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Found evidence that Ötzi the Iceman’s tattoos were done using a single-ended tool

A new discovery has been made about how the 5,300-year-old mummy known as Ötzi the Iceman, found frozen in the Alps, was tattooed. Scientists have found evidence that Ötzi’s 61 tattoos were made using a single-ended tool.

The results of the study, conducted by an international team of archaeologists, historians and tattoo artists, were published in the European Journal of Archaeology.

Previous research had suggested that Ötzi’s tattoos were made with more than one tool. But new analysis shows that the tattoos were made with a single tool, possibly a metal needle or thorn.

When the Iceman was found, he had numerous tattoos on his body, lower back, abdomen, lower legs and left wrist.

Tattoos on the body of Ötzi, the Tyrolean Iceman. (Photograph © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/EURAC/Samadelli/Staschitz)

Previous research has suggested four possibilities: hand poking, subcutaneous tattooing, hand touching and incision. Because most of the tattoos contained short, straight lines, many have suggested that the tattoos were likely done using the incision method, in which an incision is made in the skin using a sharpened object, such as a stone, and a coloring material, such as ash, is inserted into the incision.

This video shows tattoo artist Mokonuiarangi Smith tattooing Danny Riday using a boar tusk comb. This variety of puncture tattooing, known as “hand tapping,” involves sharp implements hafted at an angle to a handle being struck into the skin using a secondary tool. This tattooing technique is strongly associated with Austronesian languages and was traditionally limited in distribution to the southern Pacific Rim and small areas of inland Southeast Asia. Credit: European Journal of Archaeology (2024). DOI: 10.1017/eaa.2024.5

By examining Ötzi’s tattoos under a microscope and comparing them with modern tattooing techniques, scientists have found evidence of single-ended tool use.

To find out the technique used in Ötzi’s tattoos, the researchers recruited a tattoo expert as a volunteer subject. The expert tattooed his leg with four different techniques similar to Ötzi’s. After the tattoos healed, the researchers took close-up photos of the new tattoos and compared them with Ötzi’s. In the end, the tattoos made by hand, dot by dot, were the most similar to Ötzi’s. This suggests that the Iceman’s tattoos were most likely made using this technique.

This shows tattoo artist Danny Riday tattooing his own leg using a bone awl made from white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). This variety of puncture tattooing, colloquially known as “hand poke” or “stick and poke” tattooing, involves the use of a sharp implement either held directly in the hand or hafted to the end of a handle. Credit: European Journal of Archaeology (2024). DOI: 10.1017/eaa.2024.5

Hand Tattoo Technique

The hand tattoo technique is a traditional tattoo method used before the advent of modern tattoo machines. In this method, the ink is manually placed under the skin using a sterile needle or thorn. The needle is repeatedly inserted into the skin, allowing the ink to penetrate under the skin.

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