Scientists have found a Jesus tattoo on the leg of a 1300 year old mummified man in Sudan. The owner of the tattoo was buried in the Ghazali monastery, located 15 km from the Nile in northern Sudan, and was most likely one of the monks living in the community.
Archaeologists at Purdue University inadvertently discovered the foot tattoo, which appears to depict symbols referring to the name of Jesus Christ. This is the second medieval tattoo ever discovered in the Nubian region.
Dr. Robert Stark, who has conducted bioarchaeological studies on the remains of Ghazali, says that this is a special tattoo, possibly a sign of a spiritual journey.
The Jesus tattoo has a symbol known as a “Christogram,” which creates a monogram using the Greek letters “chi” and “rho” to represent the name of Christ. The Greek letters alpha and omega, which stand for the Christian notion that god is the source and summit of all things, are also included in the design.
Dr. Stark says that these symbols have long been used to represent the Christian faith, and that the alpha and omega symbols were introduced by the Roman emperor Constantine around 300 AD.
He continues by saying that the tattoo’s orientation indicated that it was intended to be seen by the wearer, implying a private rather than a public purpose. The location on the foot can be an allusion to Christ’s crucifixion or a metaphor for a spiritual journey.
Despite being an expert in medieval tattooing techniques, Ms. Kari Guilbault said that the discovery was ‘completely fortuitous’ and that she was not looking for any possible marks on the remains. Ms. Guilbault was able to display the tattoo in exquisite detail using full-spectrum photography and specialized picture processing software that was initially developed for researching cave art.
It offers some unique insights into the tattooing customs of the time as the second medieval Nubian tattoo that has ever been found.
According to Ms. Guilbault, earlier tattoos from the area used the “dot and dash” technique and mostly featured geometric or floral patterns. However, the two tattoos from the medieval era have far more constant, straight lines and are of religious symbolism.
Since this is the earliest tattoo ever discovered on male remains, it also refutes the idea that only women in medieval Nubia had tattoos.
The only other medieval Nubian tattoo was a woman’s inner thigh-area Saint Michael monogram. Ms. Guilbault, “One of the big questions is how can we tell someone was religious and this is one of those tangible markers of their Christian faith. This is a really fine example of how a person’s faith was a part of their life and their body.”
It may come as a surprise that this small tattoo has survived for over a thousand years and is still recognizable. Because, tattoo ink will eventually be broken down by the body’s natural defenses since the body perceives it as a foreign substance under the skin. According to Dr. Stark, this breakdown is halted when the body passes away, therefore the tattoo is kept intact for as long as the body is capable of doing so.
Although the Nubians did not intentionally conduct mummification, the arid environment of Sudan has caused many of the Ghazali remains to naturally mummify.
It is unfortunately impossible to establish the makeup of the tattoo’s ink because collecting a sample would compromise these remains’ integrity due to their fragility. However, the first tattoos, however, are thought to have employed a carbon-based pigment, like charcoal, in a carrier like water, animal fat, or even breast milk.
The first known tattoo
A total of 61 tattoos were discovered on the body of Ötzi, who was discovered in the glacier by German hikers. And in December 2015, these tattoos were confirmed to be the oldest in the world.
Although researchers are not sure why Ötzi had these tattoos, many think they functioned as a form of acupuncture.
“We know these are real tattoos. The ancient tattoo artist who applied them made cuts in the skin and then put charcoal mixed with some herbs,” says Albert Zink, head of the Institute for Mummies and Icemen in Bolsano, Italy.
The tattoos, mostly found on Ötzi’s lower back and legs and knees, may have been a way to alleviate the effects of chronic pain or injuries.