Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Tattoos as a means of communication

Nineteen years ago, the well-preserved body of a young woman who died at the age of 25 around 2,500 years ago was recovered from the permafrost of a kurgan (burial mound) of the Pazyryk Culture high on the Ukok Plateau of the Altai Republic, a part of the Russian Federation.  Nearby were the bodies of two warriors who guarded her in death.
Earlier archeological excavations in the same area had recovered the frozen remains or other individuals belonging to the Pazyryk Culture, including one who is referred to as a chief.  All of these ice mummies bore elaborate tattoos on their bodies, and these were the subject of a recent, spectacularly illustrated article in the Daily Mail (August 14, 2012) that was occasioned by the transfer of the remains of the "princess" to a permanent glass sarcophagus in the National Museum in Gorno-Altaisk, capital of the Altai Republic.

The culture of the Pazyryk people in the Altai Mountains was similar to that of the nomadic Scythians of the Ukraine and elsewhere who roamed across the Eurasian steppe.  The Scythians, too, sported tattoos on their bodies, and Herodotus tells us that they were a sign of nobility.  A Scythian without tattoos was of low social status.
In light of this renewed interest in the tattoos of the Pazyryk princess and her compatriots, I am prompted to consider this type of body art as a form of inscribed communication.  Lars Krutak has several excellent articles on tattoo among the Iroquois and in Siberia and Arctic regions that provide insight for the functions of tattoos in other parts of the world.  One observation that may be made about some of the tattoos Krutak has documented is that they serve as a sort of signature, albeit a highly complex and artistic one.
Now I come to the nub of this post.  Note that the earliest (around 1200 BC) Chinese character for writing, wén 文, originally depicted and referred to tattoo (concerning this website, see my post on "Chinese 'Etymology'").
A few centuries later, when wén 文 acquired the meanings of "culture, civilization, writing", a new character based upon it (by adding the silk radical to the left) was created to stand for the original meaning, wén 纹 ("lines, design").  It is remarkable that this character is still used in the Mandarin word for "tattoo", viz., wénshēn 纹身 (lit., "lines / design-body").  Thus, there is a direct and unmistakable connection between tattoo and the development of writing in China.  This is not surprising in light of the fact that the burial practices of the elite in the East Asian Heartland (EAH, subsequently to become the core of a sequence of dynasties now retrospectively referred to as "Chinese") during the second half of the second millennium and the first half of the first millennium BC displayed clear affinities with steppe cultures.  See my "Religious Formations and Intercultural Contacts in Early China," in Volkhard Krech and Marion Steinicke, ed., Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe (Dynamics in the History of Religion, 1 [Ruhr-Universität Bochum]) (Leiden:  Brill, 2011), pp. 85-110.
It is ironic that, toward the latter part of the first millennium BC, tattoos had become a form of punishment in China and were used to stigmatize criminals.
Incidentally, I wonder whether body tattoos might have influenced the designs on early bronzes in China.  Many of them have a very tattoo-like look.  We now know that the deer stones (concentrated mainly in Mongolia and Siberia, but also in Eastern Central Asia and elsewhere) are vaguely anthropomorphic and depict the same sorts of designs as appear on the tattooed bodies of steppe warriors.  Hence it would not be unusual to see body tattoo being transferred to cultural artifacts.
As Mark Bender said to me in a personal communication:
It is really amazing that the ephemeral human body is the vehicle for inscription in these cultures in so many places…, but it makes sense.  Tattoo is portable in the most practical way.  Genealogy was also a major feature in many cultures, and lineages are reflected in traditional tattoo designs belonging to particular clans.  Thus tattoo is not just a matter of self identity.  I suspect that tattoo also has links to cave paintings, rock inscriptions, weaving, etc.   Furthermore, I’m fascinated by possible connections with the steppe bronzes of deer, tigers, and so forth.
We have now come full circle, with Chinese characters being inscribed on the bodies of our coevals, though the results have in many cases been badly skewed.  The misuse of characters in contemporary tattoo has been extensively documented on Hanzi Smatter.  See also "Queen of the World" for one particularly intriguing case.
Imre Galambos has written several perceptive essays on tattoos and Chinese characters:
For those who would like to pursue this subject in greater depth, here are some works and sites that I've found useful (the books were purchased at a wonderful exhibition held at the American Museum of Natural History in 2000):
Caplan, Jane, ed., Written on the Body:  The Tattoo in European and American History (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2000).  My emphasis added to the first word of the title.
Gilbert, Steve, ed. and intro.  Tattoo history:  a source book (New York:  Juno Books, 2000.  An anthology of historical records of tattooing throughout the world.
Hesselt van Dinter, Maarten, Tribal Tattoo Designs (Amsterdam:  The Pepin Press, 2000).  This is a beautiful little book of drawings and paintings (many of historical vintage).  See also the author's The World of Tattoo (
Mayor, Adrienne, "People Illustrated: Tattooing in Antiquity," Archaeology (March-April 1999), 54-57.
Phoenix & Arabeth
Reed, Carrie E., "Early Chinese Tattoo," Sino-Platonic Papers, 103 (June, 2000), 52 pages.
I'm sure that readers would welcome other suggestions of resources for the study of the history and significance of tattoo.
Finally, I would like to point out that tattooing has been going on for a long time, since we find it already on the body of Ötzi the Iceman (ca. 5300 BP) who had many tattoos on his body.  I suspect that Ötzi's tattoos had something to do with the development of acupuncture, inasmuch as they were concentrated on the surface of parts of his body beneath which there was bone deformation or deterioration, particularly at joints (ankles and knees) and in the lumbar area of the spine.  The Tarim mummies (2nd and 1st millennia BC) also sported tattoos, some of which may have been therapeutic (around the wrist and other joints), but others appear to have been primarily decorative and symbolic.  The Thracians (as well as the Illyrians and Dacians) of antiquity (i.e., Paleo-Balkan peoples) were especially known for their tattoos, a feature which was remarked upon by Greek and Roman historians.
[A tip of the hat to all those who called the Daily Mail article to my attention, which stimulated me to write this post]


Miri Textiles said...

Very interesting article. I'm curious to follow up on a tattoo/woven design association...

tattoosdesigns said...

nice body art,,,tattoos designs are really awesome ,,,,,gud post

sturat herris said...

Not only china but almost all the corners of the world are crazy about tattoos. So different kind of designs are available in tattoos. China people will make chinese symbols on their body.
Japanese Tattoo Sleeves