The earliest know tattoo work found was on the so-called Ice Man, a preserved body found in the area between Italy and Austria. This body was dated to 3000 BCE, making it over 5000 years old(Lineberry, 2007). The body displayed tattooed patterns on the lower back, knee, and ankle which led researchers to conclude the tattoos were mostly therapeutic in nature, being placed on areas with signs of degeneration (Lineberry, 2007). From this it would seem that the earliest tattoos could have been used in a medicinal fashion, although exactly how can only be guessed at.
Additionally tattooing was believed to have been used among the Scythians and Picts. Several preserved Scythian bodies have been found dating as far back as 2400 BCE and both the male and female bore tattoos, in some cases very elaborate, depicting animals and mythic images (Lineberry, 2007). In his writings Herodotus remarked that among the Scythians "tattoos were a mark of nobility, and not to have them was testimony of low birth.”. This could indicate that by the time Herodotus was writing - around 450 BCE - tattooing had become a sign of social standing. The stylized images seen in the Scythian tattoos are the same as those seen in other Scythain artwork, indicating that the tattoos reflected larger social concepts and symbolism (Kromarik, 2003). In the case of the Picts less is known with certainty because no preserved bodies have been found. Writings from secondary sources indicate that Pictish tattoos, like the Scythian, were a symbol of status and that they included images of animals (Lineberry, 2007). Herodian, writing around 200 CE says that the Celts 'draw figures of animals or symbols on their skin by pressing hot iron onto their limbs, causing great pain, and over this they rub the sap of a plant'. (Green, 2012). While this account is questionable because the writer never traveled to any of the Celtic lands and was likely repeating another person's experience there are other Roman sources that mention the use of iron implements to create permanent marks, which means it was either a widespread belief by the Romans or may have been the actual practice. As late as 600 CE a Christian bishop noted the practice of tattooing among the Picts, mentioning a process similar to that cited by Herodian, except pricking was used in place of hot iron (Green, 2012).
|Drawing of ancient Britons, Netherlands, 1574|
from wikimedia commons
Other historic cultures that used tattoos included the Egyptians, Nubians, some areas of the Americas, Austronesians, and Persians. Tattooing would spread to the Greeks and Romans, initially as a way to mark a person as being dedicated to a temple or as a slave (Lineberry, 2007). Most Roman commentators however pointed to tattooing is a barbaric practice done by outsiders, indicating that while it may have been done in those places it didn't convey social status, but rather the opposite. The advent of Christianity slowly discouraged tattooing which was seen as defiling the body, causing the practice to decline in Europe across the centuries.
The true meaning behind ancient tattoos in many of these cultures will never be known, but we do know that tattooing was a common practice among some pre-Christian European cultures, and widely found around the globe. The evidence also supports the theory that these tattoos, particularly among the Picts and Scythians, were more than mere decoration. Whether the pre-Christian Irish tattooed or not we may never know, although there is always the possibility of new evidence coming to light.
* tattooing appears to be a recent import to Ireland and thus far no evidence has been found in written material or archeology to support the presence of tattooing there in the pre-Christian period.
Lineberry, C., (2007). Tattoos. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/tattoo.html
Kromarik, K., (2003). History of Tattooing. Retrieved from https://www.msu.edu/~krcmari1/individual/history.html
Green, T., (2012). Ancient Celtic Tattooing. Retrived from http://www.tattoosymbol.com/celtic/ancient_celtic.html