iceman tattoos
January 22, 2015

Scan finds new tattoos on 5300-year-old Iceman

Aaron Deter-Wolf for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A new study has used advanced imaging techniques to identify previously unknown tattoos on the ribcage of the 5300-year old man known as Ötzi, bringing his total number of tattoos to 61.

But first, some context

In September of 1991 hikers in the Ötzal Alps along the border of Austria and Italy happened upon the mummified corpse who became an archaeological celebrity. After Ötzi died at the hands of unknown attackers one late spring or early summer around 3500 BC, his body and belongings were left in a small gully where they were entombed beneath an alpine glacier. A combination of glacial meltwater and extreme cold resulted in natural mummification of his body.

Thanks to more than two decades of analysis, scientists arguably know more about Ötzi’s health and final days than those of any other ancient human. He died at around 45 years of age after being shot in the back with a stone-tipped arrow and bludgeoned. In the 12 hours preceding his death he climbed into the mountains from an Italian valley, and ate a last meal consisting of grains and ibex meat. Ötzi suffered a variety of ailments, including advanced gum disease, gallbladder stones, lyme disease, whipworms in his colon, and atherosclerosis. Researchers have sequenced Ötzi’s entire genome, identified a genetic predisposition to heart disease, and determined that he has 19 surviving male relatives in his genetic lineage. However, a new study shows the Iceman still has secrets left to reveal.

Now for the tattoo part

Ötzi was tattooed, and offers the earliest direct evidence that tattooing was practiced in Europe by at least the Chalcolithic period. However, until now it has been difficult to conclusively catalog all of his marks. Ötzi’s epidermis naturally darkened from prolonged exposure to sub-zero temperatures as he lay beneath the glacier, and as a result some of his tattoos became faint or invisible to the naked eye. Consequently previous studies have identified between 47 and 60 tattoos on the Iceman’s body.

For several decades scientists have recognized that advanced imaging techniques, and particularly the near-infrared spectral region, can be used to reveal faint or invisible tattoos on ancient mummified remains. These techniques are effective because the carbon that comprised most ancient tattoo ink absorbs certain wavelengths differently than the human epidermis. Therefore when mummified skin is illuminated using those wavelengths, carbon-based tattoos appears much darker than the surrounding untattooed skin.

The new examination of Ötzi by Marco Samadelli, Marcello Melis, Matteo Miccoli, Eduard Egarter Vigl, and Albert R. Zink consisted of non-invasive multispectral photographic imaging performed on the Iceman at his home in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy. The researchers first slightly thawed Ötzi’s body, which is ordinarily kept at 21.2 °F, in order to eliminate the ice layer from his skin. On reaching 29.2 °F, he was photographed from all sides using a modified 36 MP digital SLR camera outfitted with filters to capture images in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared wavelengths. These images were then processed using specially-designed software capable of distinguishing and analyzing seven wavelength bands for every recorded pixel. This method, which the authors call “7-Band Hypercolorimetric Multispectral Imaging,” allows for detection of color differences even in the non-visible spectral range.

Samadelli and colleagues were able to detect a previously unrecorded group of tattoos on Ötzi’s lower right rib cage. Those marks consist of four parallel lines between 20 and 25 mm long and are invisible to the naked eye. According to the authors, these make up “the first tattoo … detected on the Iceman's frontal part of the torso.”

The researchers also created a complete catalog of Ötzi’s tattoos. These include 19 groups of tattooed lines, for a total of 61 marks ranging from 1 to 3 mm in thickness and 7 to 40 mm in length. With the exception of perpendicular crosses on the right knee and left ankle, and parallel lines around the left wrist, the tattooed lines all run parallel to one another and to the longitudinal axis of the body. The greatest concentration of markings is found on his legs, which together bear 12 groups of lines.

And no, they weren't a tribute to his girlfriend

While the different combinations of lines in Ötzi’s tattoos may have held some underlying symbolic meaning, it appears that their function was primarily medicinal or therapeutic. Previous research has revealed that 80% of the Iceman’s tattoos correspond to classic Chinese acupuncture points used to treat rheumatism, while other tattoos are located along acupuncture meridians used to treat ailments such as back pain and abdominal disorders, from which Ötzi also suffered. In his 2012 book Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification, anthropologist Dr. Lars Krutak documents an experiment in which Colin Dale of Skin & Bone Tattoo in Copenhagen determined that hand-poked tattoos applied to acupuncture points using a bone needle “could produce a sustained therapeutic effect,” successfully relieving ailments such as rheumatism, tinnitus, and headaches.

Samadelli and colleagues note that Ötzi’s newly-identified tattoos are not located above a joint, and suggest that this particular group of lines was therefore not related to the treatment of lower back pain or degenerative joint diseases. However, after reading the article Krutak was intrigued by the possibility that the new tattoos might be located on or near other classical acupuncture points or meridians, and if so “Perhaps these could be traced to Ötzi’s known pathological conditions, such as gallbladder stones, whipworms in his colon and atherosclerosis.”

Krutak consulted Gillian Powers (M.Ac., L.Ac.), a licensed acupuncturist in Washington, DC, who reported that acupuncture points near the newly-recorded tattoos “can be used to treat the symptoms associated with whipworms (abdominal pain, nausea/vomiting, diarrhea) and gallstones (abdominal pain, nausea/vomiting, etc.), as well as breathing issues.” Powers also noted that the location of the new tattoos is in close proximity to the gallbladder itself, and therefore could have additional effects on gallstone pain.

The new study was published online this week in the Journal of Cultural Heritage.

Aaron Deter-Wolf is a Prehistoric Archaeologist for the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and an adjunct professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Middle Tennessee State University, where he teaches the Anthropology of Tattooing. In 2013 he co-edited the volume Drawing with Great Needles: Ancient Tattoo Traditions of North America You can follow his research at http://tdoa.academia.edu/AaronDeterWolf.

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