“Jaina-style” figurines are tiny Mayan clay sculptures dating from 600-1200 AD, named after their discovery site on Jaina Island off the Gulf coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Fashioned into whistles and rattles, these figurines functioned primarily as funerary objects. Although they are often smaller than 12 inches (~30 cm) tall, each figure is intricately molded with elaborate garments, jewelry, and other adornments. From tiny feathered garments to elaborate headdresses and ear spools (tuup), each figurine seems to display a museum’s worth of garments and jewelry. No two are completely alike.
Especially interesting (to me at least) are these sculptures’ reflections of trends in body modification. Many display, for example, elongated and flattened skulls, a modification practiced among the elite. Others don ear spools, plugs for stretched earlobes that were often fashioned from semi-precious stones. Each of the figurines below displays stylized facial markings, delineated as raised bumps on the figures’ “skin.” As with many colonial and pre-colonial records, it remains unclear whether these facial markings refer to scarification, paint, or tattooing. The figure on the righthand side of the first image also seems to wear an artificial “nose bridge,” a clay structure possibly used to create a smooth slope between the nose and forehead.
American, c. 1920s-30s, via
Solomon Islands, no date, via
Pima (of the United States), no date, via
Burma, 2000s, via
Micronesia, no date, via
Haida (of Canda), no date, via
South Sea Islanders (Tahiti), c. 18th century, via
Trephination, or the practice of drilling holes into one’s skull, is a neurological procedure that has been employed all over the globe since the Neolithic period. Due its importance in treating a range of intra-cranial maladies, different cultures developed a range of highly effective tools and methods for drilling into the skulls of living patients.
Inca people in Pre-Columbian Peru, for example, used metal scalpels and obsidian blades to treat a range of problems, from the physical to the mental to the spiritual; there is evidence that the practice was employed both by highly trained “surgeons” and somewhat less precise “shamans.” Some studies claim that the practice was entirely religious and that retrieved circles of bone were worn as amulets. Despite the invasive nature of the surgery, many skulls from this period show signs of repair, implying that patients survived after surgery, and some skulls even display signs of multiple procedures.
Europe serves as home to many of the oldest trepanned skulls, many dating over 6000 years old. The process, however, endured well through the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period. As late as the 17th Century, scientists continued to illustrate volumes depicting the process and tools with which the brain surgery was performed. The image below, for example, is from accomplished surgeon Johannes Scultetus’s 1655 volume Armamentarium chirurgicum.
In 1991, two German hikers stumbled upon a 5300 year old mummy nestled in the Ötzal Alps. The mummy, later extracted from the ice and dubbed the “Tyrolian Iceman,” sported over 50 simple charcoal tattoos, from lines on his wrists to hatching on his back and a cross on his knee. The purpose of these tattoos, however, remained mysterious until eight years later when Austrian researchers published a (somewhat disputed) paper noting the striking correspondence between the mummy’s tattoos and “trigger sites” in Eastern acupuncture. Radiological studies confirmed that the mummy had suffered from myriad deformities and illnesses during his life, including missing ribs, whipworm and arthrosis in his joints; many of his tattoos appeared in spots that were most afflicted by these illnesses, suggesting a therapeutic rather than aesthetic function.
Medicinal tattooing, however, extends far beyond the bounds of the Iceman’s life both geographically and temporally. The oldest tattoo, found on an Egyptian mummy, dates over 6000 years. And today, as researcher and tattoo enthusiast Lars Krutak notes, Kayan people in Borneo continue to tattoo sprained wrists, ankles, and knees to decrease swelling, and Kalinga people in the Philippines tattoo markings on their neck to cure goiter.
To read more on the discovery of the Iceman: NBC News
For more on medicinal tattooing in general: Smithsonian Blog
The 1999 scientific paper on the Iceman’s tattoos. (I should note that while this paper is an interesting read, I don’t possess the expertise to determine how solid its claims are.)
>>>> NEW YORK TIMES.
Many of Canada’s First Nations groups have a long history of artistic production and body modification, having developed their own styles, motifs, and techniques that date back to the pre-contact period. Among these groups is British Columbia’s Haida people, who are said to have practiced tattooing for thousands of years prior to the arrival of European colonizers. Later, Haida tattooing was observed and documented by Europeans in the form of photographs and drawings, which now act an invaluable record of a cultural practice that has largely disappeared. The reasons for the decline of tattooing amongst the Haida are varied, but was surely aided by the arrival of missionaries who discouraged tattooing and the banning of the potlatch, a feasting and gift giving ceremony that tattooing was often practiced at.
Sketches by J.G. Swan, 1879. Beinecke Library.
Portrait of Chief Xana showing his chest and arm tattoos from W.H. Collison’s “In the Wake of the War Canoe”. Photographer uncredited.
Johnny Kit Elswa showing his arm and chest tattoos. A.P. Niblack, 1886. Smithsonian.
Chief Gitkun (Kitkun) with codfish chest tattoo, and salmon on lower arms. Left: A.P. Niblack photo. Right: J.G. Swan sketch.
Sketches of Chief Gitkun’s tattoos around figure that represents Johnnie Kit-Elswa with frog tattoo on chest. A.P. Niblack, 1886.
Stylized version of J.G Swan’s 1886 sketches of people from Haida Gwaii. The man’s tattoos are based on Chief Gitkun’s.
We need to be something else again. We begin in uncertainty at the point of dissolve, as things change, and it is this unease, this perpetual state of transition that drives our stories, our objects.
Image: Sole study, collaboration with Joachim de Callatay. Coming Soon.