Egypt’s queer history

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In 1964, archaeologists in Egypt opened the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, two men who lived and died sometime around the year 2380 BCE. Inside, they would discover what might be the oldest evidence of queer lives in existence.

In the tomb, the two were depicted in many of the stereotypical ways that heterosexual couples were shown in Egyptian funereal art: kissing nose-to-nose, holding hands, and standing very closely together, almost in an embrace. Their wives (and children) are also depicted in the tombs, though curiously, there are no paintings of either man embracing or kissing their wife.

If a man and a woman were depicted in this way, they would obviously be interpreted as a couple. And so, faced with all this evidence, archaeologists leapt to the conclusion that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were… brothers — really, really close brothers. Possibly even conjoined twins (not that they are depicted as conjoined in the tomb at all — in fact, they are often depicted separately).

Jacklyn Lacey, who specializes in African Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History, is unsurprised about these interpretations. I can almost hear her eyes roll over the phone as she talks about the long history within the field of archaeology — “a discipline that has reproduced itself through the colonialist white male lens,” she says — of “explaining away things that appear queer.”

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