The 85th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2016)

Embodying the Goddess: Tattooing and Identity Formation in Bioarchaeology


History, Stanford University

April 14, 2016 8:00, Imperial Ballroom A Add to calendar

While tattooing is increasingly popular in anthropological research, it is rarely discussed in bioarchaeology owing to the infrequent identification of tattoos in human remains. This is now changing, as computed tomography and infrared reflectography have made it easier to identify tattoos on preserved skin tissues. Like other forms of body modification, tattoos can aid bioarchaeologists in studying social identity formation. However, existing scholarship on tattoos remains mostly descriptive, making it necessary to develop a conceptual framework to better understand how tattooing can advance bioarchaeological research on identity.

In this paper, I present such a framework using ancient Egypt as a case study. I propose indicators for seven rationales for tattooing that can be assessed through combining bioarchaeological data with the systematic analysis of the placement, orientation, order, and symbolism of tattoos.

During the 2014-2015 mission of the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale at Deir el-Medina, I identified over 23 figural tattoos. Radiographic data together with analysis of the tattoos demonstrates that tattooing in Egypt was used to permanently and publicly display female religious identities. The presence of multiple instances of tattooing in a single individual further demonstrates that one’s religious identity could evolve and grow throughout adulthood. The purposeful placement of divine imagery along the arms and neck enabled the tattoos to be ritually active during religious cult activities, thereby embodying the divine.

This research is further contextualized with broader evidence for ancient tattooing in order to exemplify how the applied conceptual framework aids in bioarchaeological studies of identity formation.

This research was funded by the American Research Center in Egypt (2014) and Andrew W. Mellon foundation (2015).