This May Be the Oldest Tattoo Kit in the World

Aaron Deter-Wolf and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology
Aaron Deter-Wolf and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology

Tattooing is an ancient art, but it has left only ephemeral traces in the archaeological record. Examples of mummies with ink-decorated skin do exist—such as Ötzi the Iceman and the Siberian Ice Maiden—but they're rare. And archaeologists are only just beginning to distinguish tattoo needles from other tools that were used for tasks like working leather or weaving baskets.

Despite those challenges, a pair of researchers thinks they've identified what could be the world's oldest tattooing toolkit: a set of pointy, ink-stained needles that were carved out of wild turkey bones and then buried in a Native American grave at least 3600 years ago.

The burial was found west of Nashville, Tennessee, at a riverside campsite called the Fernvale site, which had been used by prehistoric hunter-gatherers for centuries. The settlement was excavated to make way for a bridge in 1985, but archaeologists at the time did not fully analyze the findings. The set of bone needles, pigment-filled half-shells, and stone tools were collectively labeled a toolkit and put into storage, where they spent the next three decades.

"It was one of these situations where it went into a collection and nothing was done with it," says Aaron Deter-Wolf, an archaeologist with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and an expert in ancient tattoos.

3600 year old tattoo needles
Aaron Deter-Wolf

Deter-Wolf teamed up with Tanya Peres, a zooarchaeologist at Florida State University, to take a fresh look at the set of artifacts. They were initially interested in the toolkit because it resembled a medicine bundle—a collection of artifacts that was bound together to act like a portable shrine in more recent Native American cultures. But after examining the objects, the researchers thought they might be dealing with a tattoo kit.

"By the arrival of the Europeans, virtually every Native American group in the Great Plains and the Eastern Woodlands practiced tattooing," Deter-Wolf tells Mental Floss. "If it's something that widespread and that important, we suspect that it is very deeply rooted in Native American history."

Their theory got a boost from another study published last year, in which Christian Gates St-Pierre, an archaeologist at the University of Montreal, tattooed pig skin with bone tools to test the wear-and-tear patterns that prehistoric tattoo needles should exhibit. He found that when it was used for tattooing, a bone needle would develop a bright polish—but only on the first 3 millimeters of the tip.

Deter-Wolf recently took those experiments one step further. He re-created one of Ötzi's tattoos on his own skin, using a bone tool and black ink to make 1500 individual punctures on his left wrist—and a permanent tattoo. 

attooing human skin using bone tools for an experimental archaeological evaluation
Aaron Deter-Wolf

Deter-Wolf and Peres said that two of the needles in the kit had the same wear-and-tear signatures that Gates found in his experiments. "At this point there's not another activity that we know of that would create that same pattern on bone tools," Deter-Wolf says.

They also found traces of red and black pigment on the tips of the tools. (They're awaiting the final results of an analysis to figure out the chemical makeup of this paint.) They presented their preliminary findings this week at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Washington, D.C.

The toolkit is thought to be at least 3600 years old and could be even more ancient: Initial results from a radiocarbon study of shells found at the same site suggest an age of 5200 years. Either way, the tools predate a group of 3000-year-old tattooing tools made from volcanic glass that were identified in 2016 at an archaeological site on an island in the South Pacific.

King of Yamacraw and his nephew, mezzotint by John Faber the Younger
1739 messotint by John Faber the Younger of Tomo Chachi Mico, king of the Yamacraw, and his nephew Tooanahowi
© Yale University Art Gallery

While scholars know a lot about more recent Native American tattooing practices because of historical accounts and ethnographic studies after European contact, prehistoric tattooing remains more mysterious. For now it's impossible to know what kind of tattoos the Fernvale tools would have been used to create, or what meaning tattooing had for the people who lived along this Tennessee river valley during this era, called the Archaic period in North America.

"I think there has to be a whole lot more work done on Archaic lifeways in general before we can even start to parse the deeper meaning of tattooing in this period," Peres says. "We're still arguing about what they were eating and what kind of houses they living in, which are more durable things in the archaeological record."

Deter-Wolf expects archaeologists will identify more tattoo kits hiding in collections: "What I suspect is that once we start looking at more of these things, we're going to find that tattooing is an incredibly widespread activity."

Advanced CT Scans Reveal Blood Vessels and Skin Layers in a Mummy's Hand

Jenny Romell, et al./Radiology
Jenny Romell, et al./Radiology

Mummies hold some intriguing secrets to their pasts, like the food they ate and the diseases they had when they were alive. Now scientists are using a tool originally designed for medicine to get an even deeper look at the clues mummified bodies carry with them into the present day, Gizmodo reports.

In a proof-of-concept study published in the journal Radiology, researchers from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden detail how a new-and-improved CT scanning technique can be used to visualize the interior of mummies on a microscopic level. By creating detailed X-ray images, CT scans allow doctors to see inside their patients without invasive surgery. Archaeologists have been using this technology to study delicate ancient artifacts for years, but the level of detail that can be achieved this way—especially when it comes to looking at interior soft tissue—is limited.

The upgraded version of the tech, called phase-contrast CT scanning, measures the phase shift, or the change in the position of a light wave, that occurs when X-rays pass through solid objects. The images generated this way have a higher contrast level than conventional X-rays, which means they capture more detail.

Cross-section of mummy hand.
Jenny Romell, et al./Radiology

Doctors have been using this 10-year-old technology to examine soft tissues like organs and veins in living patients, but it hadn't been used on a mummy until recently. Working with a mummified human right hand dating back to 400 BCE in Egypt, which they borrowed from the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, the researchers fired up a phase-contrast CT scanner. It produced images with a resolution of 6 to 9 microns, giving a clear picture of the different layers of skin, individual cells in the connective tissue, and the blood vessels in the nail bed—all without damaging the artifact. Previously, researchers looking to study these same tissues in mummies would have needed to use a scalpel.

As Ars Technica reports, a phase-contrast CT scanner is similar in cost to the conventional machine. The study authors hope their work will lead to phase-contrast CT scanning becoming just as common in archaeology as regular CT scanning, potentially creating new research opportunities in mummies that will be discovered in the future and even in artifacts that have already been examined.

[h/t Gizmodo]

A 2.63-Carat Diamond Was Unearthed by a Grandmother at an Arkansas State Park

iStock
iStock

Visitors to the Crater of Diamonds Park in Murfreesboro, Arkansas clearly have an objective in mind: Excavate one of the diamonds lurking on or beneath the park's soil, the onetime site of a volcanic crater. If they do, it's theirs to keep.

Earlier this month, a 71-year-old grandmother from Colorado made the biggest discovery on park grounds of 2018: a 2.63-carat ice white diamond. And she did it in about 10 minutes.

The retiree, who asked media outlets not to identify her by name, visited Crater of Diamonds with her husband, son, and grandchildren. After briefly scraping away dirt, she saw the gem on the surface. The diamond was so large and clear—roughly the size of a pinto bean—that she assumed it was just a piece of glass. Further inspection by her family and park personnel revealed it was a diamond.

Park officials told press that employees frequently till the soil, which can loosen the gems and allow them to catch the reflection of the sun, making them easier to spot. Roughly 33,000 diamonds have been found by visitors since the park opened in 1972.

It's hard to know the exact value of the diamond. While there is a certain fluctuating value assigned to a carat, appraisers also look at three other "Cs": clarity, color, and cut. A two-carat diamond is often more than double the price of a one-carat diamond because the larger gems are more rare. But tourists have profited from their finds: In 2015, a visitor retrieved a 8.51-carat white diamond that was cut down to 4.6 carats by a jeweler and valued by the American Gem Society at $500,000.

[h/t WGN TV]

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