Body Piercing
Body
piercing, tattooing, painting in the galleries of the
Penn
Museum.

Painful as it might feel, the practice of piercing a hole through the skin and inserting a piece of metal, bone, shell, ivory or glass to wear as an ornament has been around for millennia. Body piercing occurs worldwide and is practiced on men, women and children. It's grown in popularity during the past five years, especially among American teenagers, who pierce just about anything that can be pierced: ears, noses, tongues, and navels.

Male with pierced ear, Iraq, 9th century B.C.
Male with pierced ear,
Iraq, 9th century B.C.
 Male with multiple ear piercings, suburban Philadelphia, 1998
 Male with multiple ear piercings,
suburban Philadelphia, 1998

The most conventional form of piercing in the United States today is ear piercing. Among young and old, male and female, ear piercing is common practice and has become more mainstream for both sexes than it once was. Ear piercing can range anywhere from a single hole in one or both ears to holes along the entire rim of the ear. While currently trendy, multiple piercings are nothing new: the Museum's Near Eastern gallery displays a 4000 year-old clay figurine with multiple-pierced ears!


Head of female figurine
with holes for multiple ear piercings
Iran, 3500-2900 B.C.

Gold earrings, Cyprus, Late 4th-2nd century B.C
Gold earrings,
Cyprus, Late 4th-2nd century B.C.

Our reasons for piercing our bodies can change over time, and may vary from culture to culture. For example, a pair of gold earrings (left) from the Museum's Ancient Greek World gallery can tell us that the people living on the island of Cyprus 2200 years ago pierced their ears. But this evidence can also raise questions: Were earrings worn by both men and women then? Why did these ancient people wear gold bulls as adornment? Archaeologists and anthropologists are always seeking answers to questions like these.

 

Tlingit shark tooth earrings, Alaska 1918
Tlingit shark tooth earrings with silver catches,
Alaska, 1918

Among the Tlingit of southeast Alaska, we know that ear piercing was directly related to an individual's rank in society. Social position was determined by the wealth of the family into which the individual was born. Although a Tlingit could rarely better his own social standing, he could raise the station of his sister's children and his grandchildren by "potlatching" (hosting a community feast). At a potlatch the host paid a member of his moiety (group) to pierce the rims of the children's ears. At additional potlatches, other holes were added. A great amount of wealth was required to host the feast and pay the person to pierce the children's ears. Consequently, the resulting series of holes marked an individual as a member of the nobility.

The latest alternative piercing trend in some American cities involves stretching earlobes in order to accommodate ear-spools and earplugs. The spools and plugs of today have an amazing resemblance to those worn by the people of ancient Mexico, including the Maya. The spools and plugs pictured at the right are on display in the Museum's Mesoamerican gallery. Carved from obsidian (a volcanic glass), they range in size from approximately one centimeter to an inch in diameter.

Stone head of a Bodhisattva with stretched lobes
Stone head of a Bodhisattva with pierced ears and stretched lobes,
China, A.D. 550-577

Detail of Chinese wall mural showing woman with stretched lobes
Detail of Chinese wall mural showing a woman with pierced ears and stretched lobes,
China, A.D. 1368-1644

Throughout Asia, we can also find examples of stretched earlobes that come from wearing extremely heavy earrings. This statue from the Museum's Buddhism gallery (left) is a good example of stretched earlobes.

Other evidence of stretched lobes can be seen in details from a wall mural displayed in the Museum's Chinese Rotunda. This woman (left) has earrings in her ears, and you can see that her earlobes are stretched from the weight of the earrings. This practice can still be seen on the modern Asiatic island of Borneo (see woman, right).

Earplug
Ear spool
Ear spool
Earplug and ear-spools,
Guatemala, A.D. 900-1500




A modern woman from Borneo with stretched lobes
A woman with pierced ears and stretched lobes,
Borneo, 1988

Less mainstream in our society than ear piercing, but becoming more popular, is lip piercing. Looking at a person with a pierced lip may make others wonder, "Doesn't that thing click against the teeth?"

Until the late 19th century, the Eskimo of Alaska defined social status among groups by lip piercing. Both men and women wore lip-plugs, called labrets, such as this ivory one (below) from the Museum's Native Alaska gallery.

Alaskan labret
Labret, Point Barrow,
Alaska, 1897

Doug with nose, lip, and tongue piercings, suburban Philadelphia, 1998
Doug with nose, lip, and tongue piercings, suburban Philadelphia, 1998
Doug with tongue piercing

An Eskimo man wore either one lip-plug (worn centered to his mouth) or two (worn on either side of his mouth). A man wearing the double labrets resembled a walrus, like this figure (right) displayed in the Museum's Native Alaska gallery. Young men received the labret as a type of initiation. Since holes for their labrets were often cut when they reached puberty, a lip-plug symbolized that an Eskimo boy had entered manhood. Eskimo women usually wore only one central lip-plug as decoration; however, the highborn Tlingit girls wore a labret to indicate their noble social status.

Eskimo men and women increased the size of their lip-plugs by gradually stretching the hole in the lip. Often labrets were so large that their lips hung down, exposing teeth and gums. Larger labrets sometimes interfered with speaking and eating and had to be removed.


Walrus-Man figure wearing double labrets
Walrus-Man figure wearing double labrets
, Point Barrow,
Alaska, 1897
Man with nose ring, Alaska, late 19th century
Man with nose ring,
Alaska, late 19th century

Another popular kind of piercing today in American culture is nose piercing. Nose rings can be worn on either side of the nose or through the septum (middle). Among the Tlingit of southeast Alaska, nose rings were considered a mark of distinction and prestige and were worn by both men and women. Nose piercing was also popular in Ancient Mexico and India. Today, women in India and Pakistan continue to wear nose rings, as do many other people around the world.


Uzma with her nose ring, Philadelphia, 1998
Uzma and her nose ring,
Philadelphia, 1998
The next time you see someone with a nose piercing, try to note which side of the nose it's on: the position means different things to different people.

Body piercing, tattooing, painting in the galleries of the
Penn
Museum.