Calendar Services Feedback Site Map Help Home Digital Collection Children & Education Hermitage History Exhibitions Collection Highlights Information


 


















Discovery of tattoos on ancient mummies from Siberia

On 15 February 2005, at a conference dedicated to the memory of academician Boris B. Piotrovsky (1908-1990), a report entitled Tattoos on the Pazyryk Mummies. New Materials. was presented by senior researcher L.L. Barkova and researcher S.V. Pankova (Department of Archeology of Eastern Europe and Siberia, State Hermitage).

The tattoos were discovered in 2003-2004 during an examination of ancient mummies which are kept in the State Hermitage's Department of Archeology of Eastern Europe and Siberia. Three of the mummies come from the Altai, more specifically from the Pazyryk barrows, which date from the 5th-3rd centuries B.C. and were excavated by S.I. Rudenko during 1947-1948. The mummies are of two women and a man whose bodies were subjected to special operations for long-term preservation after their deaths. One further male mummy was found in Khakasia, in a burial site dating from the very start of the Common Era (tomb of Oglakhta, excavated by L.R. Kyzlasov in 1969). This may have been preserved naturally thanks to the special microclimate in the burial chamber, however one cannot exclude the possibility of artificial mummification. All the mummies are dry and light bodies covered with wrinkled skin of brown color which has darkened with exposure to air following their removal from the burial sites. All of the Pazyryk mummies are very dark and no drawings were visible on them. The mummy from Khakasia is lighter colored, however until recently it remained clothed and the tattoo was therefore hidden.

It was precisely on the Khakasia mummy that the first pictures were discovered. When they removed the clothing from the mummy, the restorers noticed on its shoulders the faded-blue figures of unclear drawings. Experts in forensic medicine from the Military Medical Academy who were called in to inspect the mummies suggested using infrared rays to better reveal the drawings. The mummy was then photographed using infrared rays in the Hermitage's Laboratory for Expert Scientific and Technical Evaluation. This method works on the basis of the soot that is in the tattoo pigment. In the photographs, the barely noticeable tattoo images became visibly brighter and more distinct; moreover, other tattoos that were not visible to the human eye were "developed" on the photographic plate.

These images were located symmetrically on the shoulders, chest and arms, as well as along the spine and at the base of the back of the neck. The images on the chest and arms take the form of small commas and rosettes. On the innermost side of the elbow there is a tattooed bow and arrow. On the shoulders and spine there are large figures with several tentacle-like shoots whose sense is not clear. This is the first and only case of tattooing ever found in the Tashtyk culture of which burial of mummies is a part; however, the existence of tattooing among the Tashtyk population was long assumed.

Given these results the idea arose to carry out the same procedure on the Pazyryk mummies. The possibility of finding tattooed images on them was all the more likely since three ancient Altai mummies with tattoos were already known to exist. Photographs indeed revealed that all the Hermitage mummies from Pazyryk are covered with tattooed drawings.

These drawings are of different animals: beasts of prey such as tigers and leopards; ungulates such as horses, wild mountain sheep and roe deer; birds and imaginary creatures such as hoofed animals with birds' heads or winged predators. All of the pictures are done in a special artistic manner which is characteristic of Pazyryk art in the so-called Siberian Scythian animal style. They convey the shapes of separate animals and subjects of predators attacking ungulates, so-called "scenes of mauling."

The tattoos are located on the shoulders and adjacent areas, on the thumbs, and, in the case of the male mummy, on the shins and spine. On the fourth fingers of one of the mummies there are vegetal designs in the form of stylized lotus buds. One of the female mummies has an especially interesting tattoo which is different from the "classical" Pazyryk compositions. Its shapes might be linked with some other culture; possibly they had some relation to China, with whom the Pazyryks had periodic contacts.

This is the first time that infrared photography has been used in the Hermitage to reveal tattoos on ancient mummies. The application of this method may lead to the discovery of a series of pictures on other mummies originating, especially, in the territory of Siberia and Central Asia and preserved in other places than the Hermitage.

 


Tattoo on left shoulder of male
Frontal view
Fifth Pazyryk Barrow

Larger view


Tattoo on left shoulder of male
Side view
Fifth Pazyryk Barrow

Larger view


Tattooed drawing on male mummy
Fifth Pazyryk Barrow

Larger view


Tattooed drawing of a complex, multi-figure composition on right arm of female from elbow to wrist
Fifth Pazyryk Barrow

Larger view


Bird-shaped tattoo drawing on the right hand of male
Second Pazyryk Barrow

Larger view


 

Copyright © 2011 State Hermitage Museum
All rights reserved. Image Usage Policy.
About the Site