Book Review: Drawing with Great Needles

If you have an interest in tattoo history, you must add Drawing with Great Needles: Ancient Tattoo Traditions of North America to your book collection. I can’t emphasize this enough! In it, editors Aaron Deter-Wolf and Carol Diaz-Granados and their team of authors have put together an incredible collection of essays that introduce a wealth of new tattoo history material to the world. Most of the material focuses on Native American tattooing, but bits of Euro-American tattoo history creep in (especially with regard to the historical tattoo collectors I have studied in great depth–the transculturites who obtained tattoos while residing with Native American groups) and some scholarship about other non-Western societies offers comparison. Aaron’s essay about the archaeology of tattoo tools is especially welcome (and captivating) as there has been limited writing on this aspect of tattoo history outside of the machine era.

Great Needles cover
The cover of Drawing with Great Needles featuring “the tattooed Osage chief Bacon Rind [all you bacon fanatics will love this] (1860-1932)” from the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

The current work in tattoo archaeology constitutes some of the most fascinating research in the history of tattooing. For too many years, the study of tattooing was nearly absent from archaeology, save for the investigation of a handful of preserved human remains, often in the form of mummies. But because of the social stigmas around tattooing that started in the late 19th century, right around the time that archaeology as a discipline was ramping up, archaeologists, when happening across artifacts, did not conjure socially unacceptable cultural practices like tattooing. But, as editors Deter-Wolf and Diaz-Granados mention in their introduction, tattooing has always “been as natural as any other cultural ritual.”

The problem was with the archaeologists not the artifacts–they couldn’t see tattooing in the historical record because people tend not to see things they don’t like or, to take a more neutral position, things with which they are personally unfamiliar. Also even when faced with unequivocal evidence of tattooing, as the editors note “the implications of tattooing were not seriously considered, and tattooed symbols were not assigned the same cultural significance as imagery inscribed on media such as pottery, shell, copper, and stone. However, new tattoo-friendly archaeologists, like those who wrote for Drawing with Great Needles, can now go back and reinvestigate artifacts in collections that were misidentified initially; in the field, they can also more readily identify probable tattoo artifacts at the moment of their uncovering.

Mound City Hopewell
“Human effigy pipe bowls with incised facial decorations from Mound City, Ohio,” after Squier and Davis, 1848.

Because of lingering stigmas tattoo archaeology still hasn’t widely caught on, thus, as with so much tattoo scholarship, the team of authors behind the essays in this book are an interdisciplinary mix of “proper” archaeologists, anthropologists, and art historians. Those of us who study tattoo history often cross disciplinary lines as the research takes us where it needs to go. The book unites traditional archaeological evidence (tools, pottery, etc.) with other historical sources such as the accounts of early modern explorers who came into contact with Native American groups from the late 15th century on and early anthropologists who documented still extant Native American tattoo traditions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Images range from photographs of artifacts to representations by Westerners from 16th century engravings and manuscript drawings to historical photographs.

Von Reck - NKS 565, 4to
An example of tattoos documented by visiting Europeans: Yuchi chief Senkaitschi as drawn by Philip Georg Friedrich von Reck in 1736 from the Royal Library of Denmark.

For your convenience, here’s the table of contents:
Introduction—Carol Diaz-Granados and Aaron Deter-Wolf
Native American Tattooing in the Protohistoric Southeast—Antoinette B. Wallace
Needle in a Haystack: Examining the Archaeological Evidence for Prehistoric Tattooing—Aaron Deter-Wolf
Swift Creek Paddle Designs as Tattoos: Ethnographic Insights on Prehistoric Body Decoration and Material Culture—Benjamin A. Steere
Tattoos, Totem Marks, and War Clubs: Projecting Power through Visual Symbolism in Northern Woodlands Culture—Lars Krutak
The Art of Enchantment: Corporeal Marking and Tattooing Bundles of the Great Plains—Lars Krutak
Identifiying the Face of the Sacred: Tattooing the Images of Gods and Heroes in the Art of the Mississippian Period—F. Kent Reilly III
Dhegihan Tattoos: Markings That Consecrate, Empower, and Designate Lineage—James R. Duncan
Snaring Life from the Stars and the Sun: Mississippian Tattooing and the Enduring Cycle of Life and Death—David H. Dye

Surrounding group framed paintings have been photoshopped out of image.
Oneida chief “Good Peter” in a painting by John Trumbull, 1792 from the John Trumbull Collection at the Yale University Art Gallery

My only real criticism of the book is in the quality of the illustrations…as with so many academic presses, they are black and white and reproduced on regular, rough, matte page stock so the prints are muddy. (The images reposted here in this blog post in color are all in the book in black and white.) University of Texas Press, please consider putting these images up on a website or if the book goes into a second printing, add a plates section! I think most tattoo-history interested people would pay extra for that.

Also, I have to mention that I got a cheap, personal thrill reading my dissertation work cited on page 18. (Although my former last name was typoed–my dissertation was written when I was still married. Typos happen to the best of us!) For a more casual take on tattoo archaeology, you can read a Q & A that I conducted with editor Aaron Deter-Wolf in Tattoo Culture Magazine #3 (which has a few other illustrations from the book reproduced in color, so check it out!).

But that small criticism aside, this book is a must-have for tattoo history lovers! You can order it here.

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