To most people there are few ideas more repugnant than that of disturbing the dead. To open graves, to remove all the objects placed there by loving hands, and to unroll and investigate the bodies seems to many minds not merely repulsive but bordering on sacrilege … To such people I have nothing to say. Their objections, their opinions even – are an offence to science (Murray, 1910, p. 7).

Reviewing the British Museum’s 2014 ‘Ancient Lives’ exhibition, an article for The Independent newspaper entitled ‘Egyptian mummies: Science or sacrilege?’ describes ‘a shocking photograph of an Egyptian mummy unwrapped’ (Pilger, 2014). That same photograph is the single most requested image from the archives of Manchester Museum’s Egyptology collection. Rather stiffly posed, it was taken on 6th May 1908 and shows Margaret Murray at the final stage of unwrapping the mummified remains of a man named Khnum-nakht (Figure 1). This iconic snapshot has been used to illustrate countless descriptions of a female pioneer in archaeology, supposedly marking a fundamental shift from whimsical mummy ‘unrollings’ to the practice of scientific ‘mummy studies.’

Figure 1
figure 1

Final stages of the unwrapping of the mummy of Khnum-nakht, 6th May 1908 (l–r): Mr. R. Standen, Miss H. Davies, Miss M. Murray, Mr. J. Wilfred Jackson

Yet the photograph has much to say about the construction and practice of the discipline of Egyptology. The subject—lying prone on the bench—is one of the so-called ‘Two Brothers’, two wealthy men from Deir Rifeh in Middle Egypt, who had lived during the mid-late 12th Dynasty (c. 1850 bce) and been buried in a single tomb chamber. Their remains, once carefully cocooned within many layers of linen and fine coffins, continue to be associated with the appliance of science in Egyptology.

How the intact tomb group came to be in Manchester and how it has been interpreted since it got there offers a case study in the negotiation, construction, and performance of Egyptology, generating foundational myths that practitioners continue to tell ourselves and our audiences. Adopting a postcolonial lens, it is instructive to revisit the (often celebratory or apparently straightforward) archival materials surrounding a find, its display and interpretation, while resisting the temptation to claim greater accuracy regarding aspects of the archaeological remains than previously offered. Investigation of the ‘Brothers’ has attended closely to their mortal remains, and it is this focus that the present contribution seeks in part to de-center.

Writing as an Egyptology practitioner myself, I acknowledge the contingency of my own readings and aim to avoid a simplified or essentialised interpretation that assumes everything done in the past to have been misguided. This discussion is intended as part of a critical re-examination by Manchester Museum, and others, of that institution’s history and practices, and forms a part of a wider reassessment of the ‘Two Brothers’ tomb group.


In January 1907, the self-taught British archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853–1942) attended a celebration in Cairo in honor of Evelyn Baring, by then styled the Earl of Cromer, the retiring British Consul-General in Egypt. Cromer was well aware of the strategic importance of archaeology (Gange, 2013, p. 276) and was patron of Petrie’s British School of Archaeology in Egypt. While only an aside in Petrie’s autobiography (Petrie, 1931, p. 206; cf. Said, 2003, p. 35) and not mentioned in his formal excavation reports, this event subtly suggests the fundamental colonial networks that enabled Petrie’s expansive archaeological fieldwork, a reminder that the discipline of Egyptology was firmly entrenched within its Imperial political context (e.g. Carruthers, 2015, pp. 1–18).

Slightly later in 1907, Petrie moved his Egyptian team to the relatively little-worked site of Deir Rifeh, where he was partially deputised by Ernest Mackay, a student of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt (Bierbrier, 2012, p. 348). Here occurred a relatively rare case when the Egyptian find-maker is specifically mentioned by name—as a man called Erfai—although not in the official excavation report, only in Petrie’s autobiography (1931, pp. 151–152).

Erfai’s discovery consisted of a small chamber under the courtyard in front of a much more impressive tomb chapel. The room contained the mummified bodies of two men—named in inscriptions as Nakht-ankh and Khnum-nakht—each within an inner and an outer coffin, which also contained two wooden statuettes of Nakht-ankh and one of Khnum-nakht. There was also a canopic box (inscribed for Nakht-ankh), two wooden boat models, and two wooden statuettes of female servants (unusually, they were named specifically, as Iki and Ir), along with two pottery vessels with botanical remains (Petrie, 1907a pl. 10A–E; Murray, 1910, pp. 11–18). In their coffin inscriptions, both men are said to have been born of a woman named Khnum-aa and to be the sons (or, in Khnum-nakht’s case, also a grandson) of an unnamed elite official.

By the time they reached Manchester they were styled the ‘Two Brothers’. In the excavation report Petrie describes the group collectively as ‘the tomb of Nekhtankh son of Aa-khnumu’, stating that the ‘second coffin and body coffin are much inferior, and are for the brother, Nekht [sic]’ (Petrie, 1907a, p. 12). In the report’s greyscale illustrations, the disparity between the colouring of the two coffin faces (1907a, pl. 10B) is not so apparent as in later colour images (Figure 2) and in his commentary Petrie does not mention the distinction. Nor is comment made about the placement or identity of the ‘two figures of the deceased’ and the statuettes are not identified by name in the accompanying plate (1907a, pl. 10E).

Figure 2
figure 2

Inner coffins of Khnum-nakht (left) and Nakht-ankh (right)

The tomb group was a rich prize for Manchester—and several press accounts imply its direct transport there from Egypt. However, as was usual, all exported finds from the season were first shown in an exhibition, at University College London in July 1907. Such annual exhibitions foregrounded the ‘science’ of archaeological process (Thornton, 2015, p. 2), and proved popular with a relatively wide, interested public. The brief Rifeh exhibition catalogue describes only the inner coffin of Nakht-ankh as ‘standing upright’ in a glass case—the wrapped body placed in the box coffin (Petrie, 1907b). However, the coffins (and mummified remains) of Khnum-nakht are not mentioned specifically, although Murray (1910, p. 59) speculated that damage sustained to the mummified body of Khnum-nakht ‘probably’ occurred at the London exhibition.

The precise mechanisms by which the tomb group came to be sent to Manchester are not clear. The assemblage has been described as exceptionally fine for the period (e.g. Drower 1995, p. 306). The French head of the Antiquities Service, Anglophile Gaston Maspero, seems to have been friendly with Petrie; it had been these two European men who had come up with the ‘partage’ or ‘finds division’ system in the 1880s (Petrie, 1931, pp. 123–124; Stevenson et al., 2016, p. 5), though which excavators might keep a portion of finds. Maspero was known to be ‘generous to a fault’ in his divisions, allowing several pieces and groups to leave Egypt that might otherwise have been retained (Thompson, 2018, p. 80).

Importantly, Petrie was conscious of the growing interest and potential future sponsorship at Manchester (Alberti, 2007, p. 136), and anticipated the high costs of his next season, at Memphis, associated with leasing land and pumping water (Challis, 2013, p. 209; Bagh, 2011, p. 25). Although Petrie himself fought against the perception that subscriptions were ‘mere purchase money’ (Stevenson, 2019, p. 223), distribution of finds represented—in a very real sense—a return on subscribers’ investments (Thornton, 2015, p. 4) and the language of the press accounts of the Manchester-bound Rifeh find colludes with this notion, as well as asserting a certain civic pride in the ‘coup’ of having secured the group.

Upon arrival in Manchester in late Summer 1907, the Museum’s Committee Minutes record that the tomb group was initially placed on display in the Zoology Department (Alberti, 2007, p. 137). That it was possible, at least when the group first arrived in Manchester, to view the mummified remains prior to their unwrapping is indicated by a press report of October 1907: ‘One can gaze upon the very cerements that wrap the mummied bodies of these fabulously aristocratic brothers and even catch a glimpse of the earthly remains themselves’ (Sheppard, 2013, p. 126).

Margaret Murray: Meditating Knowledge

The arrival at Manchester of the Rifeh objects coincided with the secondment there of Egyptologist Margaret Alice Murray (1863–1963). Born to English parents in Calcutta and initially trained there to be a nurse, she was unable to qualify in England due to her slight stature (Bierbrier, 2012, p. 393; Murray, 1963, p. 85). Murray joined University College London—one of the only higher education institutions to admit female students—in 1894 to study with Petrie. Proving adept at both the Egyptian language and at research tasks he assigned to her, Murray began teaching elementary hieroglyphs classes and took up broader teaching responsibilities when Petrie was in the field.

In 1907, Murray was seconded to Owens College in Manchester, where both she and Agnes Griffiths worked on cataloguing the growing Egyptian collection, and she gave a series of lectures which ‘did much to stimulate interest in Egyptology in Manchester’ (Canney, 1933, p. 29). It has been (erroneously) claimed or implied that Murray was the first curator of the Egyptology collection at Manchester (e.g. Drower, 1985, p. 323). In fact, she acted only as a mentor to Assistant Keeper Winifred Crompton (Sheppard, 2013, pp. 125–127) and was never a full member of museum staff herself.

Murray once wrote (1903, p. 11) that ‘mummies are not … of great interest themselves as a rule – it is the objects found with them that are of so much importance’ yet she was well aware of the power of the ‘mummy’s curse’ upon a credulous audience. In her autobiography, she admits to telling mummy tales for spine-chilling effect, even claiming (1963, pp. 176–178) that she invented (or at least embellished) the tale of the British Museum’s ‘unlucky mummy’—in fact a painted wooden mummy board (EA 22542)—to a believer in the occult over lunch one day. Although Murray claimed to have done this to ‘make a strong protest against the absurd stories of the occult practices of Egyptian objects as well as the wild tales of curses’ (Murray, 1963, p. 178), as Luckhurst (2012, p. 41) observes, curse rumors have a habit of readily incorporating their negations; by exaggerating the story in jest Murray may actually have ensured its potency. Existing superstitions surrounding the so-called ‘unlucky mummy’ were dismissed by Murray as ‘a very interesting study in mass-psychology’ (1963, p. 176) but, in her view, an earnest belief in the occult ‘especially in the wickedness of Egyptian mummies’ required an academic antidote.

Murray had an obvious interest to purify Egyptology’s ‘science’ from the popularising influence of low culture—to ensure ‘the unreason of Egyptomania [did] not contaminate the rationality of Egyptology’ (Colla, 2007, p. 179; cf. Carruthers, 2015, pp. 3–7). The unwrapping of the intact mummies from Rifeh provided Murray with the ideal stage to demonstrate the distinction.

It is unclear at which point, or at whose suggestion, the unwrapping would take place. Doubtless Murray herself could anticipate the impact of such a performance. In the introduction to her popular book Ancient Egyptian Legends (Murray, 1913), Murray laments of ‘the general public, who are increasingly interested in the religion and civilization of ancient Egypt, but whose only means of obtaining knowledge of that country is apparently through magazine stories in which a mummy is the principal character’ (Sheppard, 2013, p. 123). This acknowledgement of the popular interest in aspects of ancient Egypt presented a series of misconceptions against which Murray would define her practice.

In evaluating her career, Margaret Murray’s status as a ‘trowelblazer’ (Herridge, 2016) and suffragist has tended to place her beyond reproach (Whitehouse, 2013; Sheppard, 2013), but her interests and outlook should be scrutinised as one would any historical figure, without special pleading. Petrie’s laudatory moniker as ‘Father of Egyptian Archaeology’, has been questioned in light of his eugenicist and racist theories (Stevenson, 2019, p. 32; Challis, 2013; Price, 2020, pp. 193–194). Murray closely identified herself as Petrie’s student and followed Petrie’s pseudo-diffusionist ideas (Challis, 2013, pp. 227–231), and even retained Petrie’s own craniometer, which he used to measure skulls in the field (Challis, 2013, pp. 67–68). This was not particularly unusual at the time, as craniometry was a standard ‘scientific’ technique in the early 12th Century (Challis, 2016), but it sets the context in which the unwrapping and examination of the ‘Two Brothers’ would be undertaken.

Framed in a positivist perspective, ‘Murray did not see [interest in Pharaonic Egypt] as a curse, but as an opportunity to engage the public in the truth through introducing them to rigorous scientific investigation’ (Sheppard, 2013, p. 124)—but the rigor of those techniques have rarely been subject to detailed critique. It is noteworthy that in her autobiography Murray makes no acknowledgement of the famous unwrapping, nor makes any mention of Manchester. She was, it seems, of greater significance to Manchester’s story of itself than Manchester was to her own.

Experiment and Exposure

Murray contrasted her own procedure with ‘unscientific’ popular unrollings, which had themselves asserted a relative ‘scientific’ value in their own time. Murray was, however, part of a tradition stretching back to the late 1700s (Moshenska, 2013), although often described as an innovator. The unwrapping of the ‘Two Brothers’ is described as an ‘experiment’ in several contemporary press accounts, and the use of that term for the procedure—as actively pushing the bounds of modern science—may have held a particular resonance for readers of contemporary Gothic literature.

In Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, the ‘unrolling’ of the mummified body of the malign Queen Tera forms the core of the ‘Great Experiment’ in which an attempt is made to reanimate the dead queen (Stoker, 2008 [1903], pp. 245–250). Once revealed, her flesh is preternaturally supple and life-like. Accused of voyeurism, the chief Egyptologist character defends the decision to expose her for the wider knowledge gained:

We are all grave men, entering gravely on an experiment which may unfold the wisdom of old times, and enlarge human knowledge indefinitely; which may put the minds of men on new tracks of thought and research (Stoker 2008 [1903], p. 237).

As Bridges (2008, pp. 147–148) contends, Stoker’s novel itself reflects and critiques contemporary Egyptological practices of displaying and consuming mummies. In Stoker’s tale, science can actively test belief. In the words of one character, ‘the experiment which is before us is to try whether or no there is any force, any reality, in the old Magic’ (Bridges, 2008, p. 172). The fact that new X-ray technology is elsewhere mentioned but not employed in Stoker’s narrative has been taken to illustrate the ‘scientific shortsightedness’ of the archaeologist Trelawny in the novel (Senf, 2002, p. 81), which—uncharacteristically for Stoker’s fiction—is pessimistic about the advances of modern man’s ability to control and to categorise nature, and in which science is ultimately unsuccessful.

For Murray’s procedure, physical unwrapping was not necessarily a foregone conclusion. X-rays had been discovered in 1895 by German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen and Petrie had employed them to study mummified remains at Deshasheh in 1897 (Petrie, 1898). Grafton Elliot Smith, who was appointed Professor of Anatomy at Manchester in 1909, took a mummified body believed to be King Tuthmose IV to be X-rayed by an Egyptian clinician—Dr Khayat—in Cairo in 1903 (Smith, 1912, p. 45). Elsewhere, the Italian archaeologist Ernesto Schiaparelli anticipated the development of X-ray technology in 1906, and therefore deliberately decided not to unwrap the mummies of Kha and Merit in Turin (P. Piacentini, pers comm).

While the realms of ‘science’ and ‘the occult’ are inextricably blurred in Stoker’s Jewel (Senf, 2002, p. 80), in attempting a clear division of the two Murray stopped short of employing the latest techniques, which—had they been used—would have been rather less performative. For her, any objections to a physical unwrapping were superstitious, and offensive to science.

‘Skilful desecration’: A Public Unwrapping

The unwrapping was advertised at least two days prior to the event in a column in the Manchester Evening Chronicle of 4th May 1908. The newspaper carries an apparently open invitation:

The Chairman and Committee of the Manchester Museum request the pleasure of your company at the unrolling of the Mummy of Khnuma Nekht of the XIIth Dynasty on Wednesday May 6th at 2–30 PM.

The description that follows is said to be based upon an in-person interview with Murray, but the anticipation of the ‘eerie ceremony’ deploys tropes and embellishments typical of the popular print media. It is stated that the ‘princely brothers’ had been buried in a ‘goregous(sic) tomb,’ accompanied by:

all the customary weird rites and ceremonies of their people. Probably they were embalmed, at any rate they were put in mummy cases on which were written grotesque hieroglyphs telling that the persons inside were “sons and grandsons of princes” and cataloguing all the comforts which it was desired their Ka (spirits) should meet with in there hereafter.

The article concludes on a note of sombre regret, implying scepticism towards the outcome of the ‘novel ceremony’:

Alas for human hopes and conceits they have come to smoky, bustling Manchester to be disintegrated and discussed by the eager students of a subsequent civilisation. It is good that the princely brothers will never know their fate.

This attitude is amplified in a direct letter of protest ‘against the desecration of graves’, printed three days after the public unwrapping in the Daily Dispatch, which shows particular awareness of the sensitivities surrounding ‘the spoliation of the graves of the Eastern dead’ in contemporary Morocco and elsewhere. The same sentiments are echoed throughout several accounts of the unwrapping and find poetic expression in one rueful ditty, published on the 8th May 1908 (quoted in Sheppard, 2013, p. 128):

You went to sleep, poor lump of clay,

Beneath old Egypt’s silent skies;

And now we wake you up to-day

To gaze on you with morbid eyes;

When science says ‘Just take a peep,’

I s’pose one cannot well object,

And yet – they might have let you sleep.

Khnumu Nekht!

These perspectives are important because they demonstrate a subversion of the dominant narrative, and indicate active scepticism towards ‘scientific’ attempts to analyse evidence and the decision to unwrap the mummies. Perhaps this was one reason why Murray felt she had to call out objectors in her 1910 publication.

One of those likely to have been present on the day was Jesse Haworth, a wealthy cotton merchant and major beneficiary to Egyptology at Manchester, particularly to Petrie’s excavations (Price, 2020, pp. 30–40). Haworth was the founding President of the Manchester Egyptian and Oriental Society between 1906 and 1908, and it was likely this organisation that helped arrange the event (Sheppard, 2013, p. 126). It can be no coincidence that shortly after the unwrapping, having formally considered disposing of Egyptian collections in 1892, the Museum was able to fundraise for a new extension exclusively dedicated to Egyptology, mainly funded by Haworth and opened in 1912 (Alberti, 2009, pp. 68–69; Price, 2020, p. 46). The ‘Two Brothers’ tomb group was central to the new building (Figure 3), and Murray’s performance had clearly galvanised support for its construction.

Figure 3
figure 3

Egyptian gallery, Manchester Museum, c. 1913. The ‘Two Brothers’ tomb group is in the central case

The unwrapping itself seems to have been conducted chiefly by Murray, assisted by a Mr Standen, Miss Wilkinson, Miss Hart-Davis, and Mr J. Wilfred Jackson. From the latter we have personal notes recounting that he ‘assisted Miss M.A. Murray in the unrolling and examination of one of the mummies known as the ‘Two Brothers’, XIIth Dyn found at Rifeh in Upper Egypt in 1907 and housed in the Manchester Museum. Also photographed the mummy wrappings and the individual bones of the two skeletons and a ‘control’ skeleton for Dr John Cameron.’ Eyewitness accounts of the unwrapping also mention periodic photography taking place, likely by Jackson. Plate glass negatives, labelled as having been taken by him, are held in Manchester Museum and include several more images than those published in Murray’s volume. Although the unwrapping of the mummified body of Nakht-ankh is often alluded to, this does not appear to have been recorded in the same manner as with Khnum-nakht and it is unclear exactly when it occurred.

The Daily Dispatch of 7th May 1908 (the day after the first, public unwrapping) shows the still thickly bandaged body of Khnum-nakht propped up vertically before the unwrapping and the exposed remains afterwards. By the time of Murray’s 1910 report, however, an element of confusion had been introduced, apparently never subsequently recognised in print: what is undoubtedly this same image of Khnum-nakht’s mummified remains, at various stages of being stripped, is reproduced captioned as ‘Nekht-Ankh’ in plate 10 of the publication (and often thereafter). Thus may a photograph actively create misinformation when erroneously identified and replicated, being easy to perpetuate as a ‘fact’.

A Much-Reproduced Photograph

Two photographs from May 6th 1908 show the scene of the unwrapping, rather than Jackson’s record shots focussing on stages in the process. One is a shot taken from a distance during the unwrapping (Figure 4), while the other is very consciously posed (Figure 1)—dominated by the bright white pinafore of the diminutive but authoritative Murray, an echo of the nursing training she had once received. This image remains iconic in histories of Manchester Museum, British Egyptology, and its inclusion is almost obligatory for any account of the development of ‘mummy studies’.

Figure 4
figure 4

The unwrapping of the mummy of Khnum-nakht, Chemistry Lecture Theatre, 6th May 1908

Despite its role as an illustration of scientific technique, imprecision and uncertainly often attend the image; the photograph itself is often reproduced in reverse, the associated date for when it was taken frequently varies between 1906 (e.g. Thompson, 2015, p. 176), 1907 and 1908, and the people accompanying Murray are only occasionally identified—sometimes incorrectly. The general impression created by the composition—of a multidisciplinary ‘team’—is what is important, and has inspired several emulations.

The first (and, apparently, only) appearance of the photograph in the press immediately following the unwrapping, however, shows an altered image. The Daily Mirror of 8th May 1908 uses the photo captioned ‘The operators about to start work’ (Figure 5). This shows an edited version of the ‘iconic’ photograph, spliced with that of a still-wrapped body on the bench in front of the group. The effect would not have been difficult to achieve, and perhaps indicates a reticence to reproduce unwrapped remains at such a scale in print—although other newspapers seem to have had no qualms about doing so. Given his leading role in the photography, it may be suggested that this Edwardian form of ‘photoshopping’ was the work of J. Wilfred Jackson.

Figure 5
figure 5

Edited photo. Daily Mirror, 8th May 1908, p. 9

Photography is often employed to capture some kind of objective ‘reality’ and the progress of things ‘as they happened’ (cf. Riggs, 2019). Even by the 1850s, as archaeological photographer Peter Dorrell observes, ‘archaeologists had begun to regard photography as a panacea, rather as their descendants 100 years later were to regard C14 (radioactive carbon) dating… much the same sort of disillusion followed when it was realised that such innovations were capable of distorting the evidence’ (Dorrell, 1994, p. 2).

The supposedly clinical precision offered by photographic recording was echoed by the quasi-medical nature of the ‘operation’ of the unwrapping. Murray recorded the different layers and quality of cloth ‘bandages’; their numbering was the subject of correspondence between her and Crompton (Sheppard, 2013, p. 96). Samples of cloth were also both made available to spectators at the event upon request, and sent to other institutions. For a local audience in ‘Cottonopolis’, far more familiar with warps and wefts than modern viewers of the same materials (Riggs, 2014, pp. 111–114), comparative samples would be of particular interest. These were cleaned, pressed, cut and mounted for display (Figure 6). What Murray and her team had effected was the embalmers’ work in reverse—turning their magic into our science (Marchant, 2013, p. 69). Both stages had a strongly performative element to them.

Figure 6
figure 6

Samples of linen wrappings mounted designed for display at Manchester Museum

Skulls and Statuettes

Two days after the (public) unwrapping, the Manchester Courier reported that despite poor preservation of the rest of the body, Khnum-nakht’s was: ‘an intelligent and highly developed looking skull… It was an intelligent head, with an upright forehead and the outline not at all prognathous. In fact, a highly civilized contour.’ Another undated press account, included with a linen sample sent to Edinburgh, records: ‘His sallow skull, small and well formed (…) lay tranquilly on a bench in an upper room of the institution on Oxford Road preparatory to inclusion among the Museum collections, after being “articulated” as near as can be.’ Inserted with the same sample was another clipping reporting on an examination after the unwrapping, proclaimed: ‘measurements of the capacity and the indices of the skull compared favourably with the average modern European type.’

Such impressions fitted with an ingrained Imperial expectation that the ancient Egyptian elite were, in fact, Caucasians (Matić, 2020, pp. 19–24). By 1910, however, when Murray’s scientific publication appeared, this interpretation was drastically reversed. Upon considered examination, anatomist John Cameron characterised Khnum-nakht’s skull as of ‘markedly prognathous or negroid type’ (Murray, 1910, p. 34) and declared of the two men: ‘The remarkable racial difference in the features presented by each […] are so pronounced that it is almost impossible to convince oneself that they belong to the same race, far less to the same family’ (Murray, 1910, p. 33). Drawing spurious parallels with evidence from England and Fiji, Cameron’s argumentation lacks consistency and coherence, not taking into account the effect of environmental factors to produce morphological variations.

Cameron further characterised Khnum-nakht as having fused left incisor teeth that ‘form a huge tusk, which must have endowed him with a somewhat forbidding aspect’ (1910, p. 38), a club foot (Murray, 1910, p. 42), while his spine ‘shows well-marked kyphosis, due, no doubt, to the persistent squatting … The presence of the above malformation would readily explain the degree of squatting that Khnumu-Nekht indulged in; but it is somewhat difficult to understand why a deformed creature, with such a forbidding facial aspect, should have been ordained for the priesthood’ (Murray, 1910, p. 43).

To challenge but one aspect of this reductive narrative, it is clear that conditions identified by Cameron as uncommon signs of misfortune need not have been so. Leaving aside the issue of the reliability of identifying palaeopathologies as distinct from artifacts of the mummification process itself, at the Graeco-Roman site of Bahariya Oasis, for example, ‘71% of women and 44% of men show facets of the distal tibia – a common result of squatting’ (Hawass, 2000, pp. 88–89). More importantly, conceptualisations of ability versus disability in the ancient world were socially contingent and constructed (Zakrzewski, 2015, pp. 162–166). As it happens, contemporary visual culture of the Middle Kingdom thematises the act of squatting in the prestigious form of the block statue (Schulz, 2011), particularly apt for a man designated as a priest. Simply put, Cameron’s clinicised cultural judgements do not meaningfully describe any ancient lived reality.

Cameron’s ranking of skulls followed the work first comprehensively undertaken by Samuel George Morton, whose 1844 racist tract Crania Aegyptiaca ranked skull capacity in a series of tables (Matić, 2020, pp. 16–22). The assumption of racialised difference persisted in ‘scientific’ studies of Nakht-ankh and Khnum-nakht well into the late 20th Century (e.g. Robins, 1985, pp. 44–48), and featured in the Manchester Museum display of the tomb group and in popular books mentioning it. Such a focus on apparently inexplicable difference can be traced directly back to Cameron, who referred to Nakht-ankh as ‘eunuchoid’ while, in contradistinction, Khnum-nakht was ‘virile’.

Describing their skulls, Cameron made an observation about the wooden statuettes of the men found within their coffins. He highlighted the ‘obvious anomaly’ that the statuettes’ heads more closely resembled the skulls of the other man than that named on the base. Thus, Murray’s team ‘came to the conclusion that those who had had charge of the burial arrangements must have made a mistake—labelling the statuette of Nekht-Ankh Khnumu-Nekht, and vice versa’ (1910, p. 35). (Figure 7) More recent commentators have only confirmed this position, asserting that ‘modern science has revealed this lapse on the part of the ancient workers who prepared the tomb goods’ (David, 2007, p. 132).

Figure 7
figure 7

Comparison of the skulls and statuettes of Nakht-ankh and Khnum-nakht. After Murray (1910: pl. 17)

Such an interpretation proceeds from two faulty assumptions. First, that Pharaonic sculpture attempted a mimetic reproduction of the living appearance of an individual. This is simply untrue and has frequently been challenged (e.g. Bianchi, 1997, p. 36; Riggs, 2014, pp. 94–108; Price, 2020). Secondly, it assumes that Egyptologists can be in a position to test ancient intentions—and to reveal their ‘mistakes’ and shortcomings. Carelessness or sloppiness is often cited to explain what Egyptologists do not understand (e.g. Riggs, 2021, p. 25), betraying an ingrained cultural distain derived in large part from the colonial context of the archaeological enterprise.

Defining and Displaying Difference

Manchester Museum helped visualise these essentialised interpretations for the public, having provided a significant platform for the work of facial reconstruction. Working with both the Museum’s Archaeology and Egyptology curators between the 1970s and 1990s, medical artist Richard Neave gained a reputation for bringing ancient people to life—something the Manchester Museum and University have proudly claimed as an innovation.

Describing the experimental nature of his technique, Neave recounted his work with the ‘Two Brothers’ as ‘great times, we spent an entire weekend casting the skulls—one was easier than the other which had been coated in some sort of glue or something. Nowadays we wouldn’t get away with it… we had to improvise big time. Nowadays we use the same materials but we’re better at it… I built some faces on these two skulls, very crude. I made some drawings but it’s hard without the skin. Oddly enough people found it quite interesting’ (quoted in Forrest, 2011, p. 55).

Even in their resulting book, Making Faces, the procedure was described as ‘very ponderous when compared with more modern methods’ (Neave & Prag, 1997, p. 45). On the effect of such reconstructions, the authors reflected: ‘three-dimensional images had far more impact than any drawing might have… the faces of the Two Brothers seemed rather blank and expressionless, but my colleagues felt that to add any real expression or personality would be to indulge in pure speculation and that we should really adhere strictly to the rules’ (Neave & Prag, 1997, p. 47). According to one reviewer for the Bulletin of the Royal College of Pathologists (Evison, 2004, p. 59), Prag and Neave’s methods ‘overstated the scientific value of the technique’ (cf. Matić, 2021, pp. 43–45).

Thanks in no small part to this ‘Manchester method’, facial reconstructions became a firm favourite with museum audiences as a means to translate fragmentary or unseen human remains into familiar-looking people. In rather the same way as film adaptations of books, these subjective interpretations visualise in physical form a recognisable human face from the past, supplanting a viewer’s imagination; they also carry the scientistic aura of accuracy. The result is often—in this writer’s opinion—generic, with skin tone being particularly contentious precisely because it is but one of the factors about which we may simply never be sure (e.g. Saini, 2019, p. 197). Despite the popularity of the medium, not everyone may accept these highly curated visions. In the words of African-American historian LeGrand Clegg, regarding a recent visualisation of the supposed appearance of King Tutankhamun, ‘we do not need modern scientists to reconstruct the bust and tell us what to see’ (Marchant, 2013, p. 136).

The life-sized ‘scientific reconstructions’ of the heads of the ‘Two Brothers’ (Figure 8) were, it has been claimed, themselves a useful tool to compare with the small statuettes to show that they had been ‘confused with each other and inaccurately identified’ (David, 2007, p. 132). Displays at Manchester Museum have tended to vaunt the ‘facts’ established by such biomedical work, putting collections to work accordingly. Thus, for the 1979 exhibition ‘O! Osiris, Live Forever!’, the rearticulated skeletons of the ‘Two Brothers’ were displayed along with both two- and three-dimensional facial reconstructions and the wooden statuettes of the men, to demonstrate to even the casual visitor the superiority of modern science over ancient practice.

Figure 8
figure 8

Clay facial reconstructions of Khnum-nakht (left) and Nakht-ankh (right) by Richard Neave

Of preparations during the 1970s for the redisplay, museum conservators Frank Goodyear and Roy Garner remembered ‘great difficulties because of the curved spine and deformed foot’ when reconstructing Khnum-nakht’s skeleton (Forrest, 2011, p. 54). Sometimes framed as a (somewhat mawkish) attempt at ‘humanising’ remains, primacy is given to a biomedical interpretation; in this case emphasising Khnum-nakht’s perceived decrepitude. In the previous iteration of the Egyptology galleries at Manchester around 2011, when his remains were still on display, some visitors were heard to express surprise that ‘he even fitted in the coffin’ and asked why the skeleton was posed ‘as if sat in a deckchair.’

During a more formal public consultation as part of planning for new ‘Ancient Worlds’ galleries in 2008, one participant remarked, ‘I remember being appalled by the display of the skeleton with the curved back [Khnum-nakht]; I think it is essentially disrespectful’ (quoted in Exell & Lord, 2008, p. 12). A telling contrast was provided by Khnum-nakht’s brightly painted inner coffin, displayed nearby, that denied such human frailty through its divine form and simple hieroglyphic address to the divinised deceased: ‘your mother Nut … makes you exist as a god’ (David, 2007, p. 78).

Modern Science; Ancient Society

In early 2020, it was possible, having taken a DNA test and, having uploaded their results to, for someone to be informed that they were ‘matched 99 percent closer than anyone else to Khnum-nakht’.

In a compelling account of the recent popularity of DNA testing, Saini (2019, pp. 162–163) observes that ‘ancestry testing doesn’t show you your past as much as it reveals the people you are distantly related to in the present, and even then only if they have had similar tests done.’ And, indeed, both Khnum-nakht and Nakht-ankh have recently had their DNA sequenced and published (Drosou et al. 2018, pp. 793–797); apparently this information was subsequently included in genetic directories in order to be compared with other DNA sequences.

After several failed attempts to extract viable DNA (David, 2007, pp. 132–134), samples were taken from the teeth of Nakht-ankh and Khnum-nakht between 2013 and 2015 and subjected to next-generation DNA sequencing. Analysis of single nucleotide polymorphisms indicated that both Nakht-ankh and Khnum-nakht belonged to mitochondrial haplotype M1a1, suggesting a maternal relationship (Drosou et al., 2018, pp. 795–796). The findings were widely reported in the press.

Once again, the science was predicated on the ‘puzzle’ of significant morphological differences between the two men, to set out to ‘test’ an ancient assertion—that both men were the sons of a (sole) woman named Khnum-aa—and attempt to find out if the men had the same father. Poor survival of the Y-chromosome made it possible that the men had different fathers (Drosou et al., 2018, p. 796). In the end, the study seemed to confirm the statement in the hieroglyphic text.

It is important to acknowledge that this innovative technique was not the ‘magic wand’ that some might have hoped. The reality of the sequencing process was complicated and took several years, involving elements of uncertainty, and of selectivity. Next-generation sequencing requires complex mathematical modelling and was not a way of establishing simple ‘facts’ (Press, 2020; cf. Saini, 2019). It is misguided to expect ‘hard science’ to reveal the ‘true’ identity of ancient inhabitants of the Nile Valley, as if they had somehow deliberately aimed to play hide-and-seek with modern researchers.

What these results do not reveal are social experiences and kinship ties; the filiation recorded in texts on the coffins evade questions regarding adoption, inheritance, and affection because these were not a matter for written or iconographic record. Modern speculations regarding the various permutations of a biological relationship (e.g. Beuthe, 2018)—or even an implied sexual relationship (Reeder, 2005)—cannot serve as simple ‘explanations’, even if they may coincide with actualities which are now unknowable.

The burial of Nakht-ankh and Khnum-nakht is deserving of a monograph-length reassessment of the evidence it contained and the attendant interpretations that evidence has attracted. This short discussion has aimed only to demonstrate how a supposedly pioneering chapter in the history of ‘mummy studies’—and of Egyptology in general—is freighted with inconsistencies and misrepresentations, from the editing and misidentification of photographs to the interpretation of skull shapes. Despite the temptation to indulge a range of plausible and persuasive reconstructions of ancient lives, we have a duty to critically re-examine not just what has been believed to be empirical ‘data’ but also the epistemology of that data, and the context of knowledge production in Egyptology.