Wrapped in the skin of a canid, a cluster of sharpened turkey bones and mussel shells with traces of red pigment appears, to the untrained eye, like a random assortment of ancient tools. But archaeologists believe that this bundle, buried at least 3,600 years ago in a Late Archaic cemetery in Tennessee, may represent the world’s oldest surviving tattoo kit. Their findings lend insight into ancient Native American inking traditions.
The bundle was originally unearthed in 1985 but was only recently examined as a record of tattooing processes. The excavation site, known as Fernvale, was a Native American settlement found during a bridge replacement project in Williamson County. At the time, the Tennessee Division of Archaeology recovered the artifacts, then boxed them up and placed them in a permanent curatorial facility, where they remained in the dark for two decades.
As of 1990, the artifacts are protected under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which stipulates that they eventually return to a tribe that claims them. In 2007, they remained in storage, and Aaron Deter-Wolf, an archaeologist with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, and Tanya Peres, a zooarchaeologist at Florida State University, revisited and analyzed them, as Mental Floss first reported.
When the pair examined the sharp turkey bones and bivalve shells, they wondered if the artifacts could be implements in a tattoo bundle — a specific type of sacred bundle used in indigenous rituals. The sharp bones recalled needles, while pigment residue on the shells suggested that they were used as ancient inkpots. Other turkey bones that were stained appeared to be tools for mixing pigment. The whole assortment had been placed in the grave beside its occupant, suggesting that it held significant value for that individual.