tattoos and archaeology revisited

Otzi the Iceman, AKA…Similaun Man, Hauslabjoch Man and Frozen Fritz, was discovered in 1991, eroding out of a glacier in the Italian Alps near the border between Italy and Austria. The Iceman lived and died during the Neolithic Period, between about 3350-3300 BCE.

What has always fascinated me was one of his permanent gifts to archaeology, his tattoos.  I’ve always been interested in symbols and Otzi gives us a peek into the symbology of the past.  For me the fact that he had a cross tattooed on the inside of his left knee brings up questions.  Again this was from 5,300 years ago, at the latest.  So what’s the history of the cross.  This is obviously before the time of Jesus, before Christianity, before the cross necklace became the most popular icon among Christians around the globe.  So where does the cross really come from and what is the original meaning?

It is probably the oldest symbol in the world, it has appeared in Africa,  Asia, America, Europe, and Indian art from the dawn of history.  In its earliest form it materializes in rock art and is known as the wheel cross, a cross inside of a circle. It’s often a representation of the division of the world into four elements, or cardinal points.  Some say the cross began as a solar symbol…or a representation of Earth with its points representing the north, south, east, and west.  Alternately, it’s the union of the concepts of Latin cross. This being a symbol of Christianity even though it was used as a pagan symbol for millennia before the foundation of the Christian Church.  It was and still is regarded as a magical symbol. It brought good luck and diverted evil. For others the cross represents Jesus persecuted by the Romans. 

But Otzi with his numerous tattoos, including the cross, lived centuries before christ.  So why do symbols have such a huge influence on us? Why the recycling of symbols?  If you subscribe to the ideology of Carl Jung, then it’s because we all hold a collective unconsciousness…a primordial mind (wow, I pulled that out of my undergraduate anthropology studies eons ago).

Man often uses the same symbols over time.  It’s not only the cross that’s reused throughout the centuries.  Others include:  the spiral symbol, the fish symbol, the German swastika that was actually a buddhist and Hindu symbol prior to its current negative connotation.

Perhaps Otzi’s tattoo’s had no special meaning to him and were just  acupuncture points used for healing, to alleviate joint pain. The placement of his tattoos correspond to modern-day acupuncture points. This could be especially true since they were located in areas of his body that would not have been visible to others.  Very possible, but why use ink when needle alone could do the job.

Prior to the discovery of Ötzi, the oldest known tattoos came from the mummies of Egyptian women from 4,000 years ago, that’s 1,300 years later.  The male archaeologists who excavated the bodies assumed the women with tattoos were of dubious status…until more research was performed.  One of the tattooed mummies was discovered to be a high-status priestess named Amunet.  Most designs are largely dotted patterns of lines and diamonds around the abdomen, which  lead some researches to theorize that they  functioned as a permanent form of amulet during the very difficult time of pregnancy and birth. To safeguard and protect the female and baby during labor. Hmmm.  Again, very possible.

According to Greek writer Herodotus c. 450 B.C., among the Scythians and Thracians “tattoos were a mark of nobility, and not to have them was testimony of low birth.”  So for some cultures tattoos were, and in some cases still are, a status symbol.  This also applies to the ancient Britons and the Maori culture of New Zealand.

I believe tattoos are used for healing and the design is personal to the individual.  But that’s my modern-day mind.  I don’t think we can assume what the deceased thought about their tattoo and the meaning behind it without a written account from that individual.  History tells us that tattoos have served as marks of status, symbols of religious devotion, rites of passage, marks of fertility, amulets, used for protection, pledges of love and punishment,decorations for bravery,and as the marks of slaves and convicts.


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