Body Art and Ornamentation: A Retrospective Analysis

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The art of painting, piercing, and adorning the body with inks, totems, and other symbols is a practice that has existed for many years. There is evidence all over the world that shows that body art and ornamentation played a large role in many ancient cultures, oftentimes with religious or spiritual symbolism. These tattoos, piercings, and other body art and ornamentation played a much larger role in these ancient people's lives than tattoos today, but the practice of body ornamentation remains strong. Back then, tattoos were a cultural mark, showing status, accomplishments, religious affiliation, or any number of other factors. Body ornamentation also played a role in recreation for these people as well, of course, such as for exotic dancers and the like. For this paper, however, the body art and ornamentation of two main cultures will be examined, compared, and analyzed, Polynesia and Egypt, both of which have ancient lineages but carry their heritage on in the modern era.

Beginning with Polynesian culture, the culture spans several small islands along the Pacific Ocean, encompassing numerous larger islands as well, where a large amount of social interaction takes place within the culture (Green, 2009). The fact that Polynesia is such a scattered culture, with traces even found as far as New Zealand, means that there are many sub-cultures and meanings within the body art and ornamentations of this particular culture (Green, 2009). For example, one of the sub-cultures of Polynesia, known as the Maori, is infamous for the moko, which is an extremely painful carving of the skin that takes place before the pigment of a tattoo may be applied (Green, 2009). This painful process helps to represent just one of the many uses that tattoos had back in this period, which was a rite of passage, of sorts. Many times, clan members would be required to receive these extremely painful carvings, and those who did not have them, fossil evidence suggests, were largely exiled from the clan and other clan activities (Green, 2009). Polynesia also had some other methods of body ornamentation, including rudimentary piercings, oftentimes to hang bones and other trophies from their faces or other body parts (Green, 2009). The anthropologist, in this case, Green, likely had to compare a number of these sub-cultures with one another to understand how they interplayed with one another, the same as what is being done here, in this research paper.

Many of these same tendencies can be observed in the second culture to be examined here: Egyptian culture. In terms of body art and ornamentation, the Egyptians take a much more conservative approach. For example, in ancient Egypt, only women were allowed to receive tattoos (Sanders, 2008). These tattoos played a much different role than those of the Polynesians. In Egypt, the tattoos on women denoted holiness, or at least favor with their gods and goddesses (Sanders, 2008). For example, mummified remains discovered found dots and geometric line patterns on female mummies, and many female entertainers were adorned with the symbol of their goddess, Bes, indicating that tattooing in Egyptian culture was a much more sacred activity, rather than a rite of passage (Sanders, 2008). This same concept applies to many other types of body art and ornamentation within Egyptian culture as well. For example, the Egyptians believed that a human being's physical form was a reflection of their spirit, or ba, and altering their body subsequently altered their spiritual state of being (Smith, 1998). Thus, many of Egypt's body art and ornamentations centered around this belief that the physical self was a reflection of the spiritual, and as a result, many iconic practices emerged in Egyptian culture, such as the practice of priests removing every hair from their body as a sign of purity of the soul (Smith, 1998).

This dichotomy in purpose between Egyptian and Polynesian body art and ornamentations helps to put into perspective the vast differences between these two cultures on a more intricate level. That is to say, the focus of Egyptians on the spiritual aspects of body art and ornamentation helps to demonstrate the holy role that women played in Egyptian religion at the time, compared with Polynesian body art and ornamentation, which, while not exclusive to women, as the Egyptians were, nevertheless included women in the art of body modification (Green, 2009). Polynesians, on the contrary, seemed to view tattoos and other painful body art as pure symbols of the material, such as status, and as such, these body modifications tended to be extremely painful, oftentimes, it is believed, to fulfill the role of this body art as a rite of passage for new or young members of the clan (Green, 2009). The practice of the modern world of utilizing tattoos as symbolism likely traces its roots back to the ancient Polynesians, who spread the concept of tattoos and other body modifications far and wide (Green, 2009). This sort of practical tattooing strongly caught hold in the western world, where tattooing and other body art and ornamentation was largely looked down upon, namely for religious reasons (Green, 2009). The practice of the Polynesians of associating decidedly secular concepts with tattoos, and the subsequent western absorption of this, led to a body art renaissance of sorts in the western world (Green, 2009).

The use of body art within the cultures of Polynesia also helps to illustrate the importance of other secular concepts, such as kinship, to these ancient peoples. Much of the body art and other ornamentation within Polynesian culture denotes the affiliation of the wearer to a certain clan, and, oftentimes, these clans were little more than close-knit families (Green, 2009). In that respect, sharing a tattoo or other body art with another essentially bonded those two together for life. This concept can still be observed today in many gangs and other informal groups. Although much of the time, the members of these groups are not related by blood, their tattoos nevertheless demonstrate a lifelong bond between members of the clan, helping to elevate the status of this body art to much more than mere ink or bone, but as representations of something much greater than themselves. This concept can also be observed within the Egyptian methods of body art and ornamentation, which also favors a great deal of symbolism, although the symbolism itself is, of course, religious and spiritual. However, another type of body art originated in Egypt that is decidedly political, rather than spiritual: head molding. Head molding began in Egypt as a result of one of their kings, likely Akhenaton, being born with a distinctive head shape, likely some sort of mild deformity (Favazza, 1996). As a result, Egyptians aimed to mold the heads of their children to more closely resemble this oddly-shaped kind, and thus, head molding was born. While the implications of head molding are not very sweeping, the underlying concept behind this particular body modification tells volumes about Egyptian political structure.

Egyptians were deeply religious people, but also practical, and this practicality extended to their political empire as well, effectively linking their spiritual and political aspects together (Favazza, 1996). As a result, many of the most prominent aspects of Egypt's infrastructure, such as its temples used for storing money, were also used as places of worship (Favazza, 1996). This focus on a combination of the spiritual and political is observable in their ornamentation, although much of their ornamentation centers solely on the religious aspects, there were other factors. Oftentimes their ornamentation might seem downright mundane. For instance, only the upper-classes of Egypt were allowed to wear sandals, while the others were forced to expose their feet to the harsh, burning sands (Sanders, 2008). This type of ornamentation was common in ancient Egypt, which strongly believed in visual segregation of the upper and lower classes (Sanders, 2008). As a result, the higher the class of Egypt was, the most elaborate their body art and ornamentation became, until the level of Pharaoh, or king, was reached, with a multitude of headdresses, piercings, markings, and other body art visible (Sanders, 2008).

On the other hand, the Polynesian culture was not overly concerned with limiting its body art and ornamentation to one segment of culture or another, instead using the body as a sort of billboard to announce loyalty to any number of clans, religions, or other beliefs (Favazza, 1996). The Polynesians also considered the modifications to their bodies to have clear, observable effects, almost as if it were a science. For example, some natives in Polynesia, upon learning that they are sick, would cut off specific fingers and use those severed fingers as offerings to their god to restore their health (Favazza, 1996). These extreme body modifications would even be extended to more mundane issues as well, such as bringing luck to fishing or making the winding of fishing lines easier (Favazza, 1996). This utilization of extreme body modification and ornamentation to bring about (perceived) concrete benefits helps to show the one-ness that these Polynesians felt with the world around them. However, the Polynesians also recognized the symbolic value of body art and ornamentation, and as a result, their bodies were used for both religious and, they believed, practical offerings and the like to their gods, meaning that Polynesians were often covered from head to toe in piercings, tattoos, ornamentation, and other body art (Favazza, 1996).

This Polynesian concept of body art and ornamentation continues today, with tattoos and bone piercings and the like remaining commonplace. Egyptians, as well, regularly utilize body art and modification as religious symbols, although the political element to their body art and ornamentation is all but absent in the modern era. In a way, the use of body art and ornamentation, for both cultures, acts as a common link to the ancient past, allowing them to partake in customs and practices that have existed for centuries. In this way, the art of body modification and ornamentation is much more than mere body-altering, but a way of preserving tradition, the past, and everything these cultures hold sacred.


Favazza, A. R. (1996). Bodies under siege: Self-mutilation and body modification in culture and psychiatry. JHU Press.

Green, T. (2009). The Tattoo Encyclopedia: A guide to choosing your tattoo. Simon and Schuster.

Jones, A. (1998). Body art/performing the subject. U of Minnesota Press.

Sanders, C. (2008). Customizing the body: The art and culture of tattooing. Temple University Press. 8-25.

Smith, W. S. (1998). The art and architecture of ancient Egypt (Vol. 14). Yale University Press.