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."

Laser Scans Detect Hidden Buildings and Tunnels Beneath Alcatraz Prison

iStock.com/f8grapher
iStock.com/f8grapher

Isolated in the San Francisco Bay and surrounded by steep cliff faces, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary seemed like the most secure place to keep dangerous criminals in the mid-20th century. But it's recently come to light that every inmate on Alcatraz Island lived above a series of potential escape routes that predated the prison's construction, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

In a new study published in the journal Near Surface Geophysics, archaeologists reported their discovery of structures and artifacts beneath the Alcatraz prison yard, including underground buildings, tunnels, and ammunition magazines. Guided by historical maps, documents, and photographs, they used laser scanning technology and ground-penetrating radar to locate the subterranean fortress close to the surface.

The site dates back to the mid-19th century, when Alcatraz Island was used for military purposes. The same natural features that would later make Alcatraz an appealing prison also made it an ideal coastal fortification. Enough brick buildings were built there to house 200 soldiers and enough food was shipped in to feed them for four months.

But the fortification wasn't used for its original purpose for very long. It was transformed into the West Coast's official military prison during the Civil War, and in the 1930s, the government turned it into a federal prison. Instead of tearing down the forts and tunnels leftover from its military days, workers left them intact and built over them to save money. Archaeologists plan to investigate the underground structures further without disturbing the historic site.

Alcatraz Prison closed in 1963, so the underground tunnels no longer pose a security problem. Today the island is part of the U.S. National Park Service and is a popular tourist attraction.

[h/t San Fransisco Chronicle]

The Site Where Julius Caesar Was Assassinated Will Open to the Public in 2021

iStock.com/Largo di Torre Argentina
iStock.com/Largo di Torre Argentina

Besides being a sanctuary for stray cats, Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome is best known as the place where Julius Caesar was stabbed 22 times by assassins in 44 BCE. As the city's oldest open-air square, the spot is an important piece of Roman history, but it's fallen into disrepair. Now, Condé Nast Traveler reports that Largo di Torre Argentina will reopen to the public following a $1.1 million restoration project.

The site includes four ancient temples, a medieval brick tower, and the ruins of the senate house where Caesar was murdered. About 20 feet below street level, it was excavated under the rule of Benito Mussolini in the 1920s, and has remained largely closed to the public since. Today, Largo di Torre Argentina is overgrown and accessible only to the feral cats that live there.

On Monday, February 25, Rome mayor Virginia Raggi announced that Largo di Torre Argentina will reopen in the second half of 2021. To get the site ready for the public, the city will add restrooms, install lights, and build walkways that allow visitors to explore the area. Stone ruins, some of which are stacked into piles, will be secured, and artifacts currently sitting in storage will be moved to a museum. The one area the project will avoid is the corner where the cat sanctuary is located.

Rome, of course, is filled with ancient ruins—some that residents weren't even aware of until recently. In 2014, a 2000-year-old Roman road was unearthed during the construction of a McDonald's.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

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