You Can Visit A Tattooed 5,000-Year-Old Mummy And Even See The Wound That Killed Him

Gebelein Man is part of the huge mummy collection on display at the British Museum in London. His story is quite different from the Egyptian mummies you might be picturing, though. Gebelein Man, along with his contemporary, Gebelein Woman, sports the world's oldest known figural tattoos.

The Gebelein mummies were accidentally preserved by their environment, as opposed to the careful preparation later Egyptian mummies underwent. Many other cases of accidental or environmental mummification have been discovered around the world, from Juanita the Ice Maiden and her fellow Incan child sacrifices, to Ötzi the Iceman

While the burial of Gebelein Man provided researchers a wealth of information about his life, recent technological advances helped uncover surprising details about his death. Scans revealed preserved tattoos nearly invisible to the naked eye, and the mysterious wound in the mummy's back tells the tragic story of an ancient Egyptian murder.

  • Gebelein Man Was Almost Certainly Murdered
    Photo: Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Gebelein Man Was Almost Certainly Murdered

    Although the wound on Gebelein Man's back has been visible for over 100 years, the technology allowing experts to study it in-depth is relatively new. Researchers used visual-imaging devices to conduct a virtual autopsy, peering inside Gebelein Man's body to analyze bones and internal organs (including his brain), which remain intact. 

    Researchers determined the weapon that stabbed Gebelein Man most likely consisted of copper. They theorize the attack came from behind, with the blade driven into his back - most likely catching him by surprise. The shoulder blade and ribs beneath the wound also show damage.

    The Egyptian region where researchers discovered Gebelein Man was likely at peace when he was killed, making his death a murder.

  • He Was Unofficially Known As 'Ginger,' Due To His Small Tufts Of Red Hair

    Given Gebelein Man remains one of the most well-known mummies in the world, he naturally received a nickname from museum-goers. Unofficially known as "Ginger," the moniker came from the small tufts of red hair still visible on his scalp, a further testament to how well his body was preserved.

  • The Mummies' Tattoos Look Like Smudges Under Natural Light

    The Gebelein mummies have been hiding secrets for around a century, including one feature ordinarily visible to the naked eye: tattoos. To researchers, the tattoos on their dehydrated skin looked like smudges. So, until updated infrared technology became available, they couldn't determine the true nature of the mysterious markings. 

    Older equipment would have damaged the priceless mummies, as infrared radiation produces images, but also heat. Heating a 5,000-year-old mummy could prove disastrous. Luckily, technology advanced to the point where infrared imaging could be done digitally, without harming the specimen - finally leading to the discovery of the mummies' tattoos.

  • Gebelein Man Was The First Male From The Era Known To Have Tattoos
    Photo: Bram Souffreau / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    Gebelein Man Was The First Male From The Era Known To Have Tattoos

    Until the infrared analysis of Gebelein Man, researchers believed only females from that era of Egyptian history possessed tattoos. Gebelein Man's tattoos came as a surprise, and include a lot of symbolism from the period.

    One of his tattoos, a bull, represented male virility in ancient Egypt. Researchers at the British Museum believe the bull and ram on the mummy's skin served as "symbols of power and strength."

    Not only is this mummy the first male of the era with tattoos, but he and Gebelein Woman are the first humans known to have "figural tattoos," which were thought not have occurred until a thousand years after their lifetime.

  • The Bodies Were Preserved By The Desert Conditions In Shallow Graves

    Egypt is known for its mummification techniques. The Gebelein mummies, however, didn't undergo the more popular version of the process. They were created unintentionally, by the environment rather than human hands.

    Their organs were not removed and preserved, and their bodies didn't get wrapped in the style of later mummies. The individuals received simple burials, placed in a crouched or fetal position under linen wrappings, inside shallow graves. Thus, the bodies quickly grew dehydrated from the arid climate.

  • In Predynastic Egyptian Culture, Tattooing Wasn't For The Young

    In spite of the long-held belief that tattoos in ancient Egypt were reserved for concubines and dancers, the latest theory poses tattoos denoted status and wisdom. According to Dr. Renee Freidman, a researcher at the British Museum:

    It's not the nubile young things, the older women were tattooed... They were probably the wise women, and the tattoos were there to show their initiation into cult practices and their knowledge of medicine. It wasn't just meant for the gratification of men.

    Gebelein Man remains unique in being both male and young, which defies the old thesis. Experts estimate his age between 18 and 21 years old when he died.