Tag Archives: Two Brothers

Interpreting the Two Brothers (I): Alternative readings, brothers and lovers

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.

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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).

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Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep from the 5th Dynasty tomb at Saqqara

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”.

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Statuettes of the Manchester ‘Two Brothers’ found in the coffins

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.

 

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DNA confirms the Two Brothers’ relationship

Using ‘next generation’ DNA sequencing, scientists at the University of Manchester have confirmed a long-held supposition that the famous ‘Two Brothers’ of the Manchester Museum have a shared mother but different fathers – so are, in fact, half-brothers. This is the first in a series of blog posts presenting the DNA results, and discussing the interpretation and display of the Brothers in Manchester.

 

The ‘Two Brothers’ are among Manchester Museum’s most famous inhabitants. The complete contents of their joint burial forms one of the Museum’s key Egyptology exhibits, which have been on almost continuous display since they were first entered the Museum in 1908.

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The Two Brothers’ inner coffins: Khnum-nakht (left) and Nakht-ankh (right), 2011

Central to public (and academic) interest have been the mummified bodies of the men themselves – Khnum-nakht and Nakht-ankh – who lived around the middle of the 12th Dynasty, c. 1900-1800 BC. Their intact tomb was discovered at Deir Rifeh, a village 250 miles south of Cairo, in 1907 by an Egyptian workman called Erfai – a rare case where the non-European discoverer is named. He was working for Ernest MacKay and Flinders Petrie, the British archaeologists who wrote the reports and the names people usually remember. Unusually, the entire contents of the tomb – mummies, coffins, and a small number of other objects – were shipped to Manchester, rather than being divided among different international museum collections as was usually the case.

Once in Manchester, in 1908, the mummies of both men were unwrapped by the UK’s first female Egyptologist employed by a University, Dr Margaret Murray. This procedure, which mixed both science and spectacle, set the tone for more than a century’s worth of scientific investigation, exploiting the intact ‘time capsule’-like nature of the burial.

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Margaret Murray and team with the remains of Nakht-ankh, 1908

Murray’s team –namely Dr John Cameron, an anatomist – concluded that the skeletal morphologies were quite different, suggesting an absence of a biological relationship. Although notoriously difficult to age such skeletal remains, the team suggested that Khnum-nakht had been around 40 years of age when he died and that Nakht-ankh had died at around the age of 60, perhaps around a year later than Khnum-nakht (based on year dates inked onto the bandages of both mummies).

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Margaret Murray’s original publication of the tomb group

Hieroglyphic inscriptions on the coffins indicated that both men were the children of an unnamed local governor (thus, they were of the elite in society) and had a mother of the same name, Khnum-aa. It was thus that the men became known as the Two Brothers. Based on contemporary inscriptional evidence, it was proposed that one (or both) of the Brothers was adopted. Up until recently previous attempts to extract and analyse DNA from the Brothers’ remains had been inconclusive.

Therefore, in 2015, the DNA was extracted from the teeth, removed by Dr Roger Forshaw, a retired dentist, and analysed by Dr Konstantina Drosou, of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester. Following hybridization capture of the mitochondrial and Y chromosome fractions, the DNA was sequenced by a next generation method. Analysis showed that both Nakht-ankh and Khnum-nakht belonged to mitochondrial haplotype M1a1, suggesting a maternal relationship. The Y chromosome sequences were less complete but showed variations between the two mummies, indicating that Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht had different fathers, and were thus very likely to have been half-brothers genetically.

The study, which is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, is the first to successfully use the typing of both mitochondrial and Y chromosomal DNA in Egyptian mummies.

 

The Brothers pose a number of questions of interpretation, which – despite much interest in them – have not been fully explored. Some of the issues concerning their display and interpretation will be examined over the coming weeks on this blog.

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Curator’s Diary 6/3/12: Mummies on the Move!

Coffin lid of Khary (Acc. no. 9354b) being removed from the old Afterlife gallery

Coffin lid of Khary (Acc. no. 9354b) being removed from the old Afterlife gallery

Yesterday saw the latest phase of clearing – or ‘decanting’ – the Egyptian afterlife gallery in preparation for building work to begin on the new Ancient Worlds Galleries. This was the first time some of the mummies have been moved in over 30 years. A skilled team of movers and conservators ensured that each was carefully transferred to a temporary storage space to await conservation.

Among the travellers was Khary, a priest at the temple of Karnak during the Late Period (c. 750-330 BC), and his brightly painted coffin (Acc. no. 9354a-b). Both were purchased in Egypt in the late 19th Century, and arrived in Manchester via the Ship Canal in 1893. They were donated to the museum in 1935. Moving Khary afforded an opportunity to examine at close quarters his carefully wrapped body and brightly painted coffin. Although most of the mummies will not be put on display in the new galleries, improved storage will make access to them easier for researchers – who previously could only peer into a dimly-lit display case or had to rely on archive photographs. Because they do not add significantly to our understanding of funerary beliefs, the skeletal remains of the Two Brothers will also be moved into storage, where their condition can be more closely monitored while being accessible to researchers.

Conservator Jenny Discombe transfers Khary into storage

Conservator Jenny Discombe transfers Khary into storage

Two Graeco-Roman mummies (Acc. no.s 1767 and 1768) – still wrapped, with their portrait panels in place – will be displayed together with our superb collection of ‘Faiyum portraits’ in a dedicated space, where Asru is located now. This will be particularly exciting, because for the first time in many years visitors will be able to see the finely-painted faces of these men, which previously were difficult to view because of the arrangement of the old gallery.

Part of the new displays will also highlight the role women played in Egyptian religious practice, focusing on the life of Asru, a temple singer in the 25th-26th Dynasty (c. 750-525 BC) and a firm favourite in the museum. Her well-preserved body is an excellent example of mummification. This process – along with how modern techniques help us understand ancient disease – will be explained in both printed and digital media beside her mummy and coffins.

Graeco-Roman mummy of a man (Acc. no. 1767) is placed into temporary storage to await confervation before redisplay

Graeco-Roman mummy of a man (Acc. no. 1767) is placed into temporary storage to await conservation before redisplay

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