The Fascinating Story of Ginger: The Oldest Egyptian Mummy with a Bull Tattoo

This is the oldest existing Egyptian mummy. It is over 5500 years old. The mummy, known as ′′Ginger, is from a young ɱaп who died at age 19 (as Tutankhamun) from a knife in the back. Interestingly, on his right arm you can see a tattoo of a bull – this animal was represented as a symbol of power and virility in Egypt – being the oldest known figurative tattoo in the world. It can be visited at the British Museum, where it has been exhibited for over 100 years

The head of Gebelein ɱaп showing the preserved hair from a photo taken in 2011. 

Of the six Gebelein mummies, only the first one excavated, has been continuously exhibited, except for maintenance, since 1901. Although there was another male mummy in the Gebelein group, it is specimen EA 32751 who is widely known as Gebelein ɱaп. He was originally nicknamed Ginger owing to the tufts of red hair still on his skull but recent policies governing ethical treatment of huɱaп remains have caused the nickname to be dropped.Gebelein ɱaп was wrapped in matting and buried in a contracted, almost fetal position that was usual of burials in Egypt until the mature Late Kingdom period, when bodies began to be buried fully extended. Religious reasons perhaps accounted for the change, but it is possible also that the development of artificial mummification dictated it, as an extended position made mummification easier.

Gebelein ɱaп is exhibited in a case in which the stone-lined sand grave from which he was exhumed has been reconstructed. The display includes clay pots and bowls and other grave goods typical of Predynastic burials. However, these do not belong to the graves of any of the Gebelein mummies but are instead from similar graves of the period. This is because, although Budge did record the recovery of pots and flints, his acquisition did not extend to these items.

Gebelein ɱaп was the first Predynastic mummy to go on display in the British Museum’s first Egyptian Room. In fact, the only other Gebelein mummy to be exhibited to the public occasionally is the lone female in the group.

So remarkably well-preserved was Gebelein ɱaп’s corpse that not only were his facial features and hair still visible, a wound on the surface of his skin under his left shoulder blade could also still be seen. But it was more than a hundred years later that its sinister significance was understood.

Plate from By Nile and Tigris volume 2, published in 1920 showing how the body of Gebelein ɱaп was displayed in the British Museum at that ᴛι̇ɱe. (British Museum / Public domain )

Death by Murder Most Foul

Twenty-first-century advances in forensic technology brought the next big breakthrough in understanding how Gebelein ɱaп lived … and died. To carry out the examination, in 2012, Gebelein ɱaп, who’s rarely been moved since first going on display in 1901, was carried carefully on a duvet and taken by van to the nearby to Bupa Cromwell Hospital. Here, he was subjected to high-resolution scans, just 30 seconds of scans giving enough data for a detailed look at his insides. The data was then examined using a virtual autopsy table. The technology, from Sweden, allows virtual rotation, enlargement, and cross-sectioning of skin.

Dr Daniel Antoine, the museum’s curator for physical anthropology, told the BBC in 2012: “There’s a wound on the surface of his skin, which people have been able to see for the last 100 years, but it’s only through looking inside his body we’ve seen than his shoulder blade is damaged and the rib under the shoulder blade is also damaged. All of this suggests a violent death .” He died by murder, in short.

The scans of Gebelein ɱaп’s skeleton revealed he was a young, muscular ɱaп aged between 18 and 21 years at the ᴛι̇ɱe of death. The scan of his shoulder wound showed that it was a penetrating wound that had gone through his left shoulder blade and ribs to puncture the left lung. The wound was thought to be a fatal one as it was severe and there was no sign of healing around the muscle and bone.

The skeleton bore no defensive injuries, leading investigators to conclude that he was taken by surprise and died a quick death. Thus, he was probably killed by a murderous stab to his back during peaceᴛι̇ɱe.

The murder weapon would have been a pointed instrument that was either a projectile point or a dagger. A copper or silver dagger was most likely. And copper and silver blades 6-6.5 inches (15-16.5 cenᴛι̇ɱeters) long and 1.5-2 inches (4-5 cenᴛι̇ɱeters) wide were common in Egypt at the ᴛι̇ɱe of his murder. Almost the entire length of such a blade was pushed into his back in the attack that caused his death.