On a microscopic level, the epidermal elevations formed in the skin at the fingertips and on the palms of every human being look like canyons – a maze of ridges and curving valleys that follow each other in endless patterns of whorls and loops. What is fascinating is that this complex organ – the skin – has other properties which protect the marks left after an impression is made. There are tiny sweat glands which keep the skin moist. These glands secrete a water-based oil solution that coats the ridges and when the skin makes contact with a surface, a residue is left behind which matches the pattern of the digit that left them. Viola! Now you’re identifying prints.
A pottery class to a Nature paper: the story of Henry Faulds.
It was a missionary doctor, doing amateur archeological research in Japan, who realized that fingerprints could be used to identify a criminal. In 1870, Henry Faulds became intrigued by ceramic shards that contained delicate fingerprints that had been imprinted on the pottery by ancient artists. Examining his own fingertips for the first time, and comparing them to those of other people on the team, he realized that each person had unique patterns.
This insight came in handy shortly thereafter. After the hospital where Faulds worked was broken into, the local police arrested a staff member, whom Faulds believed to be innocent. He investigated the crime scene and discovered fingerprints. Comparing them to the suspect as well as others who had access to the site, as well as the suspect and finding no match, he was able to persuade the police to release the suspect.
Faulds continued his research and ultimately published the first paper on fingerprint analysis in the scientific journal Nature in 1880 entitled “On the skin-furrows of the hand”.
The great whorl of China.
The Chinese made extensive use of fingerprints for a variety of reasons. By 246 BC, official contracts between two parties were sealed with clay seals and impressed with fingerprints from each person. During the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) records have been discovered that showed that law officials would take hand prints and foot prints from a crime scene and match them with impressions made of hands and feet of those they suspected.
During the Tang Dynasty (619-907 AD), fingerprints were used as identification marks on seals for official documents. Around 851 AD, Abu Zayd, an Arab trader witnessed Chinese merchants using fingerprints to authenticate loans. During the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), fingerprints were marked in ink on paper scrolls to validate them.
The Chinese novelist Shi-Naingan in 1100 AD described the fingerprinting process in his book The Story of the River Bank. In it, his detective, Wu Sung captured two sisters who were accused of murder: “He compelled them to ink their fingers to record their fingerprints”.
Egypt, Greece and Persia: prints across the ancient world.
Fingerprints have been found intentionally used on Babylonian clay tablets, pottery and clay seals. Fingerprints mark the walls of Egyptian tombs, as well as pottery from Minoan and Greek archeological sites. The Persian physician Rashideddin in the 13th century was influenced by the Chinese, commenting that “experience shows that no two individuals have fingers exactly alike”. It is believed that the Persians adopted the practice of authenticating government documents with thumbprints.
One of the thrills of discovering fingerprints on ancient artifacts is that they change the status of an object and help us realize a connection with our ancestors. Observing some of the pots collected from the fourth century BC pottery workshop at Metaponto connects one to the late Roman culture, but putting one’s finger on a fingerprint in the glaze of one of the pots connects us to the individual artist. Holding the same vessel in your hands, millennia after the artist marked it and fired it and put it in use is a thrill that can be experienced. So far, the fingerprints of four different craftsmen have been identified on 125 pots from that workshop dig.
Fingerprints also have been successfully used to discover characteristics about the artisans themselves. By understanding how fingers age, this provides clues as to the age of the potters or even the gender. There is even proof that children worked alongside adults both from Viking sites in Scandinavia and in the Bronze Age sites along the Mediterranean.
Working across borders: cross-disciplinary studies.
The study of ancient fingerprints, however, is multi-disciplinary. It is of interest to archeologists, biologists, chemists and criminal forensic scientists. Therefore, the documentation is spread out over the multiple disciplines, without procedures for collaboration. But the science does bleed into adjacent areas, and the studies made using funding by law enforcement and government agencies benefits the study of the ancient artifacts marked with human imprints.
Your Turn: Have you heard of ancient fingerprints showing up in any other corner of the world we’ve left behind? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.