Archaeological artefacts tell us much about ancient people, but not much about the individual who made them. When an artefact bears a preserved fingerprint, it becomes personal.
For as long as human societies have existed, their members have been producing ‘stuff’ – tools, weapons, jewelry and ritualistic objects.
With every physical touch of an object they left behind a copy of their epidermal ridges, mainly fingerprints. Under suitable conditions the prints became preserved, allowing archaeologists and scientists to study the impressions of fingers and palms of people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago – often helping determine their age, gender and ethnicity, and how objects were created or used when their owner was in direct physical contact with them.
Here are 10 examples:
1. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Middle Eastern ancestry – 525 years ago
In 2006, after an exhaustive three-year trawl through the work of Leonardo Da Vinci, forensic scientists found a single, complete fingerprint on one of his paintings.
The print, from the Italian artist’s left index finger, was discovered on a painting called ‘Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine’, painted around 1490. Da Vinci had used his finger to smudge the necklace’s shadow.
The central whorl of the fingerprint is common in around 60% of the Middle East population and gives weight to the theory that Da Vinci’s mother, Caterina, was a slave who came to Tuscany from Istanbul.
2. Medieval Europeans prayed mostly for themselves – 600 years ago
A cumulative build-up of fingerprints on the pages of a book may give it the appearance of being dirty and worn, but for Kathryn Rudy, an Art Historian at the University of St Andrews, it was an avenue of inquiry into the minds of medieval Europeans.
Rudy analyzed a number of 15th-century European prayer books to reconstruct their reading habits. Using a densitometer to measure the darkness of reflecting surfaces, she was able to interpret how a reader handled a book, which sections were the most popular and which were ignored.
The densitometer spiked at a manuscript dedicated to St. Sebastian, who was often prayed to for protection against the plague. Similarly, pages which contained prayers for personal salvation were much more soiled and worn than those asking for other people’s redemption.
3. Fashion conscious women of Roman Britain get the pale look – 1,900 years ago
In 2003, a sealed pot of face cream was discovered at a Roman temple complex in Southwark, south London dating to the 2nd century AD.
The small tin pot had remained unopened for nearly 2,000 years. The sulphurous-smelling cream inside was still moist and contained a clear fingerprint and other finger marks. Marks left by the last fingers to use the pot were still visible on the lid.
The pot was found in a Roman drain and appears to have been deliberately hidden. Roman creams of any type, paint or cosmetic, do not normally survive in the archaeological record, so the find was exceptionally rare.
Analysis of the cream by scientists at the University of Bristol found it was made from animal fat, starch and tin oxide. Their recreation of the cream’s ingredients left a smooth, powdery texture when rubbed into the skin.
The cream was a sophisticated preparation, more likely the product of a professional cosmetics factory than that of an amateur. Contemporary sources say that a white foundation cream known as ‘cerussa’ was used by women all over the Roman Empire, but it was usually a lethal combination of lead shavings dissolved in vinegar. However, the Londinium cream was a much safer product; the tin-based pigment was completely non-toxic.
4. Division of labour in an Italian pottery workshop – 2,400 years ago
The fingerprints of four individuals working in a pottery workshop in Metaponto, southern Italy around 400 BC have been identified on 125 vases.
Each individual seems to have performed a specific task. A master potter appears to have been responsible for forming the intricate rims of the spouts, while the other three were likely assistants responsible for dipping the vessels.
5. Data management in Europe’s oldest city – 3,300 years ago
Fingerprints and palmprints dating to around 1300 BC are present on clay tablets found in Knossos on the island of Crete.
The tablets contain the Linear B syllabic script, used for writing the earliest known language form of Greek, Mycenaean Greek. They were found on the site of a palace complex which was the ceremonial and political centre of Mycenaean culture.
The fingerprints and palmprints of several scribes or their assistants can be defined. They also include the fingerprints of children and a group of men with strong hands and rough papillary lines who were possibly the manual labourers who produced the blank tablets.
6. Ancient Egyptian bakers pack bread for the trip to the afterlife – 3,300 years ago
The fingerprints and palmprints of an Ancient Egyptian baker, dating to around 1300 BC, can still be seen in an amazingly well-preserved flat loaf of bread found in a tomb in Thebes.
The arid climate of Egypt has preserved a rich record of organic materials, including the imprint of the baker who kneaded the dough of this bread loaf while it was still soft. It would have been entombed as a funerary offering.
7. Youth employment in Stone Age Sweden – 5,000 years ago
5,000 year old fingerprints were found on ceramic pot shards in the Stone Age settlement of Siretorp, Sweden.
Dating to the hunter-gatherer Pitted Ware Culture in southern Scandinavia (ca 3200 BC– ca 2300 BC), the ceramics were decorated with pits or hollows made by applying pressure with the tips of the fingers.
By applying fingerprinting techniques, researchers have determined that the pits were predominately made using the index finger. Right-handed individuals would hold the vessels with their left hand, wipe the vessel smooth, and then make the decorative pits with their right hand.
By measuring the distance between ridges, a number of the fingerprints were determined to have been made by teenagers, suggesting that ceramic making, or at least the decorative aspects, was an age-specific role.
8. First farmers – 10,000 years ago
The 10,000 year-old site of Boncuklu Hoyuk in Turkey is one of the earliest villages found from the period when hunter-gatherer societies began to leave their nomadic lifestyle and take up farming.
A technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) creates 3-D images of the many artefacts uncovered at the site, leading to the discovery of fingerprints on fragments of clay objects made in a kiln.
9. The child who picked up a figurine – 26,000 years ago
The earliest-known modern human fingerprint was found on the 26,000 year old ceramic statuette, the Venus of Dolní Věstonice
Dolní Věstonice is an Upper Paleolithic archaeological site in the Czech Republic, and an abundant source of prehistoric artefacts from the Gravettian period.
The Venus figurine, depicting an obese, nude female, is the earliest-known example of fired clay sculptures.
In 2004, a scan of the figurine showed the fingerprint of a child who must have handled it before it was fired.
10. The Neanderthal weapon maker – 80,000 years ago
The oldest known fingerprint of any human species was imprinted on an organic substance used as a glue made from birch bark.
The glue was applied by a Paleolithic inhabitant of the Königsaue region in Germany to fix a piece of flint to a wooden shaft. The Königsaue site was most probably a seasonal hunting camp at the shore of a lake and dates to around 80.000 years ago.
The dating of the artefact to the Middle Paleolithic suggests that the fingerprint belongs to a Neanderthal, and proves that fingerprints can remain preserved for tens of thousands of years on the surfaces of organic substances.