This week’s Mummy Monday is a little different. We don’t know the identity of this mummy, but her remains tell us a very unique story. Let’s talk about the tattooed mummy from Deir el-Medina.
The tattooed torso of a woman was found and excavated in 2014. This was found within the assemblage that was stored in TT291 in Deir el-Medina, though it is believed that the assemblage was originally found in TT290, the tomb right next door.
Tomb 290 was originally the tomb of Irynefer, a necropolis workman who lived in Deir el-Medina during the Ramesside Period, 19th to 20th Dynasties. It is a small shaft tomb underneath a pyramid chapel. It was most likely looted in antiquity and then used for later burials. The tomb was discovered in 1922 and some of it was excavated in 1922. From pictures from the original excavation were full of comingled remains.
These remains were most likely moved to TT291 in 2004 in preparation for the public exhibition of Tomb 290. Anne Austin, an Egyptologist working for the Institute Francais d’Archaeologie Orientale’s mission to Deir el-Medina in 2014 researched the remains found. She determined that there were the remains of at least 26 individuals.
The torso also dates to the Ramesside Period (1300 – 1070 BCE). It was found unwrapped, except for one layer of bandages on the right forearm. The head, hands, and legs are no longer present. The mummy was at one point eviscerated, but there is no visceral cut. Rather there is a transvaginal or transperineal cut. While this practice wasn’t the most popular, there is evidence for this technique in other New Kingdom mummies.
Because the skull was missing, this made it very difficult to estimate the age of the mummy. But with the remaining bones of the torso, an estimation was made of 25 to 34 years old. She may have been mummified with the use of resins and this actually disguised some of the tattoos. Because of the looted state of the tomb, there is no way to tell if the mummy originally had any burial equipment when she was buried.
When the torso was discovered, Anne Austin noticed the marking on the neck of the mummy, but originally thought these were painted on post-mortem. But upon further investigation, these marks were tattoos. Tattoos in Egypt began to appear in the Middle Kingdom and evidence suggests that only women got tattoos.
Anne Austin published a paper and gave a talk about the finds on this mummy. When investigating the torso further, she was able to find many more tattoos. She also used infrared photography to find tattoos that had faded. A computer program called DStretch was used to flesh out and stretch the skin so that the tattoos looked more like they would have before mummification.
There is evidence that someone else would have had to apply some of these, as they are unreachable for the person to tattoo themselves. This implies that there was some sort of tattoo artist or system of tattooing established. There is also considerable variation in the darkness of the tattoos. This could imply that the applications of some tattoos were less effective, the tattoos may have naturally diffused over time, or some other process made the tattoos fade. If the tattoos naturally diffused over time, it implies that this woman received the tattoos over a couple of years rather than all at once.
In total 30 tattoos were found, but there may have been more on the parts of the body that were lost. The tattoos are found on the neck, shoulders, back, and arms. These locations are a slight departure from previous tattoos found on mummies. Usually, tattoos are found in more private places, where the tattoos would not be visible on an everyday basis. These are then associated with eroticism. Previous Egyptologists have remarked that tattooed Egyptian women were “prostitutes of dubious origins.”
But these tattoos, except for one on the lower back, are all in very visible places. I’ll talk about the interpretations of the individual tattoos and them as a whole after, but first, let’s take a look at them!
Anne Austin has labeled all of the individual tattoos by T- and then a number. I’ll be talking about them in groups because many of these tattoos are symmetrical! Check out her article here to see a table of all the tattoos and their interpretations!
On the neck, there are two symmetrical seated baboons (T01 & T02) on either side of Wadjet eye (or Eye of Horus) (T03) on top of two Wadjet eyes with two nefers in between them (T04). These are very visible and were the first tattoos noticed. Nefer is the hieroglyph that means “good” or “beautiful.”
On the left and right shoulder, there are matching symbols of two Wadjet eyes around three nefers (T05 & T06). There is also either a uraeus or a snake (T07 & T08) and another tattoo on either side that could not be discerned (T09 & T10). Below on the right shoulder is a girdle knot hieroglyph (T11) and a cobra (T13). Below on the left shoulder is just a cobra (T12).
This is where the tattoos begin to differentiate. Following the right arm down, there is a cross-shape (T15), a uraeus (T21), a Hathor handle (T22), an unknown tattoo (T23), possibly a bouquet of flowers (T24), and a snake with a basket (T25). On the left, there is a cross-shape (T14), a uraeus (T16), a snake with a solar disk (T17), dual khepri beetles or a sistrum (T18), faded hieroglyphs below a snake the signs mx wab (T19), and Hathor cows (T20).
On the upper back, there are a few asymmetrical tattoos. There is a hieroglyph of a clump of papyrus with the buds bending down and the signs for mw (T27), a Wadjet eye with the signs for mw (T28), and a Wadjet presented by a baboon (T29). Finally, the largest tattoo is found on the lower back. It is a series of dots connecting two lotus blossoms which are located on the back of the hips (T30).
The tattoos appear like amulets on the body which implies their meaning is of a magical or protective kind. This may have been a way to permanently attach the magical power of the amulet to one person. This could have been done to ensure healing and/or protection against illness, which would imply that this woman was very ill during her life. Unfortunately, because of the damage to the body, that is hard to discern.
Many of the tattoos can be associated with gods such a Thoth in the baboons and Hathor in the Hathor handle and cows. The Wadjet eyes and the nefer signs could be translated as “seeing the beauties” or as a votive formula, ir nfr ir nfr, or “do good, do good.”
The Hathor handle, which is pretty much a handle of something (usually a sistrum) with the face of Hathor, is upside down as if to mimic its position when held during use. This would have been “activated” by dance or movement, which would mean that every movement of this woman’s arm would ritually shake the handle.
While some of the tattoos are connected with the idea of power and divine action, most of them have to do with some sort of protective magic. This links the woman to the cult of Hathor, which would have empowered her to take on important cultic or magical roles. These tattoos help us conclude that she might have taken on one of several important roles in the cults of ancient Egypt, either as a wise woman, priestess, or healer.
You can also watch Anne talk about this find in the video below.
Photos of Mummy – Anne Austin
Plan of TT290 and TT291 – Anne Austin
Photo of TT290 – Elvira Kronlob 2011
Photo of TT291 – Lenka and Andy Peacock
Plan of TT291 – Lenka Peacock
Plan of TT290 – touregypt.net/featurestories/Irunefert.htm