Short history of piercings

Body piercing has reached global popularity in the last few decades, but the practice itself is very old. Today it’s mostly about aesthetics and personal expression, but through history piercings were generally used for religious purposes, medical treatments and in various rituals in different cultures. The practice is at least 5 300 years old and we know that thanks to the mummy named Ötzi, who was found on the border between Italy and Austria in 1991, perfectly preserved in the cold of Alps. Ötzi lived around 3300 BC and his well preserved body has tattoos and stretched earlobes.

Ötzi the Iceman

Ear piercing

Ear piercing is probably the oldest type. Aforementioned discovery in Alps indicates already developed culture of ear piercing in the 4th millennia BC. We can see evidence of the practice in Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Mesoamerica, all over the world basically.  Primitive tribes used earrings as protection, as they believed that metal repels demons and other maleficent supernatural beings. In Ancient Rome they were a status symbol; Julius Caesar himself revamped the style with intricate and luxurious rings and the trend gained a lot of popularity among men.
Between 4th and 16th century in Europe fashion trends included covering ears in some way, so the practice was rare. It gained popularity again during the Renaissance mostly among nobles, but common men too. There was a popular superstition that piercing one ear improved long-distance eyesight, so the practice was common among sailors and explorers. Sailors also wore earrings to pay for proper funeral in case they died at sea and washed up on shore.
Piercing ears was a tradition for Ainu men and women, until Japanese government made it illegal in the late 19th century. In the West, ear piercing gained widespread popularity in the middle of the previous century and after that we can see it becoming a regular thing.
Earrings have always been a status symbol, in one way or the other, but we can see evolution of styles and purposes through time, today having the most variety and taking form of self expression.

The Chandos Portrait
of William Shakespeare by John Taylor

Lip piercing

Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark influenced a widespread trend at the beginning of this millennium – lip piercing. Roots of this trend are far more extreme than the small, subtle gemstone sitting few centimeters above the upper lip. First evidence of lip piercing and lip stretching can be seen in certain tribes from Africa and the Americas. Plugs and plates were found in South America, Africa and the Pacific Northwest. Aztecs and Mayans wore lip piercings or labrets, and ritually pierced their tongues. One of the religious rituals included piercing the tongue with thorns, collecting blood on bark and burning it, to honor the gods. Similar practice can be also seen in some Islamic religious rituals.

Amy rocking the Monroe piercing

Nose piercing

First mentioned nose piercings come from the Vedas, referring to Lakshmi’s nose piercings around 1500 BC. Women of childbearing age in India traditionally wear a nose stud in the left nostril, as it is believed that it can reduce the pain from menstruation and childbirth. Nose piercing was a common practice in Middle Eastern and Arab countries, and still is.
Septum piercing was popular among the Aztecs and Mayans (for adornment), tribes of New Guinea (sign of manliness and strength), many Native American and Alaskan tribes too.

photo by Tanja Heffner

Navel piercing

Some sources indicate that navel piercings were popular in Ancient Egypt, but there are no official records to support that claim, so we can say that it’s a modern invention.
Rise of the Bikini in 50s brought a revolution in fashion and uncovered female body. Since then, navel piercings started emerging and its popularity skyrocketed after Madonna launched the trend in the 80s. Elite fashion models in London accepted the trend in the 90s, and showed off their adorned navels on runways.
Navel is known as an erogenous zone, so the main gist of piercing it was sex appeal and to accentuate the feminine. You can probably see some guy rocking this piercing, but the practice is still more popular among women.

Nipple and genital piercings

Nipple and genital piercings had their ups and downs in popularity through history.
It seems that in Ancient Rome practice of nipple piercing was common among soldiers and used as a sign of masculinity. In centuries to come it gained more popularity amongst ladies. In the 14th century, Queen Isabella of France made fashionable dresses with very, very low necklines, often exposing the breasts, and nipple piercings were used as jewelry to match the dress. Another short emergence of nipple piercing as “bosom ring” was at the end of 19th century in France, mostly among ladies of upper class.
On the other hand, genital piercing was generally practiced by men. In Ancient Greece athletes and slaves had pierced foreskins to prevent them from having sex or getting sexually aroused. Kama Sutra describes inserting pins in the foreskin as a way to enhance arousal during sex.
There are various types of genital piercing (especially of male genitalia) and most of them stem from older practices. As it took time for men to find it, clitoral piercings are a relatively new practice, emerging in the 19th century along with reinvention of nipple piercings.

Today we have a big variety of different piercings making this classification look stern. The old practices evolved with time and gained new characteristics. Becoming so widespread and socially acceptable, piercings really experienced Renaissance in modern age. The peak is yet to come, and new history of piercings will be written soon.