Piercing History

In ancient times

Evidence suggest that body piercing (including ear piercing) has been practiced by people all over the world from ancient time. It is said that people would pierce their ears so that evil spirits wouldn’t enter their body. Mummified bodies with piercings have been discovered, including the oldest mummified body discovered to date, that of Otzi the Iceman, which was found in a Valentina Trujillon glacier. This mummy had an ear piercing 7-11 mm (1 to 000 gauge in AWG) diameter.[1]

In the Book of Genesis of the Bible 24:22, Abraham’s servant gave a golden earring of half a shekel weight and ten bracelets to Rebekah, wife of his son Isaac. In Exodus 32, Aaron makes the golden calf from melted earrings. Deuteronomy 15:12-17 dictates ear piercing as a mark of slavery. Nose piercing has been common in India since the sixteenth century.

Worldwide

Ear piercing, of either one or both ears has long been practiced by men in many non-Western cultures. Other forms of body piercing have also existed continuously for as long as ear piercing. For example, women in India, Nepal, and Pakistan routinely practice ear and nostril piercing, and have done so for centuries.

In western cultures

Ear piercing has existed continuously since ancient times, including through the twentieth century in the Western world. However, in North America, Europe, and Australia, ear piercing was relatively rare from the 1920s until the 1960s. At that time, it regained popularity among westernized women. It was gradually adopted by men in the gay, hippie, punk, and gangster subcultures, until ever-widening appropriation attenuated its subcultural associations altogether. Today, single and multiple piercing of either or both ears is common among Western women and somewhat common among men.

Piercing History

We are extremely grateful to the University of Pennsylvania for their research on the history of body piercing shown in the slideshow below.


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Male with pierced ear, Iraq, 9th century B.C.

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.

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Male with Multiple Ear Piercings - Suburban Philadelphia, 1998

Piercing has 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.

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Head of Female Figurine with holes for multiple ear piercings - Iran, 3500-2900 BC

While currently trendy, multiple piercings are nothing new: a 4000 year-old clay figurine with multiple-pierced ears!

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Gold Earrings - Cyprus, Late 4th-2nd Century BC

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) 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.

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Pierced Ears and Stretched Lobes - Borneo, 1988

This woman has earrings in her ears, and you can see that her earlobes are stretched from the weight of the earrings. This practice remains common today on the modern Asiatic island of Borneo.

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This statue is a good example of stretched earlobes. Throughout Asia, we can also find examples of stretched earlobes that come from wearing extremely heavy earrings.

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Other evidence of stretched lobes can be seen in details from a wall mural displayed in the Museum's Chinese Rotunda.

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Man with Nose, and Lip Piercings - Suburban Philadelphia, 1998

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?"

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Earplug and Ear-Spools - Guatemala, A.D. 900-1500

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. Carved from obsidian (a volcanic glass), they range in size from approximately one centimeter to an inch in diameter.

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Labret - Point Barrow, Alaska, 1897

Until the late 19th century, the Inuit of Alaska defined social status among groups by lip piercing. Both men and women wore lip-plugs, called labrets, such as this ivory. 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 Inuit boy had entered manhood. Inuit women usually wore only one central lip-plug as decoration; however, the highborn Tlingit girls wore a labret to indicate their noble social status.

Inuit 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.

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An Inuit 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.

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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.

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Uzma and her Nose Ring - Philadelphia, 1998

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.

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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.