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Did a Viking wear tattoos?

by / Sunday, 01 September 2013 / Published in Runic History, Viking Lifestyle

Tattooing is one of those art forms that is not well preserved in the historical record, because the skin hardly ever survives in burials. Unless we find a tattooed Viking frozen somewhere so that the skin is preserved, we will never know what patterns exactly might have been used for tattoos in the Viking age.

However between 1929 and 1995, archaeology excavations in the Altai Mountain region of Siberia uncovered a number of tombs known as kurgans. These ancient tombs lent their name to the region, Pazyryk, after the local word for ‘burial mound’. The kurgans date to around 400BC, and contained extensive artifacts including grave goods and several bodies known as Ice Mummies.

The Scythians were a nomadic group indigenous to what is now Siberia, Russia. A Scythian chieftain mummy was discovered at Pazyryk. When a Russian archaeologist uncovered the frozen body of the chieftain, they found him well preserved, including his tattooed skin. His tattoos included stylized images of a stag and a ram on his right arm, two griffins on his chest, and a fish on his right leg tattoo that was made more than 2,500 years ago. A Female Ice Mummy Burial Mound also was found at Pazyryk. She had a tattoo on her forearm. The woman could have been the Chieftain’s wife. Scythians wore tattoos as a sign of their nobility. A Scythian without tattoos showed that he was of low status.

The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand who wore moko’s that are permanent decoration of the body and face. These Maori tattoos have been around for over a thousand years and were originally placed with different types of chisels, made from the bones of the albatross. The pigments used for the body, were extracted from the awheto (a type of parasitic fungus): the darker colors for the face from Ngaheru, charred wood. The color pigments were kept in a decorated box called an Oko and was passed down from generation to generation.

For the Maori receiving the moko means an important transition, for example the transition from child to adult, and is accompanied by many rituals. The tattoo was also the access of the soul to the underworld; a non-tattooed deceased would never find peace. The choice of the design was not easy. First they had to decide whether the recipient tattoo was worth it, and it could take months before the family and tribal elders approved of the final design.

The earliest evidence of tattooing is traced back to 4000 B.C. Egypt. It is said that is was from Egypt tattooing traveled to across the world. To appear, disappear, and then reappear through out history. Evidence that could mark this art was found on clay dolls, which had markings on them, they were done by a sharp object or needle with a dye ink, which was put into the top layer of the skin.

In October of 1991 a five thousand year old tattooed man was found in the mountains between Austria and Italy. He is the oldest mummy to be found fully preserved with tattoos on him. He is also the best-preserved mummy form the Bronze Age. His body was intact and skin was also preserved.

All of the Egyptian mummies found that had tattoos were female. This does not mean that men were also not tattooed. In Libya mummies of both male and females have been found with tattoos. Males mostly had either sun tattoos or warrior tattoos on them. American mummies have been discovered in Peru. The Incas had made work describing their warriors and religious beliefs within ink on the skin.

So far no Viking has been discovered yet, fully intact to prove the Vikings also had knowledge how to permanently decorate the body. Who knows in time, they will find a Viking iceman in tact somewhere still hidden from our world.

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