New tattoos discovered on iceman Oetzi


With the aid of a non-invasive photographic technique, researchers at the EURAC-Institute for Mummies and the Iceman have been able to show up all the tattoos on the man who was found preserved in a glacier, and in the process have stumbled upon a previously unknown tattoo on his ribcage. This tattoo is very difficult to make out with the naked eye because his skin has darkened so much over time. The latest sophisticated photographic technology has now enabled tattoos in deeper skin layers to be identified as well.

New tattoos discovered on iceman Oetzi
Illustration of Ötzi’s new tattoos (after Samadelli 2009:52). The dark coloration 
of the body markings is probably related to multiple applications
 at the same loci over time [Credit: © Lars Krutak]

Oetzi’s discoverers had already noticed his tattoos on the very day they found him, 19th September 1991. Various studies since then have investigated and itemised these skin marks. But now, using a technique which he developed himself, Marco Samadelli, a scientist at the EURAC-Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, has carried out a complete mapping of all the tattoos on the man from the glacier. They are amongst the oldest documented tattoos in the world.

New tattoos discovered on iceman Oetzi
Overview tattoos of the Iceman [Credit: © Marco Samadelli]

Samadelli photographed the mummy’s body from different angles using a multi-spectral procedure which covered the whole range of wavelengths from infrared to ultraviolet. This allowed tattoos deep in the skin layers and which are no longer recognisable to the human eye to be shown up with great precision. The 61 discovered skin markings on Oetzi’s body consist of lines from 0.7 to 4 centimetres in length, mostly arranged in groups of two, three or four parallel lines, and also include two crosses.

New tattoos discovered on iceman Oetzi
This table shows the location and shape of the tattoo groups. They range from 
1mm (0.03 inches) and 3mm (0.1 inches) thick and 7mm (0.2 inches) and 
40mm (1.5 inches) long. The majority consist of lines running parallel to 
each other, but in two locations, including the right knee and left ankle, 
these lines form a cross[Credit: Samadelli M, SLaschitz Gr/
Eurac-Archaeological Museum Bolzano]

The newly discovered tattoos on the lower right-hand side of the ribcage are striking, because the other markings are mostly found on his lower back and the legs between the knee and the foot. On account of the various locations of the tattoos, some researchers suspected that the marks were part of some therapeutic medical treatment, a kind of acupuncture to relieve pain in the joints. The newly discovered tattoos on the ribcage have now reopened the debate about the role of tattoos in prehistoric times. This investigation has given researchers a new piece to add to the jigsaw puzzle when trying to tease out whether prehistoric tattoos had a therapeutic, symbolic or religious significance.

New tattoos discovered on iceman Oetzi
The ice man’s tattoos (pictured) are largely seen on parts of the body that endured 
wear-and-tear, causing archaeologists to liken the practice to acupuncture – an 
ancient treatment for joint distress. Radiological images of the tattooed areas 
also show degenerative areas under the tattoos that could have caused pain 
[Credit: Samadelli M, SLaschitz Gr/Eurac-Archaeological Museum Bolzano]

The multi-spectral photographs were shot in the mummy’s specially refrigerated ‘cell’ in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. “Each shot was taken seven times, using a different wavelength each time. This enabled us to cover the different depths at which the carbon powder used for the tattoos had been deposited. The ultraviolet waves were adequate for the upper skin layers, whilst we resorted to infrared light for the lower layers,” explains Marco Samadelli.

The findings are published in the Journal of Cultural Heritage.

Source: European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano [January 27, 2015]


  1. These marking are very similar to marking, or cuts, used in southern African 'traditional' healing. Small cuts are made in parallel lines on the major articulation points of the limbs, back, neck and hands, and plant materials that have been burnt to carbon and (usually) combined with fats is rubbed into the shallow marks. This leaves a 'tatoo', but the intention is therapeutic. I would guess that the practice was more widespread in Africa, and perhaps the wider Mediterranean region.