How Ötzi the Iceman really got his tattoos

An unusual experiment shows that the mummified man’s tattoos were poked, not sliced, into his skin

A photo of the preserved remains of Ötzi the Iceman’s left wrist which has visible tattooed lines

Tattooed lines on Ötzi the Iceman’s left wrist, like others on his body, were created by poking holes in the skin with a pointed, pigment-coated tool, researchers say.

South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, M. Samadelli/Eurac, G. Staschitz

An off-beat experiment has poked holes in a popular assumption about Ötzi the Iceman’s tattoos.

Ötzi’s roughly 5,200-year-old body, found partly preserved and naturally mummified in the Italian Alps in 1991, includes 61 tattoos — black lines and crosses on his left wrist, lower legs, lower back and chest. A common but untested idea holds that charcoal ash was rubbed into skin incisions made with a sharp stone tool, resulting in the world’s oldest known tattoos (SN: 1/13/16).

“Our study shows that the past 30 years of conventional wisdom as to how the Iceman was tattooed is incorrect,” says archaeologist Aaron Deter-Wolf of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville.

Tattooing experiments and a review of global tattooing practices in traditional societies indicate that a hand-held, single-pointed tool with pigment on its tip was used to punch closely spaced holes in Ötzi’s skin, Deter-Wolf and colleagues report March 13 in the European Journal of Archaeology. This “hand-poke” tattooing technique has been reported since the mid-1800s among nonindustrialized cultures throughout much of the world, including Ötzi’s home region of central Europe.

In an initial 2022 investigation, Deter-Wolf teamed up with two professional tattooists who specialize in traditional, nonelectric techniques. One of those tattooists — Danny Riday of The Temple Tattoo in Tamahere, New Zealand — tattooed one of his legs with eight identical line designs using eight tools and four traditional techniques.

The tools were made from animal bone, obsidian, copper, a boar tusk and a steel needle. Tattooing techniques consisted of hand poking; tapping a handle attached to a bone point or a bone comb with a wood implement so that pigment-coated points punctured the skin; slicing the skin with an obsidian blade before rubbing in pigment; and using a needle to pull a pigment-infused thread through the skin’s outer layer.

In the new study, Deter-Wolfe also teamed up with two archaeologists to compare microscopic images of Riday’s tattoos after they had healed for six months to ultraviolet and high-resolution digital images of the Iceman’s tattoos.

Tattoos created with different tools and techniques displayed distinctive physical signatures, Deter-Wolf says. But notably, Ötzi’s body markings are 1 to 3 millimeters wide and include stippling, rounded ends and irregular pigment seepage along their edges — all hallmarks of hand poking using a bone point or copper awl.

A photo of a sharpened bone awl on a white background
A sharpened bone awl from Ötzi’s toolkit (pictured) should be examined for evidence of having been used in tattooing, investigators recommend.Harald Wisthaler, South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Although the new report cannot determine with absolute certainty how Ötzi got his tattoos, the researchers provide “extensive and plausible explanations” to support hand poking, says Marco Samadelli, head of the laboratory for the conservation of human remains at the Institute for Mummy Studies at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy. Samadelli directed conservation of the Iceman’s remains from 1998 to 2021.

A bone awl found among Ötzi’s belongings features a point potentially sharp enough for use in tattooing, as does an antler tip from his quiver, Deter-Wolf says. Those finds have yet to be examined for tattoo-related damage or pigment residue.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Foogue since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.