This May Be the Oldest Tattoo Kit in the World

Aaron Deter-Wolf and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology
Aaron Deter-Wolf and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology

Tattooing is an ancient art, but it has left only ephemeral traces in the archaeological record. Examples of mummies with ink-decorated skin do exist—such as Ötzi the Iceman and the Siberian Ice Maiden—but they're rare. And archaeologists are only just beginning to distinguish tattoo needles from other tools that were used for tasks like working leather or weaving baskets.

Despite those challenges, a pair of researchers thinks they've identified what could be the world's oldest tattooing toolkit: a set of pointy, ink-stained needles that were carved out of wild turkey bones and then buried in a Native American grave at least 3600 years ago.

The burial was found west of Nashville, Tennessee, at a riverside campsite called the Fernvale site, which had been used by prehistoric hunter-gatherers for centuries. The settlement was excavated to make way for a bridge in 1985, but archaeologists at the time did not fully analyze the findings. The set of bone needles, pigment-filled half-shells, and stone tools were collectively labeled a toolkit and put into storage, where they spent the next three decades.

"It was one of these situations where it went into a collection and nothing was done with it," says Aaron Deter-Wolf, an archaeologist with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and an expert in ancient tattoos.

3600 year old tattoo needles
Aaron Deter-Wolf

Deter-Wolf teamed up with Tanya Peres, a zooarchaeologist at Florida State University, to take a fresh look at the set of artifacts. They were initially interested in the toolkit because it resembled a medicine bundle—a collection of artifacts that was bound together to act like a portable shrine in more recent Native American cultures. But after examining the objects, the researchers thought they might be dealing with a tattoo kit.

"By the arrival of the Europeans, virtually every Native American group in the Great Plains and the Eastern Woodlands practiced tattooing," Deter-Wolf tells Mental Floss. "If it's something that widespread and that important, we suspect that it is very deeply rooted in Native American history."

Their theory got a boost from another study published last year, in which Christian Gates St-Pierre, an archaeologist at the University of Montreal, tattooed pig skin with bone tools to test the wear-and-tear patterns that prehistoric tattoo needles should exhibit. He found that when it was used for tattooing, a bone needle would develop a bright polish—but only on the first 3 millimeters of the tip.

Deter-Wolf recently took those experiments one step further. He re-created one of Ötzi's tattoos on his own skin, using a bone tool and black ink to make 1500 individual punctures on his left wrist—and a permanent tattoo. 

attooing human skin using bone tools for an experimental archaeological evaluation
Aaron Deter-Wolf

Deter-Wolf and Peres said that two of the needles in the kit had the same wear-and-tear signatures that Gates found in his experiments. "At this point there's not another activity that we know of that would create that same pattern on bone tools," Deter-Wolf says.

They also found traces of red and black pigment on the tips of the tools. (They're awaiting the final results of an analysis to figure out the chemical makeup of this paint.) They presented their preliminary findings this week at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Washington, D.C.

The toolkit is thought to be at least 3600 years old and could be even more ancient: Initial results from a radiocarbon study of shells found at the same site suggest an age of 5200 years. Either way, the tools predate a group of 3000-year-old tattooing tools made from volcanic glass that were identified in 2016 at an archaeological site on an island in the South Pacific.

King of Yamacraw and his nephew, mezzotint by John Faber the Younger
1739 messotint by John Faber the Younger of Tomo Chachi Mico, king of the Yamacraw, and his nephew Tooanahowi
© Yale University Art Gallery

While scholars know a lot about more recent Native American tattooing practices because of historical accounts and ethnographic studies after European contact, prehistoric tattooing remains more mysterious. For now it's impossible to know what kind of tattoos the Fernvale tools would have been used to create, or what meaning tattooing had for the people who lived along this Tennessee river valley during this era, called the Archaic period in North America.

"I think there has to be a whole lot more work done on Archaic lifeways in general before we can even start to parse the deeper meaning of tattooing in this period," Peres says. "We're still arguing about what they were eating and what kind of houses they living in, which are more durable things in the archaeological record."

Deter-Wolf expects archaeologists will identify more tattoo kits hiding in collections: "What I suspect is that once we start looking at more of these things, we're going to find that tattooing is an incredibly widespread activity."

Construction Workers Stumbled Upon a 68-Million-Year-Old Triceratops Fossil in Colorado

Dr. Tyler Lyson, curator of paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, brushes dirt away from a newly uncovered horned dinosaur fossil at a construction site in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
Dr. Tyler Lyson, curator of paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, brushes dirt away from a newly uncovered horned dinosaur fossil at a construction site in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
© DMNS/Rick Wicker

In May 2019, a construction crew working outside Denver, Colorado uncovered what appeared to be the fossilized remains of a dinosaur. As The Denver Post reports, paleontologists have traced the bones back to triceratops—the three-horned dinosaur that walked the Earth more than 65 million years ago.

The construction workers were digging up land in Highlands Ranch near the Wind Crest retirement center when they struck upon the fossils. The partial skeleton they found includes a limb bone and several ribs.

After studying the remains, paleontologists from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science confirmed that they once belonged to an adult triceratops. The rock layer containing the fossil was dated 65 million to 68 million years old. Triceratops went extinct 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period—they were among the last dinosaurs alive leading up to the mass extinction event that killed them.

After stumbling upon the prehistoric specimen, the construction team and Wind Crest have agreed to allow the museum to fully excavate the site in search of more bones. Meanwhile, the uncovered fossils have been wrapped in burlap and plaster and transported to the Denver museum to be examined further.

The exciting find isn't a first for Colorado. Triceratops accounts for most of the fossils found in the state. In 2017, a different construction crew working near Denver discovered a skeleton of the dinosaur that included its skull.

[h/t The Denver Post]

15th-Century Cannonballs Likely Used by Vlad the Impaler Discovered in Bulgaria

By Anonymous, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Anonymous, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Dracula was known for using his fangs and supernatural powers to dispatch his victims. But he apparently liked to have a few cannonballs by his side as well (just in case).

No, there’s no secret passage from Bram Stoker’s novel involving a battle where the vampire count displays his firepower. Rather, according to the website Archaeology in Bulgaria, cannonballs were recently excavated from the Bulgarian town of Svishtov, the site of a military conquest made by the Romanian prince Vlad III. Known more popularly as “Vlad the Impaler,” he likely served as the inspiration behind Stoker's bloodthirsty antagonist.

During his reign as one of most ruthless rulers in history, Vlad III frequently butted heads with the Ottoman Turks. The conflict came to a violent head in 1461, when Vlad and his army fought for control over Svishtov’s Zishtova Fortress. Now, as Gizmodo reports, archaeologists say they've uncovered a collection of centuries-old cannonballs that may have belonged to Vlad and were most likely linked to the event.

The cannonballs themselves were shot from culverins, medieval cannons that fired missiles weighing up to 16 pounds, which were relatively light compared to later models. Lead archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia said that's what makes these artifacts particularly exciting.

“We rejoice at those small cannonballs because they are from culverins," Ovcharov told Fox News. "These were the earliest cannons which were for the 15th century, up until the 16th century, [and] they weren’t in use after that.”

That battle occurred as an attempt to reclaim the region from the occupying Turks. The region was occupied as far back as the Roman Empire and was abandoned after barbarian invasions. The Zishtova Fortress was built much later, and Vlad III made it his home—after he reclaimed it from his enemies.

But just because Vlad may have had cannonballs at his disposal doesn't mean that some of the battle's victims weren't impaled.

"[We] have a letter by Vlad Dracula to the king of Hungary in which he boasted that he had taken [the fort] after a fierce battle, and that about 410 Turks were killed during the siege," Ovcharov said. "Some of them were probably impaled, in his style."

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