Manchester Museum’s well-known ‘Two Brothers’ were recently the subject of DNA analysis using a Next Generation Sequencing technique, which demonstrated a genetic link between the two men through the maternal line – confirming the texts on their coffins naming a common mother, Khnum-aa. Like most such scientific analysis, however, the DNA results (‘facts’) do not act as a ‘magic wand’ to reveal everything about the Brothers; in fact very little can be ‘revealed’, despite the widespread appetite for revelation and discovery. Theories concerning the (social, personal) identities of the Two Brothers tell us perhaps more about our own interests and anxieties than about ancient people.
During the UK’s LGBT History Month, I would like to re-visit one theory that has gained (perhaps surprisingly) little traction among the museum-going public in metropolitan Manchester, and very little attention from Egyptologists. Gregory Reeder, an independent scholar based in the US, has written several articles about a pair of much earlier (twin?) “brothers” Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep – who are depicted in their joint Old Kingdom tomb chapel at Saqqara using iconographic conventions usually reserved for husband and wife (more on this below).
Reeder’s 2005 article in the American popular journal KMT takes up the subject of the “mysterious brothers” of Manchester Museum. In a valuably critical reappraisal of the details of the tomb group, Reeder suggests a close bond between Khnum-nakht (who died around 30-40 years of age) and Nakht-ankh (who died, possibly the following year, around 60 years of age). Both men claim to have a mother who was called Khnum-aa, and a father who was a district governor, although the 1908 autopsy of the brothers’ bodies showed differences considered strikingly different at the time. For Reeder the degree of difference “almost certainly rules out that they were blood relatives”, and he favours Rosalie David’s interpretation that one or both of the men was adopted into the family – a claim made several times in biographies of do-gooding contemporary governors.
Reeder also discusses the repeated assessment of Nakht-ankh’s skeleton as that of a eunuch. The unfortunate image conjured of the Oriental harem, and a modern equation with effeminacy, is, however, deserving of critique. The resulting impression of the “elderly eunuch” adopting “the much younger [“virile”, according to an 1910 anatomist] priest into his household” is evidence for Reeder (quoting David) of their “deep affection”.
To further illustrate this bond, Reeder cites the presence of a small statuette of each man in the coffin of the other. Reeder raises, but skirts around, the problematic (and persistent) theory that because the profiles of the statuettes of each man more resemble the skull of the other, they must be mislabelled. Aside from the sinister spectre of eugenics in this assessment, the implication that we must know better than the ancient Egyptians is laughable. For Reeder, the placement of the statuettes is meaningful and “subtly indicate(s) something about the relationship between the old eunuch and much younger priest.”
Here we must be cautious. Very few intact coffins from the Twelfth Dynasty survive to show how common such statuette placement was – but we do have cases where the statuettes of children are included deliberately in a parent’s coffin. To my mind, the (social, ritual) role of Khnum-nakht was most plausibly that of ‘son’ towards Nakht-ankh – the elder, and better-equipped (in materials terms, at least), half-brother.
Reeder, like many others, hoped that DNA might provide definitive proof. The recently-published evidence of a genetic link, confirming the stated familial relationship, does cast doubt on the implied idea of (quasi-)sexual intimacy between two unrelated men.
At a conference on Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt held at Swansea University in 2006, I particularly remember Richard Parkinson (formerly a curator at the British Museum and long-term advocate of LGBT visibility in museums, now Professor of Egyptology at Oxford) declaring that “as an out, gay Egyptologist,” while part of him wished to see the Old Kingdom “brothers” Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep as a same-sex couple, there simply wasn’t the evidence for it. As an out gay Egyptologist myself, I am inclined to agree with him.
The cultural construction of identities (especially of past cultures) is notoriously difficult to interpret, and previous interpretations seem bound to have favoured hetero-normative readings. In each case, we ought to acknowledge that any modern reading is contingent, and coloured by what we might hope to find.
3 responses to “Interpreting the Two Brothers (I): Alternative readings, brothers and lovers”
Thank you Dr. Price for your mention of my now 18 year old work
“The Eunuch & The Wab Priest: Another look at the mysterious Manchester Museum mummies, the so-called Two Brothers.”
I appreciate your comments, “In a valuably critical reappraisal of the details of the tomb group, Reeder suggests a close bond between Khnum-nakht …and Nakht-ankh. ”
Of course no matter how one interprets the physical remains of the two men I think you agree the evidence does indicate a close bond between them.
My only concern with your article is one of perception by the reader that most of the theories I discussed were unique to me.
I tried, in my two articles, about them and the objects associated with them, to report on the published works concerning them, all of which were written by Egyptologists working for the Manchester Museum where you are now curator of the Egyptian collection. It is a great story. Of course I offered my own commentary and some tentative conclusions based on what was published while being clear that DNA results were needed to clarify their genetic link if any.
It now appears that they have been genetically linked “through the maternal line” and I congratulate you and your team in this new analysis. I hope this is followed up by a discussion of the problematic wide seperation in years of their births from the same mother. Twenty to thirty years perhaps, in an age where life expectancy for women was about 30 years? https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/researchers-in-museums/2015/03/02/old-age-in-ancient-egypt/
“For Reeder the degree of difference ‘almost certainly rules out that they were blood relatives’, and he favours Rosalie David’s interpretation that one or both of the men was adopted into the family – a claim made several times in biographies of do-gooding contemporary governors.”
Again, this is not original to me but is from your predecessors at the museum.
“Reeder also discusses the repeated assessment of Nakht-ankh’s skeleton as that of a eunuch. The unfortunate image conjured of the Oriental harem, and a modern equation with effeminacy, is, however, deserving of critique. The resulting impression of the “elderly eunuch” adopting “the much younger [“virile”, according to an 1910 anatomist] priest into his household” is evidence for Reeder (quoting David) of their “deep affection”.
Whether or not the skeletal remains are to be interpreted as a eunuch is, as they say, beyond my job description. But it is important to note that this is the conclusion repeated again and again through the years by your former Keeper of Egyptology Dr. Rosalie David in her groundbreaking research and publications. Again your assessment of my reportage on the statues’ skull shapes and “mislabeling” of them is derived from the same publications mentioned above. Your comment “Aside from the sinister spectre of eugenics in this assessment” … leaves me bewildered? Would you mind explaining just what that means in relation to anything I have written? I do agree completely with your statement “…the implication that we must know better than the ancient Egyptians is laughable.” I would like to see a new analysis on their skeletal remains (perhaps one has been done?) to clarify this.
“Reeder, like many others, hoped that DNA might provide definitive proof. The recently-published evidence of a genetic link, confirming the stated familial relationship, does cast doubt on the implied idea of (quasi-)sexual intimacy between two unrelated men.”
Of course I would have no idea at all of any ” sexual intimacy between two unrelated men.” Deep affection and a close bonding of the two men, brothers or not, does not presuppose genital – sexual contact. I agree, to conclude that “tells us perhaps more about our own interests and anxieties than about ancient people.”
Please see my book review of Dr David’s The Two Brothers: Death and the Afterlife in Middle Kingdom Egypt for a fuller account of these statues and all the controversies about this wonderful tomb collection in the Manchester Museum.
Typo in my first sentence above. Should be 13 year old work instead of 18.
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