Currently fashionable among celebrities, footballers and pop stars, historical texts and archaeological evidence suggest that some form of tattooing has been practised in the British Isles for thousands of years.
'It's a little known fact, but it would appear that all of the legionaries and some of the auxiliaries on Hadrian's Wall would have had a tattoo', says the University's Director of Archaeological Museums and Roman expert, Lindsay Allason-Jones.
The evidence comes from the Roman writer Vegetius, whose Epitome of Military Science, written around the 4th Century AD, is the only account of Roman military practice to have survived intact.
'Vegetius recorded that a recruit to the Roman army "should not be tattooed with the pin-pricks of the official mark as soon as he has been selected, but first be thoroughly tested in exercises so that it may be established whether he is truly fitted for so much effort",' says Lindsay. (Source: Flavius Vegetius Renatus, Epitome of Military Science, Chapter 8).
'We do not know what this official mark looked like. It was possibly an eagle or the symbol of the soldier's legion or unit', she said.
Lindsay has even unearthed evidence that the legionaries would have sported the tattoo on their hands. Aetius, the 6th century Roman doctor, recording that tattoos were found on the hands of soldiers, even documented the Roman technique for tattooing, which included first washing the area to be tattooed with leek juice, known for its antiseptic properties. Aetius even went so far as to document the formula for the tattooing ink, which combined Egyptian pine wood (especially the bark), corroded bronze, gall and vitriol with more leek juice. The design was pricked into the skin with pointed needles 'until blood is drawn', and then the ink was rubbed on.
Many examples of contemporary tattoo art draw on symbols from the past. 'Sometimes, historical motifs are adopted as a wistful connection to some long lost spiritual past', says Lindsay. 'The Anglo Saxon interlace design is very popular now, and some of the patterns adopted in the tattoo designs featured in the exhibition can also be found among the Anglo Saxon objects on display in the Museum', she said.
Environmental conditions in Britain mean that there is very little physical evidence of tattooing in archaeology. 'Bodies from ancient civilizations found in Britain tend not to include skin, because they were not mummified or preserved in other ways', says the Museum's assistant director, Clare Pickersgill, 'so we rely upon historical texts'.
The exhibition contains some amazing examples of tattooing on preserved bodies found in the foothills of the Altai Mountains. 'This evidence suggests that puncture tattooing was a widespread practice among ancient Europeans, so it might be possible to find direct evidence of it in Britain in very specific environmental conditions', said Clare.
Staff in the Museum of Antiquities are inviting members of the public to add photographs of their own tattoos to the exhibition, and to leave comments about why they decided to have a tattoo, or about what the particular design means to them.
Newcastle University Masters student, Taylor Lauritsen, who is studying Roman archaeology, has a tattoo on his arm with a design replicating a fresco found on the wall of a house in the ancient city of Pompeii, which was buried during the catastrophic eruption Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
He said: 'The couple in the fresco, Terentius Neo, a baker, and his wife, were probably painted soon after they were married. It's an honest portrait, and whenever I see it I am struck by the realization that these were people whose lives may not have been so different from my own. Our core values and goals as people – to live happily, to be successful, to fall in love – have not changed in the two thousand years since this image was painted. For me, this tattoo serves as a reminder to appreciate the time that I have, because like this couple, I won't be around forever'.
Tattoo runs in the Museum of Antiquities, Newcastle University, until Christmas. Admission is free. For further information, contact 0191 222 7846.
TATTOO FACT FILE
• The ancient Greeks associated voluntary tattooing with 'barbarians' – or people who were not Greek citizens. In Greece, the tattoo was used as a form of punishment or as a means of degrading slaves and criminals.
• There are examples of the punitive tattoo in England from as late as 1871. In the British army, the letter 'D' indicated a deserter, while 'BC' implied bad character. In civilian life, however, 'D' indicated 'drunkard', 'V' vagabond, and 'F' fray maker, or church brawler.
• The Latin noun stigma originally meant 'to mark' in some way, while the modern usage of the term often carries negative connotations associated with infamy or disgrace. Despite the current fashionable status of tattoos, negative associations persist today, and many establishments will not permit entry to people with lots of visible tattoos, because tattooed individuals are perceived as possible trouble-makers, or even criminals. This is an association that can be traced back to Roman times.
• The earliest reference to British royalty being tattooed was King Harold II (1022 – 1066). It is recorded – possibly spuriously – by William of Poitiers that Harold's sister Edith could only pick out his mutilated body after the Battle of Hastings from the words 'Edith' and 'England' tattooed on his chest.
• In 1862, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had the Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his arm, which sparked off a fashion for tattooing among the upper classes.
• The tradition for tattooing among sailors is thought to date back to Captain Cook's Pacific voyages, when sailors began to copy the heavily tattooed Polynesians they encountered in Tahiti. Particular tattoos are said to have certain meanings: an anchor, as seen on cartoon sailor Popeye's arm is thought to signify a sailor having crossed the Atlantic Ocean, while a tattoo of a full-rigged ship indicates having sailed round Cape Horn, and a shell-backed turtle that a sailor has crossed the Equator.
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published on: 29th August 2006