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University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
evidence of body modification in the Museum's galleries Body piercing, tattooing, painting in the galleries of the
Penn Museum.

Examples of Body Modification in the Collections of the Penn Museum

Blueberry Woman

Blueberry Woman
Athapaskan, 1917
NA 5822b

This wooden plaque mask was created to tell the story of a woman who went to pick blueberries. Rather than collecting the fruit, she danced with her basket pretending to be industrious. The mask has many features similar to those employed by Bering Sea Eskimos and of religious significance to them. These include a down-turned mouth and chin tattoos, symbols of females; a pair of goggles, an indication of a supernatural quality; and hoops and feathers, references to celestial bodies. The symmetry of the mask is typical of Athapaskan workmanship, as are the woman's red cheek spots.

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cosmetic palette and spoons
go to...Canaan and Ancient Israel

Cosmetic Palette and Spoons
Palette: Tell es Sa'idiyeh, Stratum V, Iron IIB, 800-701 B.C.
Spoon: Bronze, Gibeon, Iron IIC, 701-586 B.C.
Spoon: Bronze, Gibeon, Iron IIC, 701-586 B.C.

Detail of Chinese wall mural

Detail from "Bhaisajyaguru and Assembly"
China, Shanxi Province, Ziaocheng, Guangsheng Monstery (Monastery of Vast Triumph)
After 1475, Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644)

This detail is from a wall mural made of tempera on mud, mixed with seed, straw, and leaves.

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Ear plugear spool

Ear Plug and Spool
Guatemala, Post-Classic Period (A.D. 900-1500)

Although found in the highlands of Guatemala, these pieces of thinly worked obsidian may have been traded from a Post-Classic Mexican center specializing in producing such extraordinary ornaments.

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Tlingit face stamps

Face Stamps
Klukwan, 1905
NA 1265; NA 1264

African female figure

Female Figure
Lulua, Zaire, 19th century
AF 628

Some of the most beautiful small-scale carvings of West Africa are female figures like this one made by the Lulua of Zaire. The elaborate designs on the surface of the figure represent Lulua scarification patterns. They are used to bring good fortune and beauty to their owners as well as to ward off sickness and other evil forces. They are often placed near the beds of newborn children to protect them. The scarification markings were considered beautiful and were used to attract benevolent spirits.

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female figurines from Iran

Female Figurines
Tureng Tepe, Iran, IIIB Period, ca. 3500-2900 B.C.
32-41-25, 32-41-68, 32-41-69

Three standing nude female figurines with ears pierced for multiple earrings.

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Near East

Egyptian funerary stela

Funerary Stela
Egypt, Dendera, ca. 2130-2000 B.C. , 9-11th Dynasties

Note the mirror and cosmetic box beneath the chair.

go to...Egypt

Page from Hiller's journal
Tattoos and Ear Ornaments
Borneo, 1896

A page from Hiram Hiller's Borneo journal (Pata River, June 16, 1896). At right, sketches of heavy ear ornaments worn by Kenyah women. At bottom, sketches of the tattoo patterns on a Kenyah woman's hands and forearms. For more information, see Expedition Magazine, the Museum's magazine that explores our human past and present, Volume 30, No. 1.

Gold Earrings from Cyprus
go to...Ancient Greek World

Gold Earrings
Cyprus, late 4th-2nd century B.C.

Each earring takes the form of a bull's head and neck. Jewelry is frequently represented on vases and sculptures. Otherwise, our knowledge comes from actual specimens recovered mostly from tombs and sanctuaries.

Alaskan labret

Point Barrow, Alaska, 1897

detail from a relief
go to...Near East

Detail from a Relief
Palace of Assur-nasir-pal, Nimrud, Iraq, 9th century B.C.

This detail is from a relief of a winged genius carrying a lustration pail and pine cone and is incised with a standard 20-line inscription stating the power of King Assur and listing his conquests.

Sakyamuni Buddha

Sakyamuni Buddha
China, Yuan Dynasty (A.D. 1279-1368)

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Tlingit shark tooth earrings

Shark Tooth Earrings
Sitka, Collected by Louis Shotridge, 1918
NA 8482(RG3)

Stone head of a Bodhisattva

Stone Head of a Bodhisattva

Northern Qi Period (A.D. 550-577)

Many Buddhist statues are depicted with stretched earlobes. In Tibet, stretched earlobes are a sign of wisdom.

Tattooing comb

Tattooing Comb
Samoa, 19th century

Samoan tattoo artists used combs like this one to apply the design. They dipped the comb in a mixture of water and candlenut soot and tapped the comb with a stick to make the pointed teeth puncture the skin. This tattooing comb is made of bone, turtle shell, wood, and vegetable fiber.

Tattooed Chief

Tattooed Chief
Taiohae, Nukuhiva, 19th century.

The Museum's Polynesia gallery contains several examples of tattooing, including this drawing of a 19th century Marquesan chief with tattoos on his face, torso, and limbs.

Tlingit Man with Nose Ring

Tlingit Man with Nose Ring
Sitka, Alaska, late 19th century
PCA57-33, detail of photograph by E. W. Merrill

Walrus Man figure

Walrus Man
Point Barrow, Alaska
Collected by E.A. McIlhenny, 1897

Alaskan Eskimos believed that in the mythological past all humans, animals, and spirits could change their physical forms at will. In the nineteenth century, only spirits and shamans retained the ability to undergo transformations. The belief in transformation explains the cautious way Alaskan Eskimos dealt with strangers and animals that behaved in peculiar ways. Such beings might have been dangerous supernatural characters or hostile shamans in disguise.The theme of a walrus-man transformation was commonly expressed in Eskimo material through the use of the double tusk motif. The walrus-man represented in this carving wears a hunting visor and holds a harpoon in his hand.

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Woman at festival, Papua, New Guinea

Woman at Festival
Papua, New Guinea, August, 1982
detail of photo by Jordan M. Wright

In the highlands of New Guinea, people participate in a yearly fair, an extravaganza of parading, dancing, singing, and the display of costumes and body decoration. While most highland New Guineans recognize personal decoration as an art form that is used to mark important social events, there is no standardization of symbolic meanings from one group to the next.

Body piercing, tattooing, painting in the galleries of the
Penn Museum.

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