Woad and Modern Tribal Bodyart in Albion

Tattooing as a form of tribal bodyart had been used by the neolithic cultures of Modern Europe. The Ice Man (3,300BCE) of the Similaun glacier in the alps had a cross and a series of dashes tattooed in bands. In Siberia a chambered tomb was found to contain a female with horses tattooed on her upper arms, this also is from the neolithic period. As to asertaining how widespread this practice was, there is too little evidence in Britain to suggest either way.

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Julius Caesar brings the next evidence in with his description in the Gallic Wars book V. But this information has been a moot point for antiquarians as you will see." All the Brittani, indeed, dye themselves with woad, which produces a dark blue coloring." Has been the common translation of," Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem."

The debate comes from there being no mention of woad as the causative agent and a second better rendering of the quotation would be "dye themselves with glazes." There is also the possibility that it read "infect themselves with glass" which could have been a description of a scarification ritual which left dark blue scars. Or a direct reference to tattooing. Thats without starting the argument about how the Picts were named.

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These 1st century southern practices (of the Brittani, a tribe south of the Thames)  have been placed upon the northern peoples in an attempt to explain the name Picti which came into use only in the 3rd century. The comments on the tribes from the areas of the actual Picts from this section of the Gallic Wars are that they have "designs carved into their faces by iron". Ouch, that's hardcore.

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The Pictish culture of north eastern Scotland had survived the celtic insurgence of 450BCE and the Roman invasion and expansion to retain a separate language and architectural heritage. They are the builders of the forts that stud the east by the thousand. The builders of the duns and brochs had separate cultural identities but their positions far to the west and north respectively, removed them from the reach of roman pen and classification.

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Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough stated that ,'the Picts chose their kings from the female rather than the male line.' He fronts Bede as a source and modern antiquarians tend to agree. He also quotes 'the old Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus' (his words not mine, it leaves me in a little doubt as to wether Saxo was an old chap who was a contempory of Frazer or wether Saxo was an ancient scholar like Bede). Anyway, Saxo was a lyrical type of antiquarian so he put these words into the mouth of a fictional Scottish queen to make the point for him (and she's speaking of the king's daughter by the way), "whomsoever she thought worthy of her bed was at once king, and she yeilded the kingdom with herself."

I think the female succession argument is quite easy to understand. Leaving the decision to one person eliminates all argument. All men have a chance at kingship. And the heir to the throne symbolises the land and she chooses it's govenor.

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The first Pictish King who was recorded in anything other than name was Drust, son of Erp. He was something of a shaker and a mover in Britain at the fall of the Roman Empire. 'Drust who reigned for a hundred years and fought a hundred battles', was a contempory of Vortigern. The scale and persistance of Drust caused Vortigern to enlist the aid of the first of the English. Had things gone only marginally astray, 50 years later Arthur's wars would have been against a very different foe and in 1966CE it would have been Pictland who won the World Cup.

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Tattooing survived in Britain amongst the Picts, Celts, Saxon and Norse until the Norman invasion of 1066. Normans scorned tattoos, but "like Anglo-Saxon kings before him, King Harold was heavily tattooed. When his body was recovered from the battlefield of Hastings, it was identified by the word 'Edith' tattooed over his heart." (George Burchett,  Memoirs of a Tattooist)

In the 16th century, it became the custom of pilgrims to Jerusalem to have crosses or other Christian symbols pricked onto their arms. The practice has been called "pricking," "marking" or "painting,". But Christianity hasn't always encouraged bodyart, Leviticus 19:28 and 21:5, as well as Deuteronomy 14:1 carried prohibitions against it. At the Synod of Calcuth in Northumberland in 787, all forms of tattooing were forbidden, probably because of pagan associations.

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But what did the ancient people call their tattoos? Tattoo is taken from the Polynesian word "tatu" and came into English usage in the 1700's. Tertullian, in the 3rd century, implied that tattooing was the custom of the Britons, Picts and Scots, and called the marks "Stigmata Britonum." But that is still the name given by an alien culture to the practice.

What we do know that by the contact of seafarers led by folk such as Cpt. James Cook between Europe and Polynesia, there was a resurgence in tribal body art in Britain from the late 1700's to this day. Today it is reckoned that the British once more are the most heavily tattooed culture by capita.

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Having tried to work with woad as a medium for bodyart, I can only assume that it was tattooed into the skin, if it was the agent of pigmentation at all. It's an awful medium to work, it smears easily and stains poorly (four days with definition tops). Why would these tribes who were familiar with the techniques of tattooing (or whatever they called it) use non staining dye?

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Woad - probably not the best product for bodyart but it's mistique is parallelled only by the megaliths themselves. But it is worth a try, you may have more success than me. Woad seeds can be obtained from most healthfood shops or garden centres now, ask for Isatis tinctoria. Don't worry if you haven't got green fingers you only need the leaves off one decent plant to make a dip and you get loads of seeds in a packet.

Growing the stuff's fairly straightforward. Plant your seeds in the garden / window box / whatever, in April to a depth of 2 inches or a good poke with your finger. Water regularily (twice I think I did it) and keep it weeded (also optional in my case). The first year you only get a tiny little thing (if neglected like mine) but the next year you get waist high things (no matter how inconsiderate a gardener you are). If you wait till you have a hundred leaves to pick, without taking more than a quarter off the plants, you should have a viable crop. Next step, the dying process.

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First you need a big pan that you'll never be able to use for anything else again or preferably a big cauldron if you want to go fully ethnic. Drop two hand fulls of leaves into fast boiling water that already contains a pinch of cream of tartar. Keep the pot bubbling furiously for two to three minutes then remove the leaves. Having a strainer in the pot would have been good advice (but I didn't, so learn the hard way).

Now you must cool the liquid as quickly as possible. This is where I took the opportunity to destroy the rest of the kitchen. I decanted the mixture into another pan and ruined a marble rolling pin hoping to speed up the process. At this point add ammonia until the liquid is yellowish in colour. Allow to cool completely then start to re-heat after you've got your breath back. The mixture can be saved for later use at this point.

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The target temperature for re-heat I've been informed is 60 degrees Centigrade, all the time keeping an eye that the mixture stays yellow with the odd sprinkling of ammonia. When you hit 60 add sodium dithionite to deoxidise the liquid (just do it, you don't need to know why). Then stir very gently so as not to splash (you are trying to keep out as much air as possible from the mixture) until a bronze scum appears.

THIS is the point where I may have gone wrong. The above recipe is for dying wool, right now you should be chucking in all your clothes, curtains and livestock.

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I tried to apply the mixture as woad 'the body paint' at this point. Too runny and thin (and too hot too as I remember, can't be too sure, I was holding the brush). So we tried to reduce it by boiling, the paste once it was cool enough to apply, was still quite weak in it's effect, though the pale staining did hold definition for about four days. The next day we tried to 'revitalise' the solid residue which covered EVERYTHING in the house. That was the poorest result of all.

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I've experimented with loads of materials for applying patterns to skin and have had varying degrees of success (I really don't like henna, it just doesn't feel right or look like the alternative to what woad would be to me). I'm still looking for something that will stain the skin blue for over two weeks but have so far been unsuccessful. I didn't like henna at all. Myself and Bekki have done a thousand searches and the closest we've come was security dyes. Unfortunately all the producers of these products informed us that the fast fixing dyes that are used to protect money are carcenogenic. Also the bullets that the guards have in their guns have a lethal amount of lead. So don't go knocking off any security vans hoping to get a cool temporary tattoo in the bargain.

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So what's my point you may ask?

Well it's this, after all my experiments and research on woad and the short comings of it as a body dye, I'm still in love with the idea of it. I've come to the conclusion that 'if' it was used (and it is only later writers, not Julius Ceasar who talk of it) then it was probably tattooed under the skin.

Update: Here's what the exceptionally well informed traditional tattooist Pat Fish thought about the previous paragraph:

It is also an amazing astringent. The tattoo I did with it literally
burned itself to the surface, causing me to drag the poor
experimented-upon fellow to my doctor who gave me a stern chastizing for using innappropriate ink. It produced quite a bit of scar tissue, but healed very quickly, and no blue was left behind. This leads me to think it may have been used for closing battle wounds. I believe the Celts used copper for blue tattoos, they had plenty of it, and soot ash cardon for black. Unfortunately we need more bog bodies to prove this point!

But the dream of a semi permantent modern dye lives on, if there's anyone out there who could point me in the direction of a substance that will dye the skin blue for 10 days or more without harming the wearer, name any of my organs of your choice for donation.

These designs were done using a blue marker pen and the most lovely of canvases - my partner Bekki. The original photos were manipulated in Photoshop and Corel PhotoPaint.


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