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A Female Figurine Covered with Tattoos as a Proxy of Ancient Egyptian Tattoo Practices

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

Written by Dicle Ezgi Ekinci


Figure 1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Object 08.200.18

Listed as Female Figure ca. 1850–1750 B.C.

Tattoo reflects the history of beliefs, cultures, and identities. However, as tattoos are engraved in the skin and skin is not preserved over the period of time, it is not always possible to trace the history of it. Nevertheless, material culture signifying tattoos can act as a proxy to examine the tattoo practices. An artifact from The MET, the female figure bearing tattoo markings from the Middle Kingdom is such a proxy to seek for social implications of tattoos. Who had the tattoos?


What is it?: The Figure Description


The female figure made of faience with incomplete legs is a burial object excavated in the 20th century from a tomb near the Memphite region, Lisht North, modern Egypt. The nude female figure is covered with blue paint and it bears black geometrical patterns indicating tattoos all over the body. It has black hair with curls in the front in the style of the ancient Egyptian Goddess Hathor [1]. The figurine wears a necklace and a girdle of cowrie-bead shells. It is missing its legs. These types of “truncated female figurines are found most frequently in the cemeteries located near the Middle Kingdom pyramids (and pyramid temples) at Lisht” [2]. This 4000 years old (ca. 1850–1750 B.C.) object has fragmentations over the body which makes it hard to decide whether it was a frequently used daily object or whether it was specifically for burial purposes. I will further discuss its possible functionality in the later parts of the paper. The object is 12.7 centimeters (5 in) tall.


Since faience production was widely practiced in ancient Egypt, the production site of the object is possibly the excavation site [3]. The object was excavated by the Egyptian Expedition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1906-1907.


Function of the Female Figurine

  • Faience Figurines in Ancient Egypt: Shedding Light on Belief in Afterlife

Ancient Egyptian tombs had two important roles: to “house the body for eternity” and “interface between this world and the next” [4]. Since Ancient Egyptians believed in eternal afterlife, burials had contained many goods to facilitate this transition. In many excavated tombs archeologists found burial objects that are used in daily life or that are believed to be magical, facilitating the transition to the underworld [5]. The type of burial objects in each tomb varied depending on the social class of the person it belonged to. For example, people of the ruling class had objects made specifically for their tombs, whereas people below the ruling class had more basic objects in their burials [6].


The female fıgurine may have served quite a range of purposes, accordingly many scholars came up with different theories for the function of our female figurine. When first excavated, these figurines were misidentified as concubines destined to serve as a sexual partner after death [7]. However, this theory was revealed to be misleading as these types of female figurines were excavated from women’s, men’s, and children’s burials, as well as from temple areas [8]. Another theory about the function of these figures was that they served as a votive for the Goddess Hathor as a fertility figurine from which people ask for a child [9]. This theory suggests figurines might have adopted functions in daily life as well. In daily life, these figurines and “the women they represent, assisted people with issues such as fertility during their lifetimes through performances that focused on the power of the Goddess” [10]. In more recent literature, archeologists emphasize the magical-ritual functions those figures might have served. Female figurines of this type are considered to have “sexual, spiritual, and occasionally monstrous” functions [11].


In Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual, Columbia University Classics and Ancient Studies Professor Ellen Morris examines the objects found in this and similar burials, including this truncated female figurine and similar ones. These female figurines were found with the objects needed for Hathoric dance such as clappers and mirrors which were used to honor the Goddess Hathor [12]. Hathor was “the Goddess of music, beauty, sexuality, and its attendant fertility in this world and the next” [13]. Given the other objects found alongside the figurine - clappers and mirrors - the figurines “were almost certainly tied to the creation or reinfusion of new life” [14].


As a result of her analysis, Morris argues that these female figurines may have represented “Hathoric performers who danced for the dead king…” in mortuary temples [15]. She suggests that these female figurines were dancing for their owners' life to wake them from death [16]. It is clear that female figurines and the dancers they represent played a significant role in Egyptian mortuary culture and rituals.


Archeologist Aaron Deter-Wolf and Krutak Lars suggest that these figurines were representative of musicians and dancers who performed in ritual huntings and ceremonies such as funerals and births [17]. These female figurines served as a one of the vehicles for transition to solar and Osirian afterlives, and when these afterlives “ became widely available to those outside the royal circle, female figurines were quite likely adopted by those who could afford them” [18]. This suggests that previously these figurines were exclusive to the royal circle, and thus were strongly associated with social class.


  • Tattoo Patterns on the Figurines as a Proxy for Ancient Egyptian Tattoo Practices

Tattooing was a well established practice by the end of the Predynastic Period (3900-3100 BCE) in Ancient Egypt [19]. The geometric patterns in different colors on female figurines are identified as tattoos by scholars, moreover these tattoos were not found on male figurines [20]. The geometric patterns indicating tattoos on this figurine are important proxies to examine tattoo practices in ancient Egypt. A unique fact is that the tattoo patterns found on this figurine were also identified on several different female mummies. The mummy of a twelve-year-old adolescent dancer girl had a similar geometric pattern to that of our female figurine and other female figurines of the same type (truncated female figurines) [21]. Furthermore, the mummy of Amunet, the priestess of Hathor (XI Dynasty), also had similar tattoos which suggests that both the figurines and Amunet were associated with the Goddess Hathor [22]. Therefore it is clear that the patterns identified on the figurine were real tattoos practiced by some people at that time. Archeologists Aaron Deter-Wolf and Krutak Lars suggest that these tattoos on figurines as well as on mummies “may have expressed initiation in the cult of Hathor and knowledge of the associated rites, as well as perhaps augmenting the wearer’s beauty and effectiveness” [23]. These tattoos were associated with “only selected women who may well have been involved in ritual performance” [24]. Therefore I argue that tattoos in Middle Kingdom Egypt acted as an identity marker. These tattoos were exclusive to women which acted as a gender identity in the society. More specifically, as these tattoos were exclusive for the woman ritual performers, they also marked a group affiliation. Perhaps, they marked their social status in the society as they were in service of a Goddess. This spiritual engagement with tattoos is what made those tattoos and individuals special. Even if other people want to acquire that tattoo they might not be allowed to do so, and perhaps these technologies were not available to the public.



Who owned or used the object?: Female Figurines in the Royal Circle Context and Egyptian Mortuary Culture


Objects made of faience in Ancient Egypt were perceived as magical and carrying the power of rebirth [25]. Faience objects were made of inexpensive materials and found widely common in both upper and lower strata of society [26]. For this reason, the identity of the user depended largely on the skills and technology required in making that object, which in turn played a sıgnificant role in determining one’s social status [27].


Faience does not require complex technology to produce. Silica forms the majority of the material while soda and lime keeps the quartz grains together [28]. After the figure was dried it would fired in a kiln and upon “decoration made with a common ink of manganese and iron oxide, the figure was fired again” [29]. The kiln required 800-1000 celsius degrees which is accepted as a basic technology [30]. One of the two identified faience production sites in Ancient Egypt is Lisht, which is where the female figurine was excavated [31]. The decoration and shape of faience figurines of Middle Kingdom suggests that they were produced by skilled and trained craftsmen [32]. Therefore, faience figurines have a “social value different from others, as for instance faience beads” [33]. In sum, faience is not specific to royal circles, however certain objects requiring high effort in production can be matched with elite owners.


The context in which female figurines are found is what signals their spiritual value. Lisht, among other sites, “played a key role as places of power, religious, ideological and cultural significance in the late Middle Kingdom” [34]. Our female figurine was excavated from the cemetery near to the tomb of Senwosret, the pharaoh at the royal circle of Lisht [35]. Besides being excavated from tombs and temples, these female figurines, tattooed dancers, were also “depicted on the wall of the Twelfth Dynasty tomb of Wah-Ka II at Qau” [36]. These dancers were associated with “palaces, divine temples, and mortuary temples” [37]. Therefore, I hypothesize that this specific female figurine might belong to a person related to the royal circle, it might be a dancer or maid-servant.



Lifecycle of the Object After Production


Given that the figurine was found in its burial site, it is highly likely that it was only used as a burial object until it was excavated. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that these faience figurines were suggested to play a role in revivification of the dead. Therefore, it is highly possible that the figurine was made specifically for burial purposes. Since these figurines were excavated mostly from Lisht and there is an identified faience production center in Lisht, the object probably traveled no further than Lisht. However, the object traveled more than ten thousand kilometers after excavation. After 4000 years of dormancy, the object was excavated by the Egyptian Expedition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1906-1907 and is being displayed in this museum.



Conclusion


Truncated female figurines shed a light on exclusive tattoo practices in the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. Certain geometric patterns of tattoos were correlated with a divine source and ritual, therefore separating tattooed individuals from the rest. Since this practice was only observed in Hathoric female dancers, this pattern of tattoos firstly marked gender identity in ancient Egyptian society and secondly separated dancers from other people creating a divine group that is capable of carrying out magical processes such as transition to afterlife.



References:

[1] Morris, "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual," 310

[2] Morris, "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual,"310

[3] Riccardelli, “Egyptian Faience: Technology and Production”

[4] Dodson, “Tombs in Ancient Egypt,” 1

[5] Grajetzki, “The Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt : History, Archaeology and Society,” 4

[6] Grajetzki, “The Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt : History, Archaeology and Society,” 3,4

[7] Waraksa, "Female figurines (pharaonic period)," 3

[8] Morris, "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual," 289

[9] Waraksa, "Female figurines (pharaonic period)," 3

[10] Krutak and Deter-Wolf, “Ancient Ink : the Archaeology of Tattooing,” 25

[11] Morris, "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual,"306

[12] Morris, "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual,"307

[13] Krutak and Deter-Wolf“Ancient Ink : the Archaeology of Tattooing,”25

[14] Morris, "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual,"311

[15] Morris, "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual," 285

[16] Morris, "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual," 311

[17] Krutak and Deter-Wolf, “Ancient Ink : the Archaeology of Tattooing,”20

[18] Morris, "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual," 311

[19] Krutak and Deter-Wolf, “Ancient Ink : the Archaeology of Tattooing,” 11, 17

[20] Rubin, “Marks of Civilization : Artistic Transformations of the Human Body,” 21

[21] Morris, "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual," 289

[22] Rubin, “Marks of Civilization : Artistic Transformations of the Human Body,” 22

[23] Krutak and Deter-Wolf, “Ancient Ink : the Archaeology of Tattooing,”25

[24] Krutak and Deter-Wolf, “Ancient Ink : the Archaeology of Tattooing,”26

[25] Riccardelli, “Egyptian Faience: Technology and Production”

[26] Miniaci et al. “The Arts of Making in Ancient Egypt,” 139

[27] Miniaci et al. “The Arts of Making in Ancient Egypt,” 139

[28] Miniaci et al. “The Arts of Making in Ancient Egypt,” 141

[29] Miniaci et al. “The Arts of Making in Ancient Egypt,” 141

[30] Miniaci et al. “The Arts of Making in Ancient Egypt,” 141

[31] Miniaci et al. “The Arts of Making in Ancient Egypt,” 145

[32] Miniaci et al. “The Arts of Making in Ancient Egypt,” 151

[33] Miniaci et al. “The Arts of Making in Ancient Egypt,” 151

[34] Miniaci et al. “The Arts of Making in Ancient Egypt,” 151

[35] Morris, "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual," 310

[36] Morris, “Paddle Dolls and Performance,”81

[37] Morris, "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual," 310


  1. Dodson, Aidan. 2008. “Tombs in Ancient Egypt.” Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures.

  2. “Egyptian Art, Female Figure.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Egyptian Art Collection. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544220

  3. Grajetzki, Wolfram. 2006. “The Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt : History, Archaeology and Society.” London: Duckworth.

  4. Krutak, Lars F., and Deter-Wolf, Aaron. 2017. “Ancient Ink : the Archaeology of Tattooing.” Seattle: University of Washington Press.

  5. Miniaci, Gianluca., Juan Carlos Moreno García, Stephen Quirke, and Andréas Stauder. 2018. “The Arts of Making in Ancient Egypt : Voices, Images, and Objects of Material Producers 2000-1550 BC.” Leiden: Sidestone Press.

  6. Morris, Ellen. 2017. "Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual." In Company of Images: Modelling the Imaginary World of Middle Kingdom Egypt (2000-1500 BC). Proceedings of the International Conference of the EPOCHS Project held 18th-20th September 2014 at UCL, London, edited by Gianluca Miniaci, Marilina Betrò, and

  7. Stephen Quirke. Leuven and Paris and Bristol, Connecticut: Peeters Miniaci, Gianluca, Maria C. Betrò, and Stephen Quirke. 2017. Company of Images : Modelling the Imaginary World of

  8. Middle Kingdom Egypt (2000-1500 BC). Leuven: Peeters.

  9. Morris, Ellen. 2011. “Paddle Dolls and Performance.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 47: 71–103.

  10. Riccardelli, Carolyn. 2017. “Egyptian Faience: Technology and Production.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/egfc/hd_egfc.htm

  11. Rubin, Arnold. 1988. “Marks of Civilization : Artistic Transformations of the Human Body.” Los Angeles, Calif.: Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles.

  12. Waraksa, Elizabeth. "Female figurines (pharaonic period)." UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 1, no. 1 (2008).

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