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  • Writer's pictureScott Glazier

Ice Ice baby

What up Los Angeles, it’s ya boy Astor, resident apprentice here at Speakeasy Tattoo and this week I am going to start off this here blog within the theater of the imagination.

Imagine if you will, you are running. It is bitterly cold, snow sticking to your dark hair, and clumping on your grass boots. The air is thin, 11,000 feet up into the Alps, and you have been traveling up and down the mountain for two days, pollen sticking in your lungs. Are you still being pursued? Why? The wounds on your right hand from your recent fight have not yet healed. Your ankles ache. Your knees protest the rough treatment with grinding pain. Perhaps your stomach hurts, your gallstones acting up, or maybe you have a severe headache and shooting nerve pain from the Lyme disease that’s ravaging your body. You’ve had a meal just a few hours ago—ibex meat, einkorn wheat, and some poisonous bracken fern to treat your intestinal parasites, but if you’re going to keep going, you’d better eat another mushroom.

Before you can fetch the medicinal fungus from your pack, however, THWACK, an arrow lodges itself in your shoulder, and you fall, bleeding, into the snow. Your body tumbles into a shallow rocky valley on the mountain, like a natural bivouac, and you know no more of the world.

There you lie there undisturbed for 5,300 years, until some German tourists find your mummified corpse in 1991. You are Otzi the Iceman, and you have just become an international celebrity.

(Warning: Incoming corpse)

If this trip to imagination land has told you anything, it’s that Otzi was in pretty bad shape when he met his end on that mountain. His musculature indicates that he spent much of his life walking, probably climbing the Alps regularly, and this high-intensity lifestyle had taken its toll on his body. He was 46 years old when he died and in addition to the aforementioned gallstones, parasites, and Lyme, he also had arthritis, a Heliobacter pylori infection (a bacterium which still plagues modern humans, causing stomach ulcers), and a predisposition to cardiovascular disease. He likely would have suffered from chronic pain. So what does a Copper Age chronic pain patient do?

Well, he might, as mentioned, eat some poisonous bracken fern (some people do still eat these today—in moderation), or chew on some birch polypore mushrooms, for their antibacterial properties. Otzi, however, may have also sought another kind of medicine: lots and lots of tattoos.

He had 61 tattoos, in 19 clusters, dotted around his body. Most were bands of parallel lines, like tally marks, but there are also a few crosses. Otzi’s epidermis was sloughed off by the mountain, and his mummified dermis is mottled brown, so some of the tattoos are difficult to see. But, in 2015, a new study of his body using multispectral imaging managed to count what researchers believe to be all of them. They seem to trace his pain areas: his ankles, his knees, his lumbar spine, his left wrist, and his right upper abdomen. (Honestly I could do with some medicinal tattooing on my lumbar spine, as my back absolutely kills. Think I could get my insurance to cover a new back piece?)

The ink is composed mainly of carbon, with some silica. This chemical composition suggests that the color is derived from ash gathered at the edge of a fire pit, which would have been inlaid the old fashioned way (in fact, the oldest fashion), with a sharpened piece of bone puncturing the flesh, and the ash rubbed in.

Some researchers believe that this practice might have demarcated areas where acupuncture treatments had been performed. Or, perhaps the tattoos themselves were the treatment. This would make sense, as still today, the process of tattooing brings blood to the surface of the skin, promoting the creation of collagen, and calls white blood cells to the area, responsible for destroying harmful pathogens and stimulating the immune system. Has anyone ever told you that getting a tattoo could be good for you?

Otzi’s are the world’s oldest preserved tattoos. They are not, however, the only ones. Mummies from Ancient Egypt, pre-Incan Peru, Iron Age Siberia, Bronze Age China, at least one individual from the Chinchorro culture of Northern Chile, et cetera, show that tattooing has been a cultural practice the world over for thousands of years. Otzi’s, however, shed unique light on the medical field of so many millennia ago, and the fusion of art with science.


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