Mort aux Commissaires! Analysis of the preserved, tattooed skin of an adult male from 19th century France

Authors: Starkie, A.

Conference: 15th Annual Conference of the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology

Dates: 13 December-15 September 2013


The complete, anterior portion of the tattooed skin of an adult (probably male), stuffed and mounted on wood, was presented to Bournemouth University by it's private-collector owner, in the hope of learning more about it. A number of immediate questions that arose included: from where did it originate? From which period did it date? How, and why, was this individual’s skin preserved? Perhaps most saliently this unusual form of remains prompted the question of the extent to which it might be possible to determine this man’s identity?

A multi-disciplinary approach was taken. Spectroscopic dating analysis of the wooden structure to which the skin was attached gave a date range of 1850 +/-25 years. Initial light-source analysis of the tattoos allowed for cataloguing of a number of images, though some remained too mired by skin-discolouration for accurate interpretation. Further investigation utilising infrared digital imaging proved a far more successful technique. Black-ink tattoos proliferated, though two examples of the use of red tattoo ink were confirmed using infrared imaging. The images and text seen indicated the French origin of the male individual, who had probably spent some time abroad, serving in the French services, probably the Navy. The date '1883' was also decipherable in one tattooed scene.

The utilisation of the infrared imaging technique allowed the investigators to glean far more information than was expected, and provided a more complete and personal narrative of the individual through analysis of his tattoos.

Source: Manual

Preferred by: Martin Smith

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