Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter March 14, 2017

Body Language: Tattooing and Branding in Ancient Mesopotamia

  • Mallory Ditchey EMAIL logo


The permanent marking of human bodies by branding and tattooing was practiced throughout the entire three millennia of the cuneiform record. Brands and tattoos were inflicted on slaves as a means of either marking human or divine ownership, or as a method of punishment for slaves who had already run away. This practice was surprisingly consistent; cuneiform tablets from the early third millennium list branded persons and animals owned by the temple household, while documents from the Achaemenid period detail legal disputes involving marked slaves. As the Near Eastern economy became increasingly international, slaves were marked in multiple languages ensuring the maintenance of social order across a broad geographical scope. Mesopotamian branding and tattoo practices had long-lasting consequences; the Greeks and Romans adopted the custom, the Egyptians began to mark prisoners of war, and the Bible prohibits skin marking in certain contexts. This essay provides a broad overview of the textual evidence for branding and tattooing throughout Ancient Mesopotamian history, placing it within the context of a civilization in which writing on natural bodies – animate or otherwise – was profoundly meaningful.


I am indebted to Julia Giessler for her thoughts as I prepared this article, and for directing my attention to text VAS 19, 5. Her forthcoming dissertation will certainly contribute greatly to our understanding of ancient Mesopotamian body marking. I am equally grateful for my mentors who helped along the way, including but not limited to: Marc Van De Mieroop, Eckart Frahm, John Darnell, J. Cale Johnson, and Robert Englund.


Arnaud, D. 1973. Un Document Juridique Concernant Les Oblats. Revue D’assyriologie Et D’archéologie Orientale 67: 147–156. Paris: Ernest Leroux.Search in Google Scholar

Bahrani, Z. 2003. The Graven Image: Representation in Babylonia and Assyria. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.10.9783/9780812206777Search in Google Scholar

Beyer, K. 1986. The Aramaic Language: Its Distribution and Subdivisions trans. John F. Healey. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.Search in Google Scholar

Bianchi, R. S. 1988. Tattoo in Ancient Egypt. Pp. 210 in Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body, ed. A. Rubin. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California.Search in Google Scholar

Booth, C. 2001. Possible Tattooing Instruments in the Petrie Museum. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 87: 172–175. London: Egypt Exploration Fund.10.1177/030751330108700114Search in Google Scholar

Dandamaev, M. A. 1984. Slavery in Babylonia: From Nabopolassar to Alexander the Great (626-331 B.C.). DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.Search in Google Scholar

De Maaijer, R. 2001. Late Third Millennium Identifying Marks. Pp. 301–24 in Veenhof Anniversary Volume: Studies Presented to Klaas R. Veenhof on the Occasion of His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, eds W.H. Von Soldt and J.G. Dercksen. Leiden: Nederlands Instituut Voor Het Nabije Oosten.Search in Google Scholar

Della Casa, P. 2013. Matters of Identity: Body, Dress, and Markers in Social Context. Tattoos and Body Modifications in Antiquity, eds P. Della Casa and C. Witt Zürich Studies in Archaeology vol. 9: 9–13. Zürich: Chronos Verlag.Search in Google Scholar

Deter-Wolf, A. 2013. The Material Culture and Middle Stone Age Origins of Ancient Tattooing. Tattoos and Body Modifications in Antiquity, eds P.D. Casa and W. Constanze Zürich Studies in Archaeology vol. 9: 15–25. Zürich: Chronos Verlag.Search in Google Scholar

Dorfer, L., M. Moser et al. 1999. A Medical Report from the Stone Age?. The Lancet 354: 1023–1025. London: J. Onwhyn.10.1016/S0140-6736(98)12242-0Search in Google Scholar

Dougherty, R. P. 1923. The Shirkutu of Babylonian Deities. New Haven: Yale University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Dubois, P. 2006. The History of the Impossible: Ancient Utopia. Classical Philology 101/1: 1–14. Chicago: Chicago University Press.10.1086/505668Search in Google Scholar

Ebeling, E. 1954. Ein Hymnus Auf Die Suprematie Des Sonnengottes in Exemplaren Aus Assur Und Boghazkoi. Orientalia 23: 209–216. Roma: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum.Search in Google Scholar

Fales, F. M. and J. N. Postgate 1995. Imperial Administrative Records State Archives of Assyria vol. 11. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Fleckinger, A. and H. Steiner 2002. Otzi, Der Mann Aus Dem Eis: Alles Wissenwerte Zum Nachslagen Und Staunen. Wien: Folio-Verlag.Search in Google Scholar

Foucault, M. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison 2nd ed. trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.Search in Google Scholar

Fox, N. S. 2011. Marked for Servitude: Mesopotamia and the Bible. Pp. 267–78 in A Common Cultural Heritage: Studies on Mesopotamia and the Biblical World in Honor of Barry L. Eichler, ed. G. Frame et al. Bethesda, MD: The University Press of Maryland.Search in Google Scholar

Foxvog, D.A. 1995. Sumerian Brands and Branding Irons. Zeitschrift Für Assyriologie Und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 85/1: 1–7. Berlin: De Gruyter.10.1515/zava.1995.85.1.1Search in Google Scholar

Frahm, E. 2010. Reading the Tablet, the Exta, and the Body: The Hermeneutics of Cuneiform Signs in Babylonian and Assyrian Text Commentaries and Divinatory Texts. Pp. 93–142 in Divination and Interpretation of Signs in the Ancient World, ed. A. Annus. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.Search in Google Scholar

Gelb, I. J., P. Steinkeller, and R. M. Whiting 1991. Earliest Land Tenure Systems in the near East: Ancient Kudurrus Oriental Institute Publications 104. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.Search in Google Scholar

Giessler, J. and R. Pientka-Hinz 2012. Tätoweirung. Reallexikon Der Assyriologie Und Vorderasiatischen Archäeologie Band 13: 399–400. Berlin: De Gruyter.Search in Google Scholar

Goffman, E. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.Search in Google Scholar

Green, M. W. and H. J. Nissen 1987. Zeichenliste Der Archaischen Texte Aus Uruk. Berlin: Mann Verlag.Search in Google Scholar

Hambly, W. D. 2009. The History of Tattooing. Mineola, New York: Dover.Search in Google Scholar

Huehnergard, J. and H. Liebowitz 2013. The Biblical Prohibition Against Tattooing. Vetus Testamentum 63: 59–77. Leiden: Brill.10.1163/15685330-12341101Search in Google Scholar

Hurowitz, V. 1992. “His Master Shall Pierce His Ear with an Awl” (Exodus 21.6): Marking Slaves in the Bible in Light of Akkadian Sources. Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 58: 47–77. New York: American Academy for Jewish Research.10.2307/3622629Search in Google Scholar

“Inana’s Descent to the Netherworld.”. 2003. The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Oxford: The University of Oxford. Web.Search in Google Scholar

Jones, C. 1987. Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity. The Journal of Roman Studies 77: 139–155. London, Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.10.2307/300578Search in Google Scholar

Jursa, M. and M. Weszeli 2000. Der ‘Zahn’ Des Schreibers: Ein Aramäischer Buchstabenname in Akkadischer Transkription. Zeitschrift Für Assyriologie Und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 90: 78–84. Berlin: De Gruyter.10.1515/zava.2000.90.1.78Search in Google Scholar

Keimer, L. 1948. Remarques Sur Le Tatouage Dans L’egypte Ancienne. Le Caire: Institut Français, D’archéologie Orientale.Search in Google Scholar

Kleber, K. 2011. Neither Slave nor Truly Free: The Status of the Dependents of Babylonian Temple Households.. Pp. 101–12 in Slaves and Households in the near East, ed. L. Culbertson. Oriental Institute Seminars 7. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.Search in Google Scholar

Kozuh, M. 2014. The Sacrificial Economy: Assessors, Contractors, and Thieves in the Management of Sacrificial Sheep at the Eanna Temple of Uruk (Ca. 625-520 B.C.) Explorations in Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations vol 2. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns.10.1515/9781575068923Search in Google Scholar

Magdalene, F. R. and C. Wunsch 2011. Slavery between Judah and Babylon: The Exilic Experience. Pp. 113–34 in Slaves and Households in the near East, ed. L. Culbertson. Oriental Institute Seminars 7. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.Search in Google Scholar

Mendelsohn, I. 1946. Slavery in the Ancient near East. The Biblical Archaeologist 9/4: 74–88. Boston: The American Schools of Oriental Research.10.2307/3209170Search in Google Scholar

Menu, B. 2004. Captifs De Guerre Et Dependence Rurale Dans L’egypte Du Nouvel Empire. Biblioteque D’etude 140: 187–210.Search in Google Scholar

Oppenheim, A. L. 1944. Assyriological Gleanings II. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 93: 14–17.10.2307/1355100Search in Google Scholar

Oates, J. 1978. Religion and Ritual in Sixth-Millennium B.C. Mesopotamia. World Archaeology 10: 117–24.10.1080/00438243.1978.9979723Search in Google Scholar

Parpola, S. 1993. Letters from Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars State Archives of Assyria vol. 10. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Pearce, L. 1996. Iron “Stars” in the Neo-Babylonian Period. N.A.B.U. 1996/1: 17.Search in Google Scholar

Postgate, J. N. 1986. Middle Assyrian Tablets: The Instruments of Bureaucracy. Altorientalische Forschungen 13: 10–39.10.1524/aofo.1986.13.12.10Search in Google Scholar

Radner, K. 1997. Die Neuassyrischen Privatrechtsurkunden Als Quelle Für Mensch Und Umwelt State Archives of Assyria Studies vol. 6. Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Ragen, A. 2007. The Neo-Babylonian Sirku: A Social History. PhD diss. Harvard University.Search in Google Scholar

Reiner, E. 2004. Runaway – Seize Him. Pp. 475–82 in Assyria and Beyond: Studies Presented to Mogens Trolle Larsen, ed. J.G. Dercksen. Leiden: Nederlands Instituut Voor Het Nabije Oosten.Search in Google Scholar

Roach-Higgins, M. E. and J. B. Eicher 1992. Dress and Identity. Clothing & Textiles Research Journal 10: 1–8. New York: SAGE Publications.10.1177/0887302X9201000401Search in Google Scholar

Roth, M. T. 1997. Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. 2nd ed.. Atlanta: The Society of Biblical Literature.Search in Google Scholar

Roth, M. T. 2006. Marriage, Divorce, and the Prostitute in Ancient Mesopotamia. Pp. 21–39 in Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World, eds C.A. Faraone and L. McClure. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.Search in Google Scholar

Sack, R. H. 1994. Cuneiform Documents from the Chaldean and Persian Periods. Plainsboro, NJ: Susquehanna University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Sanders, C. and D. Angus Vail 2008. Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania: Susquehanna University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Schildkrout, E. 2004. Inscribing the Body. Annual Review of Anthropology 33: 319–344. Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews Inc..10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143947Search in Google Scholar

Stolper, M. 1998. Inscribed in Egyptian. Pp. 113–43 in Studies in Persian History: Essays in Memory of David M. Lewis, eds M. Brosius et al.. Leiden: Nederlands Instituut Voor Het Nabije Oosten.Search in Google Scholar

Szlechter, E. 1949. Essai D’explication Des Clauses: Muttatam Gullubu, Abbuttam Shakanu Et Abbuttam Gullubu. Archív Orientální 17/2: 391–418. Prague: The Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences.Search in Google Scholar

Tadmor, H. 2011. “With My Many Chariots I Have Gone up the Heights of the Mountains”: Historical and Literary Studies on Ancient Mesopotamia and Israel. Jerusalem: The Israel Exploration Society.Search in Google Scholar

Tassie, G. J. 2003. Identifying the Practice of Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 14: 85–100. London: Institute of Archaeology, University College.10.5334/pia.200Search in Google Scholar

Vandenbeusch, M. 2014. Tattoos in Ancient Egypt and Sudan. British Museum Blog. London: The British Museum. Web.Search in Google Scholar

Wagensonner, K. 2009. Non-Textual Markers or Pseudo-Written References: Some Glimpses from the Mesopotamian Field. Lingua Aegyptia 8: 33–67. Göttingen: Seminar für Ägyptologie und Koptologie.Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2017-3-14
Published in Print: 2017-6-27

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter Inc., Boston/Berlin

Downloaded on 28.2.2024 from
Scroll to top button