In an extremely rare discovery, scientists in Sudan have found a Christian tattoo on a 1,300-year-old mummified leg.
The owner of the tattoo was buried in the Ghazali Monastery, located 15 km from the banks of the Nile in northern Sudan, and was most likely one of the monks living in the community.
Archaeologists at Purdue University unintentionally discovered the foot tattoo, which appears to depict symbols referencing the name of Jesus Christ.
This is only the second example of a tattoo discovered in medieval Sudan, which was then part of the Nubian Kingdom.
Dr. Robert Stark, who led the bioarchaeological study of the Ghazali remains, told MailOnline that it was a private tattoo, possibly intended as a sign of a spiritual journey.
In an extremely rare discovery, scientists in Sudan have found a Christian tattoo on a 1,300-year-old mummified leg
Using comprehensive photography and photo editing tools, researcher Kari Guilbault was able to reveal the clear details of Christian symbology
The tattoo includes a symbol called a “Christogram,” which combines the Greek letters “chi” and “rho” into a monogram that is an abbreviation for the name of Christ.
It also contains the letters Alpha and Omega – the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet – which represent the Christian belief that God is the beginning and end of all things.
Dr. Stark says these symbols have long been used as representatives of the Christian faith, with the Alpha and Omega introduced by the Roman Emperor Constantine around 300 AD.
He adds that the tattoo’s orientation meant it was designed to be viewed by the individual, suggesting a private rather than public meaning.
The position at the base could be a reference to the crucifixion of Christ or a symbol of a spiritual journey.
Kari Guilbault, a graduate student at Purdue University, made the discovery by accident while photographing the remains.
Despite being a specialist in medieval tattooing practices, Ms Guilbault did not examine the remains for possible tattoos and told MailOnline that the find was “completely accidental”.
The Ghazali Monastery was an important religious site for the Christian Nubian kingdoms between the 7th and 13th centuries AD
Ghazali Monastery is located 15 km from the banks of the Nile in northern Sudan
Who were the Nubians?
Nubia is an ancient region in northeastern Africa, stretching from the Nile to the Red Sea.
In the regions of Nubia there were from around 5000 BC. Some of the earliest states in the world.
The Nubians traded with the Egyptians for grain, beer and other manufactured goods.
For much of ancient times, the lands of Nubia were called the Kingdom of Kush.
The Nubian kingdoms frequently waged wars with their neighbors in Egypt and Assyria.
As she unwrapped the leg, Ms. Guilbault noticed a mark on the foot that her previous experience suggested could be a tattoo.
Using full-spectrum photography and specialized image-editing software originally developed for studying cave paintings, Ms. Guilbault was able to reveal the tattoo in stunning detail.
As only the second medieval Nubian tattoo ever discovered, it offers some fascinating insights into the tattooing practices of the time.
Earlier tattoos from the region used the “dot-and-dash” technique and consisted primarily of geometric or floral patterns, according to Ms. Guilbault.
However, both medieval tattoos depict religious symbols and feature much more consistent, straight lines.
This tattoo also refutes the theory that only women were tattooed in medieval Nubia, as it is the first tattoo ever found on male remains.
The only other medieval Nubian tattoo was a monogram of Saint Michael found on the inside of a woman’s thigh.
“One of the big questions is how we can tell that someone is religious and that this is one of those tangible signs of their Christian faith,” Ms Guilbault told MailOnline.
“This is a really beautiful example of how a person’s faith was part of their life and body.”
It may come as a surprise that this small tattoo has survived over a thousand years and is still recognizable.
Since tattoo ink is perceived by the body as a foreign substance under the skin, it is broken down over time by the body’s natural defenses.
However, once the body dies, this degradation stops, meaning the tattoo remains as long as the body can, explains Dr. Strong.
While the Nubians did not practice intentional mummification, the dry conditions in Sudan resulted in many of the Ghazali remains being mummified naturally.
The tattooed leg is part of a series of remains that are only partially mummified, from the knees down.
Unfortunately, due to the fragility of these remains, it is not possible to determine the composition of the tattoo’s ink, as taking a sample would destroy its integrity.
However, it is speculated that the earliest tattoos in human history used a carbon-based pigment such as charcoal in a carrier such as water, animal fat, or even breast milk.
WHAT ARE THE OLDEST TATTOOS IN THE WORLD?
Since his discovery on December 19, 1991 by German hikers, Ötzi (artistic depiction) has offered a glimpse into early human history.
Since his discovery on December 19, 1991 by German hikers, Ötzi has offered a glimpse into early human history.
His mummified remains were uncovered in the melting glacier on the mountainous border between Austria and Italy.
Analysis of the body showed us that he lived during the Copper Age and died a gruesome death.
Ötzi, who was 46 at the time of his death, had brown eyes, relatives in Sardinia and was lactose intolerant.
Experts discovered a total of 61 tattoos on Ötzi’s body, using light of different wavelengths to identify them on the mummy’s dark skin.
And in December 2015, they were confirmed to be the oldest in the world – impact marks on an unidentified South American Chinchorro mummy.
Experts believed that the South American mummy with a mustache-like tattoo on his face appeared around 4,000 BC. Died around 3,250 BC, but then realized that she was younger than Ötzi, who died around 3,250 BC. was killed.
While researchers aren’t sure why Ötzi had the tattoos, many believe they were for a form of acupuncture.
“We know that they were real tattoos,” Albert Zink, head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy, told LiveScience.
The old tattoo artist who applied them “made cuts in the skin and then added charcoal mixed with some herbs.”
The tattoos, found primarily on Ötzi’s lower back and on his legs between his knee and food, may have been a way to relieve the effects of chronic pain or injury.
Experts discovered a total of 61 tattoos on Ötzi’s body by using different wavelengths of light to detect them on the mummy’s dark skin. In December 2015 it was confirmed that these are the oldest tattoos in the world
Ötzi is said to have hiked a lot in the Alps, which may have led to joint pain in his knees and ankles.
The 61st tattoo found on his chest is puzzling researchers who suspect Ötzi may also have suffered from chest pain.
If the tattoos had no therapeutic benefit, the researchers believe they could have had a symbolic or religious meaning.
Alternatively, they may simply be geometric shapes with no hidden meaning.
In March 2018, figurative tattoos were discovered on 5,000-year-old Egyptian mummies at the British Museum.
Experts said these were the earliest figurative tattoos in the world.
The tattoos depict a wild bull and a Berber sheep on a male mummy’s upper arm and S-shaped motifs on a woman’s upper arm and shoulder.
The find dates tattoos that contain images rather than geometric patterns to 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.
Researchers said the discovery “changes” our understanding of how people lived during this period.