Inked Up – A Brief History of Vikings and Tattoos by Rob Shackleford
Did the Vikings have tattoos? There is some disagreement. The simple answer is, unless there is a discovery made of an intact Viking corpse, which includes their skin, we will never know one way or another.
Let’s briefly look at the history of Tattoos.
Tattoos and History
The earliest evidence of tattoo art comes in the form of clay figurines that had their faces painted or engraved to represent tattoo marks. The oldest figures of this kind have been recovered from tombs in Japan dating to 5000 BCE or older, though there might be evidence of prehistoric tattooing dating from 12,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic France.
In terms of actual tattoos, the oldest known human to have tattoos preserved upon his mummified skin is a Bronze-Age man from around 3300 BCE. Found in a glacier of the Otztal Alps, near the border between Austria and Italy, ‘Otzi the Iceman’ had 57 tattoos.
Many were located on or near acupuncture points coinciding with the modern points that would be used to treat symptoms of diseases that he seems to have suffered from, including arthritis. Some researchers believe these tattoos indicate an early type of acupuncture. Although it is not known how Otzi’s tattoos were made, they seem to be made of soot.
Other early examples of tattoos can be traced back to the Middle Kingdom period of ancient Egypt. Several mummies exhibiting tattoos have been recovered that date to around that time (2160–1994 BCE).
In early Greek and Roman times (eighth to sixth century BCE) tattooing was associated with barbarians, such as Thracians, where tattoos were a sign of noble birth. The Greeks learned tattooing from the Persians and used it to mark slaves and criminals so they could be identified if they tried to escape. The Romans in turn adopted this practice from the Greeks.
The term ‘Stigma’ – now meaning a distinguishing mark of social disgrace – comes from the Greek for ‘a mark or puncture’, especially one made by a pointed instrument.
Elaborately-tattooed mummies have also been found in Pazyryk tombs (6th C – 2nd C BCE). The Pazyryks were formidable Iron-Age Scythian horsemen and warriors who lived on the grass plains of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, what is now Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
Tattooing may have dispersed from various places by way of migration and by nomadic peoples: the women of various gypsy tribes in India and the Middle East were specialized tattooists. For centuries they provided the tattoos for inhabitants of, and pilgrims to, regions as distant as Eastern Europe. The Scythians were similarly responsible for spreading tattooing from Siberia to Eastern Europe at the beginning of the Christian era.
One Scythian chieftain was found in Siberia who had been buried circa 500 B.C. He had been buried beneath the permafrost, so his skin and tattoos survived. While this find predates Viking traders in Russia by 1300 years, it is possible that Vikings could have met the descendants of the Scythians while on trading missions in Russia and learned the tattooing art from them.
For a more “modern” example, the ancient mummy of a mysterious young woman, known as the Ukok Princess, was found 2,500 metres up in the Altai Mountains in a border region close to frontiers of Russia with Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. The remains of the immaculately dressed ‘princess’, aged around 25 and preserved for several millennia in the Siberian permafrost, included colourful body artwork as the best preserved and most elaborate ancient tattoos anywhere in the world.
Tattoos are traditionally popular throughout South-East Asia. Several tribes in the Malay Archipelago were heavily tattooed, as were the Japanese.
Men of Borneo and Micronesia collected tattoos when visiting other tribes or islands, while the tattoo culture was vital to the warriors in Polynesian societies as well as New Zealand.
British, French and Spanish explorers also came in contact with heavily tattooed natives of the New World they steadily and ruthlessly conquered, with American natives often being taken back to Europe or Britain to display their body tattoos.
But back to Vikings. Were Vikings actually tattooed, or were they painted?
Please check out my continued research into Vikings and Tattoos in my next Blog – Inked Up – Vikings and Tattoos Part 2
Some general tattoo links to further your research
Interested in more? For more on Vikings , check out the links of my previous articles below:
About the author:
Hi, I’m Rob Shackleford. I am author of a number of novels, though so far only Traveller Inceptio and Traveller Probo have been officially published. As Traveller Inceptio looks at the fates of modern historical researchers sent to the early 11th Century Saxon world, Vikings do feature.
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