Christian tattoo in medieval Sudan

Archaeologists have uncovered a rare example of a religious tattoo in a burial near the medieval monastic site of Ghazali, in northern Sudan.

The tattooed individual, whose skin was unusually well preserved, was discovered in 2016 during excavations of the monastery and four nearby cemeteries, carried out by a team from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw. However, the tattoo was only identified recently, when Kari A Guilbault, one of the bioarchaeologists carrying out post-excavation analysis of the remains, spotted the marking, and used full-spectrum photography to capture its details. This revealed that the tattoo features a Chi-Rho monogram, a common Christian symbol that combines the Greek letters for the name of Christ. It is accompanied by the letters ‘alpha’ and ‘omega’, which represent the start and end of the Greek alphabet, reflecting the Christian belief that God is the beginning and end of everything. The tattoo is located on the top of the right foot, a choice that may have some connection to the position of the nails during Christ’s crucifixion.

Above & below: Full-spectrum photography revealed that the tattoo included a Chi-Rho monogram and the Greek letters alpha and omega. 

According to Robert J Stark, another bioarchaeologist who worked on the analysis, the individual, whose remains have been radiocarbon dated to between AD 667 and 774, is probably male, and likely between 35 and 50 years old. It is uncertain whether he was a monk, as he was not buried in the cemetery used by the monastic community, but in another thought to have been used by local lay people, possibly those who particularly wanted to be buried near a religious site.

This is only the second known example of tattooing from medieval Nubia and represents an important opportunity to learn more about the practice, as well as offering additional insight into the people who lived and died at this site in the medieval period. Analysis of other finds from the excavation is ongoing.

Text: Amy Brunskill / Image: Kari A Guilbault