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Monday, 22 April 2019

The Tattooed Lady of the Egypt Centre

Last Thursday, as part of the final class on the funerary culture of the ancient Egyptians, we examined a “paddle doll”. Paddle dolls are a particular type of figurine named because they are made from a flat, shaped piece of wood, which usually have long strings of mud or faience beads attached at one end to imitate hair. In the past, they have been interpreted variously as concubines for the dead, as children’s toys, or as figurines embodying the concept of fertility and rebirth. Most recently, Ellen Morris (2011; 2017) has argued that they were representations of specific living women, who can be identified as the khener-dancers of Hathor. This is based on their tattoos, which resemble those found on women buried in and around the precinct of the mortuary temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el-Bahari. The majority of paddle dolls excavated can be dated to the Eleventh and Twelfth dynasties.

Fig. 1: W769

W769 is a flat, paddle shaped, wooden figure that is, unfortunately, missing its head. The shape of these figures has been compared to the counterpoise of an ancient Egyptian menat collar, which is closely associated with the goddess Hathor (Oppemheim et al. 2015, 106–7). The figure measures 205mm in height, 54mm in width, and 4.7mm in its depth. Both sides of the figure are decorated with black markings, which represent tattoos. It is currently on display in the body adornment case in the House of Life. W769 was purchased as part of lot 407 by Sir Henry Wellcome on the 1 July 1919. The flimsy slip (52536) in the archives of the Wellcome Institute describes it as a “Doll. Wood, head missing, crudely made, with traces of decoration. 8 inches x 2 inches” (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Flimsy slip in the Wellcome archives.

The decorative marks on the front of the figure are much more prevalent than those on the back (fig. 3). Starting from the top, a broad collar has been included. Below this, the breasts have been highlighted through the use of six dots forming circles. Two rows of diagonal dashes on the chest represent the top of a garment, which continues (despite being difficult to see) to the waist. Here, a thick band of diagonal dashes represents the belt of the dress. The most prominent feature is the dotted pubic triangle below, which is the one constant in the iconic repertoire of paddle dolls (Morris 2011, 86).

Fig. 3: Front side of W769

Despite the rear of the paddle doll containing less decoration, what is present is most interesting (fig. 4). The upper half consists of a series of dots, which perhaps represent that straps of the dress. A belt has also been included at waist level. Directly above this a drawing of a frog (fig. 5), which clearly represents a figural tattoo! Frogs were associated with fertility and the goddess Heket. Although figural tattoos are known from other examples of paddle dolls, particularly in the form of birds (Morris 2011, 82), I am unaware of any other frogs. As highlighted by Morris (2011), the decoration of the paddle dolls, including the figural tattoos, can be found on the bodies of some women buried at Deir el-Bahari.

Reverse side of W769

While identifying tattoos on Egyptian mummies is nothing new (Keimer 1948; Poon & Quickenden 2006), research on the topic has increased considerably in the last few years. Perhaps most well-known is the identification of a torso at Deir el-Medina of a female mummy that was heavily tattooed along the arms, shoulders, neck, and back (Austin & Gobeil 2016). Additionally, the oldest known examples of figural tattoos, which were found on two Predynastic mummies, have been identified (Friedman et al. 2018). Interestingly, the tattoos mirror motifs found in Predynastic art, in a similar way to the marks on the paddle dolls resembling the tattoos on the mummies of some Middle Kingdom women!

Fig. 5: Frog tattoo on the reverse of W769

Austin, A. and C. Gobeil (2016) ‘Embodying the Divine: A Tattooed Female Mummy from Deir el-Medina’. Bulletin de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale 116: 23–46.
Díaz Hernández, R. A. (2017) ‘“Paddle Dolls” – Ritual Figurines of Fertility’. In Company of Images: Modelling the Imaginary World of Middle Kingdom Egypt (2000–15000 BC). Proceedings of the International Conference of the EPOCHS Project held 18th–20th September 2014 at UCL, London, ed. G. Miniaci, M. Betrò and S. Quirke. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 262. Leuven: Peeters. 125–132.
Friedman, R., D. Antoine, S. Talamo, P. J. Reimer, J. H. Taylor, B. Wills, and M. Mannino (2018) ‘Natural Mummies from PredynasticEgypt Reveal the World’s Earliest Figural Tattoos’. Journal of Archaeological Science 92: 116–125.
Keimer, L. (1948) Remarques sur le tatouage dans l’Égypteancienne. Mémoire de l’Institut d’Égypte 53. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.
Morris, E. F. (2011) ‘Paddle Dolls and Performance’. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 47: 71–103.
Morris, E. F. (2017) ‘Middle Kingdom Clappers, Dancers, Birth Magic, and the Reinvention of Ritual’. In Company of Images: Modelling the Imaginary World of Middle Kingdom Egypt (2000–15000 BC). Proceedings of the International Conference of the EPOCHS Project held 18th–20th September 2014 at UCL, London, ed. G. Miniaci, M. Betrò and S. Quirke. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 262. Leuven: Peeters. 285–335.
Oppenheim, A., D. Arnold, D. Arnold, and K. Yamamoto eds. (2015) Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
Poon, K. W. C. and T. I. Quickenden (2006) ‘A Review of Tattooing in Ancient Egypt’. The Bulletin of the Australian Centre for Egyptology 17: 123–136.


  1. Never knew about the frog on the back. This is absolutely wonderful!

    1. Neither did we until I photographed it two weeks ago. You need to play with the light to see it!

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