none of which had been confirmed until now. For example, it is largely believed that the marks were made using an incision technique, in which the skin is first cut before pigment is rubbed in later.

Noting a lack of evidence to support this hypothesis, archaeologist Aaron Deter-Wolf of the Tennessee Division of Archeology worked with tattoo artist Danny Riday to analyze the healing patterns of four ancient tattoo techniques. During these experiments, Riday tattooed himself repeatedly using eight different tools before comparing his new tattoos to those on Ötzi’s skin.

“In these tests, a bone needle with eyes was used for subdermal tattooing, the tip of an obsidian flake was used for puncture tattooing, and a separate obsidian flake was used for incising tattoos,” the study authors write. “Single-pointed copper and bone awls were used for hand punctures.”

The team – which also included Inuit tattoo artist Maya Sialuk Jacobsen and researchers Benoît Robitaille and Aurélien Burlot – then documented the characteristics of each type of tattoo as they healed over the next six months. In doing so, they noticed that “tattoos made with different tools and techniques exhibit distinctive physical characteristics.” For example: “Incised tattoos exhibit firm, clear margins and prominent tails at one or both ends of individual lines.”

Contrary to popular belief, these incision features did not match the properties of Ötzi’s tattoos. Instead, the authors found that “the physical structure of the Iceman tattoos, including stippling, line widths, rounded ends, and diffusion of pigment along the edges, are all strongly reminiscent of piercing tattoos with a single-point hand stabbing instrument.”

Riday Otzi tattoos

A comparison of Riday’s tattoos (AF) with Otzi’s (G).

Image credit: Deter-Wolf et al./European Journal of Archaeology

“Of the implements tested in our experimental study, the Iceman’s marks compare most favorably with tattoos made with a bone tip or copper awl,” they write.

Seeking further validation for their findings in the archaeological record, the researchers explain that copper awls are among the most commonly identified artifacts from this period in European history, especially in the part of the Alps that Ötzi calls home. Traditionally these have been interpreted as leatherworking or weaving tools.

However, as Riday’s new body art shows, these ancient tools could also have been used as prehistoric tattoo needles.

The research has been published in the European Journal of Archaeology.

This article has been amended to include the names of all study authors.

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