Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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People Illustrated Volume 52 Number 2, March/April 1999
by Adrienne Mayor

[image] (Ray Bartkus; tattoos by Adrienne Mayor) [LARGER IMAGE]

For centuries, humans have used tattoos for myriad reasons--for magical protection, to relieve pain, for vengeance, or to declare victory over an enemy. Tattoos could beautify, shock, or humiliate. They proclaimed valor, religious belief, group solidarity, or personal independence, their messages hidden or in plain sight. A legal inscription from Ephesus indicates that during the early Roman Empire all slaves exported to Asia were tattooed with the words "tax paid." "Stop me, I'm a runaway" was another standard motto etched on the brows of Roman slaves. New research indicates that Roman authorities punished early Christians with forehead tattoos that condemned them to the mines. In A.D. 330, the first Christian emperor, Constantine, banned the practice of tattooing the faces of convicts, gladiators, and soldiers. Because the human face reflected "the image of divine beauty," he said, "it should not be defiled." Despite misgivings about the practice, the Greeks were fascinated by the idea of tattoos as exotic beauty marks. In the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., a series of popular vase paintings illustrated the murder of the musician Orpheus by tattooed Thracian maenads wielding spears, daggers, and axes. Ötzi the Iceman, who died in an Alpine blizzard some 5,000 years ago, has several tattoos, concentrated at joints: parallel lines on the right foot and ankle, bars along the lower spine, lines on the left calf, and crosses inside the right knee and left ankle. X rays revealed chronic degeneration of bone and cartilage in the spine and arthritic wear and tear of the knees and ankles, suggesting the practice of the ancient folk remedy of tattooing to relieve pain.

Adrienne Mayor, a classical folklorist, is writing a book about discoveries of prehistoric fossils in classical antiquity.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America