Tattoos and Archaeology…

This Thanksgiving I noticed something. Or, maybe I should say my Mom and my aunts noticed something: several of my cousins and I now have tattoos. This was a source of amusement as we were were interrogated about our various design and placement choices.

My Grandma was totally enthralled with my cousin’s “Tribute to D-Day” tattoo that covers a large swath of his left arm. He’s a captain in the Army, and a huge military history buff. My grandma then went on a soliloquy about how girls must really like his tattoo. I am still very unprepared for when the little sweet grandma of my childhood goes from zero-to-Betty White.

I expected my Mom to freak out about mine. She didn’t. After explaining what a “Panarchy Loop” was, she looked at me and said, “You would get a science tattoo, wouldn’t you?”


My Mom is pretty cool. (However, I told her that I still want my “Nirvana Unplugged” CD she permanently borrowed from me in the 8th grade.)

Because I am a huge nerd, this made me think of a recent volume edited by Aaron Deter-Wolf and Carol Diaz-Granados on prehistoric and ethnographic tattooing.  (


Over the past few years, Aaron and I have talked about some of the different archaeology tattoos we’ve seen. Personally, I’ve seen Clovis points, Marshalltown trowels, Mayan glyphs, and decorated pottery sherds. Southwestern archaeologists really, really like pottery sherd tattoos.

 How about you? Do you have a nerd tattoo? Something Southeastern Archaeology themed? Have you seen a tattoo on someone else that really struck you as fun/interesting?  

Edit: If you want to share your tattoo, email me ( a pic and I’ll post it. 


4 comments on “Tattoos and Archaeology…

  1. dover1952 says:

    “Have you seen a tattoo on someone else that really struck you as fun/interesting?”

    First of all, I have always been fascinated by the various Native American tattoos encountered by the European and American explorers who made “first contact” with various groups and recorded them. I think the book by Aaron and Carol will be really fascinating and cannot wait to read it. I am also interested in knowing whether such things as the famous “Akron grid” on engraved shell artifacts (or some rough equivalent) ever showed up in tattoo artistry.

    I sometimes go grocery shopping at a store in a nearby town, which is a very small town with a tattoo parlor. One day I was walking through the store and encountered this really tall, muscular guy (could have easily played offensive lineman for Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, etc.) with a heavily tattooed face in colors like red and blue. It was not temporary face paint because I have seen him several different times—definitely tattoos. One expects tattoos on a Euroamerican just about anywhere except on the face. I have not worked up enough courage to stop him in the cereal aisle and do some impromptu ethnography with regard to his face design and its meaning, but the bilaterally symetrical arrangement of the tattoo design across his entire face, when combined with his BMI, makes him look exceedingly fierce. I think “fierce” is the only word that captures the whole flavor of it. However, I am sure he must be a very nice guy because he often comes to the store with his diminuitve and rather normal looking spouse—who looks like a very nice lady that would only consider marrying a Teddy Bear

    Tattoos—fascinating stuff—but I think the really fascinating thing is whether the tattoo sends a message (overtly or covertly) and the thinking and psychology behind a particular tattoo experience.

    What do you guys think?

  2. Aaron says:

    Thanks for the mention, Shane! If anyone’s thinking of buying the book, it;’s 33% cheaper on the UTx Press web site… I quite enjoy the Science Tattoo Emporium on Carl Zimmer’s blog ( He spent a couple years collecting science tattoos, and published a book called /Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed/ (

    Dover1952 – variants of the Akron Grid show up as tattoos (or possibly body paint) on Red Horn at Gottschall Rockshelter, on Morning Star at Picture Cave, and on the Stovall Cup. Kent Reilly talks about these & a couple other examples in his chapter in /Drawing with Great Needles/. The marks on the Stovall Cup are pretty similar to tattoos painted by Bodmer (, while the tattoos in the rock art look a lot like torso designs that appeared throughout the Eastern Woodlands (Mohawk –; Yuchi –

  3. Meg says:

    Tattoos are a super interesting topic… and a timely one, as I just got my own SE Archaeology-themed tattoo this last summer and am currently convincing two other folks to do the same. A pic of mine should be at this link: It is a turtle (an animal I have always had a connection to) with a Late Woodland, Coles Creek Incised pottery design on it’s back. The pottery design is one of the more common ones at my dissertation site, hence my attachment to it.

    I agree though, there is definitely something about the psychology of them… my cohort, when I entered graduate school, always swore to one another that we’d get tattoos when we all finished. Well, some have finished and not gotten tattoos and others have gotten tattoos but are still working on the whole finishing thing, but the solidarity they imply was very important to us when suffering through our core classes!

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