Macquarie University
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Identities in ink: exploring connections between tattoos and ethnic identities in the ancient Nile Valley

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posted on 2023-04-20, 05:47 authored by Michelle KayMichelle Kay

Tattooing has been practiced throughout human history using different methods and for many, culturally specific, purposes. Studying tattoos from archaeological contexts provides an opportunity to access the cultural practices that might be connected to tattooing, in particular the complex social messages conveyed by tattoos within and between groups. This thesis reviews the archaeological evidence for tattooing practices in the ancient Nile Valley to investigate their possible connections to ethnicity. The scope of this study includes known tattooed human remains and material culture related to the practice of tattooing from the regions of Egypt and Lower Nubia from the mouth of the Delta to the site of Kerma. It includes the Egyptian Predynastic Period to the New Kingdom (5300–1069 BCE), and temporally encompasses the Nubian A-Group, C-Group, Pan-Grave, and Kerma cultures.

At the core of this project is a case study of three women with tattoos, uncovered during excavations at the mortuary temple of Mentuhotep II at Deir el Bahari, Egypt, in 1891 and 1923. These individuals have been understudied thus far and interpretations of them are controversial, with the primary point of contention being their supposed ethnicities. Can they be identified as Nubian or Egyptian, and how might their tattoos inform our discussions and interpretations? This case study speaks to broader questions in the scholarship regarding if, and how, tattoos might have been specific to certain cultures or ethnic groups and functioned as markers of ethnicity in the ancient Nile Valley. Overall, this research problematises the simplistic correlation of tattooing styles with dichotomic constructions of ‘Egyptian’ and ‘Nubian’ ethnicities. Future research on this topic might investigate how other aspects of identity including gender, age, status, and familial links are connected to tattooing in intersection with ethnic identities.


Table of Contents

1. Introduction -- 2. Background and theory: tattoos and identity -- 3. Tattoo practices in the ancient Nile Valley -- 4. Case study: three tattooed women from Deir el Bahari -- 5. Conclusion -- Bibliography -- Appendices

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis MRes

Department, Centre or School

Department of History and Archaeology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Ronika Power

Additional Supervisor 1

Aaron de Souza


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106 pages

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