On the 28th of February, the Petrie Museum hosted a special event, Objects of Desire. February is LGBTQ History Month so this post is a little late but the event was a lot of fun so well worth a review. Objects of Desire is an annual event hosted by the Egyptologist and former Vice-Chair of the Egypt Exploration Society John J Johnston. This year, Johnston was joined by concert pianist Tyler Hay, UCL academic Dr Xine Yao, V&A Ambassador Dan Vo, author Chris McCrudden, and myself as we all shared objects within the museum that we felt were connected to the LGBTQ+ community.
There aren’t many objects that explicitly show evidence of modern day LGBTQ+ identities and relationships in Ancient Egypt and even fewer that have been catalogued as doing so. But there were several objects that the speakers had personal connections with, or that facilitated a conversation about, some famous LGBTQ+ figures.
Dr Xine Yao used the sarcophagi to talk about 19th-Century mummy fiction, which led to a conversation about her research on the LGBTQ+ community and tarot reading. Tyler Hay chatted about the Pharaoh Hatshepsut who is immortalised in name and image on dozens of small amulets and similar objects in the collection. Hapshepsut is recognised as the second female pharaoh and reigned for approximately 21 years in the 15thC BC. Statues and paintings record Hapshepsut wearing what was essentially the uniform of the pharaohs right down to the false beard; however, other images depict also wearing clothing more typically associated with women.
Not everyone, in fairness, was able to choose an object from the museum. Dan Vo spoke about Antinous, a Greek who came to Ancient Egypt with his lover, the Roman emperor Hadrian. Antinous famously died in the Nile under mysterious circumstances and was deified after death. He has been the subject of many sculptures as he was famed for his beauty. Another iconic symbol of LGBTQ+ relationships (not in the Petrie collection) is the tomb of Niankhnumn and Khnumnhotep which was discussed by Chris McCrudden. This is the tomb of two men considered to be joint overseers of the manicurists to King Nyuserre (who ruled in the 25thC BC). Niankhnumn and Khnumnhotep’s tomb is decorated with images of them embracing and otherwise depicted using iconography usually reserved for married couples.
I chose to talk about the pot burial in the museum. This is one of the top ten objects at the museum and so I was surprised that none of the other speakers wanted to discuss it. The pot burial was found by archaeologist Ali Suefi and contains human remains of someone thought to be from the earliest farming community in Middle Egypt. The person they belong to is thought to have lived around 6,000 years ago in the village of Badari. I chose this object because, when the remains were first found in 1923 they were thought to have belonged to a woman; however, the gynaecologist Mark argued in an assessment in 1995 that the skeleton belonged to a man who was over 6ft tall.
We know very little else about this person – they were buried in a pot but either were not buried with any belongings or those belongings have not survived. As such, how this person lived their life and how they expressed themselves is not known. Some people may feel that understanding the sex of the skeleton gives us a small piece of information about who they were. However, I personally feel that guessing the sex of their skeleton can’t tell us about their gender, if they had one. Similarly, I don’t think we can assume that Hapshepsut was a woman who adopted men’s clothing in order to fulfil the role of pharaoh. Instead, they may have chosen that clothing because they saw themselves as a man or had a fluid gender expression.
So often, we impose our ideas of the gender binary on historical figures (recent and ancient) and this may erase the experiences of trans, intersex, and other non-cisgendered people. Just as many historians still argue that Niankhnumn and Khnumnhotep were just good friends, brothers or business partners rather than accepting them as lovers. The Objects of Desire event provided a great space to challenge the absence of LGBTQ+ stories in the collection and argue that this absence has been created because of the way that we record history.