Body modification is practised all over the world and plays an important part in many different cultures. Body piercings have not always been adorned with traditional types of jewellery and can be as varied as bone shards, feathers, rocks and other natural wonders. These adornments usually had symbolic meaning for the wearer, and had therefore been carefully chosen.
The history of body piercing
Body piercing as a form of body modification has a rich and varied history, although the history of some piercing styles is uncertain.
Because historians struggle to find primary examples of many piercing types due to the decay of the body after death, it is hard to know the exact history of piercings. However; historians have been able to find plenty of references in historic texts.
It is easiest to trace the history of ear piercings, because these piercings are the most likely to be on show or discussed in textual sources. A number of mummified bodies have been discovered with ear piercings, including the body of Ötzi the Iceman. Ötzi is estimated to have died about 5300 years ago.
References to earrings can also be seen in texts from many of the world’s ancient civilisations. All of the major settlers around the Mediterranean Basin were known to wear earrings of sorts, but earrings have also been found at grave sites in Russia and China dating back to 400 BCE. Earrings are also referenced in ancient Hindu texts which date back nearly 4000 years.
During the Middle Ages and the Elizabethan period, it was more common for men to wear earrings than it was for women to wear them. Some people believed a superstition that piercing one earlobe would help to improve their eyesight. Others thought that it would ward off evil spirits. Sailors often wore one earring as they thought that the jewellery could be used to pay for a Christian burial if they were shipwrecked and their body was washed ashore.
Historically, nose piercing is more frequently connected with cultures outside of Europe. There are some references to nose piercings in Hindu texts which date back to 1500 BCE. It is still customary for Hindu women to have their left nostril pierced once they are of childbearing age. This is due to the left nostril’s association with fertility and the female reproductive organs in some branches of alternative medicine.
Many North African and Middle Eastern tribal societies also practiced nose piercing as part of their heritage. These piercings would often be used to symbolise an event, such as reaching puberty.
Lip piercing also developed as a symbolic body modification or as a status symbol, rather than an aesthetic one. Examples of sculptures and statues with labrets (lower lip piercing) have been found dating back about 4000 years.
Lip plates and other lip stretching devices are also closely associated with standard styles of lip piercing. The size of the lip plates worn is representative of different things to different cultures. It is believed that lip stretching plates were independently “invented” by at least 6 separate unconnected cultures. For some people with tribal heritage, a subtle lip piercing is used as an alternative to traditional tribal lip modification.
The history of navel piercing is not commonly agreed upon, and many urban legends have sprung up surrounding the practice. It is widely reported that navel piercing was used by the ancient Egyptians as a symbol of royalty, however there is no historical basis in these stories Nonetheless, navel piercings (belly button piercings) are now one of the most popular types of piercing in the Western world.
Nipple and genital piercings
Nipple and genital piercings were historically associated with sexuality and gender, although the meanings of piercings vary from culture to culture. For example, illustrations of genital piercings for sexual pleasure can be found in the Kama Sutra, whereas tribesmen in Borneo were known to use piercings as a way to diminish their own sexual desires.
Although piercings became less popular in Europe and America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the1970s saw the emergence of various subcultures who embraced body piercings. The punk movement started to experiment with non-tradition adornments, such as spikes and safety pins. The symbolism of these items can be likened to the symbolism which can be seen in tribal piercings.
During the 1990’s piercings started to move into the mainstream again. Belly button piercings became hugely popular after a famous actress was shown having her navel pierced in an Aerosmith music video. This type of piercing was considered especially fashionable amongst teenage girls who were looking for a slightly risqué piercing that was easy to hide.
Fashions in piercing continue to change as specific piercings become more or less popular. Piercing experts continue to push the boundaries of piercing by developing new, interesting and unusual styles of piercing, as well as creating fascinating new piercing adornments.