Use-Wear and Bone Needle Tattoos

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 14

Aaron Deter-Wolf
Tennessee Division of Archaeology
and The Center for Tattoo History and Culture 

For close to a decade now I’ve been involved in various research projects exploring the archaeological evidence for ancient tattooing. This work was initially inspired by a paper that Nashville-area archaeologist Dan Allen presented at the 2006 Current Research in Tennessee Archaeology meeting. Dan had recovered several sharpened turkey bone “awls” with remnants of dark staining on their tips from a Late Archaic site in Davidson County, and suggested that these tools might have been used to tattoo.


Stained turkey metatarsal awl from the Hermitage Springs site. Image courtesy of Dan Allen.

Dan’s identification struck me as being both incredibly obvious and yet totally groundbreaking. On one hand, there is a rich body of ethnographic, ethnohistorical, and art historical data showing widespread tattoo traditions existed throughout North America by the 16th century. When you lay it out on a map you can clearly see that these were not isolated practices – rather, prior to the impacts of acculturation, disease, and forced removal, to be Native American was to live in a heavily tattooed society! In addition, ancient Indigenous art from throughout North America depicts marked human (or human-like) bodies, suggesting that these practices extend back to at least the first century A.D.. At the same time, despite excavations at thousands of sites and analysis of millions of artifacts, there have been less than two dozen formal identifications of pre-contact Native American tattoo tools from eastern North America. For whatever reason, archaeologists are not finding – or at least are not identifying – ancient tattoo tools.

My efforts to try and rectify this issue led to a multi-year foray into experimental archaeology, beginning with compiling a database of Native American tattoo implements which appear in written accounts from the 16th through early 20th centuries. This was done to try and identify what tools might have been used to tattoo prior to European steel needles, which once they were introduced rapidly replaced Indigenous tattoo technologies. The research revealed a wide variety of possible pre-contact tool types, including thorns, fish teeth and spines, stone points and flakes, and sharpened animal bones. I next created replicas of these various implements and took them to Nashville artist Chris Saint Clark, who used them to tattoo a butchered side from a pig. This study showed that certain tools identified historically as Native American tattoo implements (for example, split eagle feathers) were not actually suitable for tattooing. Other tool types, including sharpened deer and turkey bone needles, performed very well.


Some examples of tested tools, including deer bone slivers set in a wood handle (top), split deer bone needles (left), honey locust spine, and a stone graver. The tool at the bottom includes steel needles and corn husk rattles, and is based on historic examples from the Great Plains.

The initial study was followed in 2011 by another set of tests using bone tools to examine the use-wear signature of tattooing – that is, the microscopic patterns created by friction when a tool is used. My hope was that these patterns might be distinctive enough from wear created by other activities (for example, perforating or sewing leather or hides) to allow for identification of tattoo tools from the archaeological record. To accomplish this, Tanya Peres and I used deer bone tools to tattoo lines of 200 punctures on butchered pig skin. Microscopic examinations of the tools before and after tattooing showed that the process resulted in overall tip rounding, very light flattening of bone fibers, and some smoothing of manufacturing marks within the upper 0.5 mm of the tips.


Scanning electron microscope images of a deer bone needle before (top) and after (bottom) tattooing pig skin. After Deter-Wolf and Peres 2013, Figure 10.

The results of the 2011 tests were intriguing, but relied on wear generated by only 200 punctures. More extended tool use was therefore likely to create more distinctive use-wear patterns. In addition, the studies so far had experimented on butchered pig skin because of its similarity to human flesh in terms of thickness, elasticity, and texture (the same reasons that pig skin is often used as a proxy for human skin in forensic tests). However, there had been no examinations looking into whether tattooing the skin of a dead pig would create the same use-wear patterns as tattooing the skin of a live human. Clearly additional tests were needed.

Also, let’s be honest: Once I started down this road, it was really just a matter of time before I ended up with a bone needle tattoo.

Earlier this summer, with the help of Tara Clark, I created another set of deer bone tools using ancient techniques. First a chert graver was used to score deep grooves along the length of defleshed and cleaned deer metatarsals, before splitting the bones using a hammerstone and large flake. Next chert flakes and scrapers were used to remove bone splinters and remaining marrow, and to initially shape the points. The tools were completed by grinding on a progression of increasingly fine-grained stone surfaces, after which they were treated in 91 percent isopropyl alcohol and allowed to air dry.** Commercial black tattoo ink was used for the tests.

By the time it was all done, six people and yet another butchered pig side had been tattooed with deer bone (and in two cases mastodon ivory) tools. These included marks totaling between 250 and 1,500 punctures placed variously on ankles, shoulders, forearms, and the wrist. In the video embedded below you can see me tattooing the first of two parallel lines on my left wrist.

The deer bone tools were examined at 20X—40X magnification both before and after tattooing. Before testing, tools tips were pointed and smooth to the naked eye, but under magnification appeared flat to beveled and showed manufacturing patterns including oblique “chattermarks” and gouges from lithic scraping, as well as longitudinal striations from grinding. Some silica crystals and small particles from the stone surfaces were embedded within these striations.

Following tattooing, the tools used on human skin showed microwear consisting of rounding of the tips, flattening of raised bone fibers, smoothing of manufacturing marks, and the development of low-level polish. These changes were limited to approximately 0.5-1 mm of the tool tip. Microwear on tools used to tattoo pig skin was similar enough to these results as to be indistinguishable.

So what’s the takeaway here, other than a couple of new tattoos and a book chapter? Because tattooing with bone tools results in replicable use-wear patterns, we can potentially use this data as a baseline for identifying pre-contact Native American tattoo implements both in archaeological and museum collections. I say “potentially,” because issues including when and how artifacts are deposited in the archaeological record (for example, immediately after use, following breakage, or after resharpening), soil conditions, post-depositional weathering, and methods of archaeological recovery, cleaning, and preservation can all impact the survival of microwear. Nevertheless, the growing body of use-wear data presents one possible means of separating potential tattoo implements from other bone tools, and when combined with other lines of evidence can support identification of ancient tattooing. Also, mastodon ivory makes a surprisingly terrible tattoo tool – but that’s a story for another day.

**My appreciation to Colin Dale for his expertise regarding bone needle tattooing.