I’ve lived 13 years in London and – not ashamed of being taken for a tourist – have spent many of my weekends visiting its sites; from the famous to the obscure.
But this city always has a new treasure to discover. And about a month ago I got an invitation to speak at an event at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology for Britain’s LGBT History Month. I confess, I had never heard of the museum but when I looked it up it seemed so amazing I just had to say yes.
My ignorance, at first glance seems unforgivable. It contains over 80,000 objects from Egypt and Sudan. And I’m told it is beaten only by the Cairo Museum, the Ã„gyptisches Museum in Berlin and London’s British Museum, just a few minute’s walk away, for its Egyptology collection.
As I had wandered the halls of all the other three, totally awestruck, I was doubly keen to go to the Petrie Musuem.
But on the other hand, I can’t imagine that many Londoners have ever found this little gem. It’s not the kind of place you stumble upon. Hidden away on the University College campus, it’s crammed into just a few small rooms up a narrow stone staircase.
But once inside this former stable, it’s an Aladdin’s cave.
Glass cases and stacked to the brim with unique pieces. The earliest examples of glazing and metal from Egypt, the oldest wills on papyrus paper, the oldest dress.
Artefacts stretch from 5000BC (the earliest pieces of linen from Eygpt) through to Greek and Roman rule; including the largest collection of Roman period mummy portraits from the first and second centuries AD.
The host for the talk I’m taking part in, John Johnston, has prepared an LGBT guide to the collection. With so many amazing objects to choose from, it seems almost wrong to focus just on these few, but it’s absolutely to the museum’s credit that they have taken the chance to interpret their collection this way.
Here are a few of my favorite objects with LGBT links.
Seth’s ancient gay chat-up line: Legendary figures Seth and Horus are uncle and nephew. They have been quarrelling for 80 years about who should rule, although the myth says they are still youths at this stage. Not much has changed since ancient times, as the family dispute ends up in court.
But Seth has other ideas. A fragment of papyrus reveals how he persuades Horus to sleep with him, using the world’s first ever chat-up line: ‘How lovely are your buttocks! And how muscular your thighs…’ It just needs a ‘;)’ to make it an ancient Grindr.
By penetrating Horus, Seth hopes to make it clear he is dominant, and therefore should be king. But Horus is no fool – he enjoys the sex and then tricks Seth in return so it looks as if his uncle has been penetrated. In the end Horus gets to be king instead.
Spoon shaped like a naked woman: This cosmetic spoon, dated from 1295BC to 1186BC, may have been used by men or women, so it is impossible to label it as a ‘lesbian’ related item.
But the Petrie Museum’s gay guide does point out that images of athletic, desirable men are often used by men. It’s fun to speculate about an object like this. Who would have used it. Would they have found it sensual?
Terracotta head of Alexander the Great: The greatest general ever and most powerful emperor of his time, bisexual and a little crazy – Alexander would top my list of historical figures to invite to a fantasy dinner party. I’d just be worried he’d get drunk and kill all the other guests.
This thumb-sized terracotta head appears to depict Alexander. While contemporarily made images of him have not survived, busts and sculptures of him were ripped off by other ancient leaders who wanted to bask in his reflected glory.
Although he was Greek, Alexander had a passion for Egypt. And one of his generals, Ptolemy, founded the ancient kingdom’s last great dynasty, making his capital, Alexandria, into a great center of learning and culture.
Coin of Hadrian: While it’s fantastic to walk through the majestic temples of the ancient world or to see the gold and splendor of the pharaohs, it feels so very unreal.
But lots of normal people would have carried a coin like this in their pocket. Badly corroded, it shows the face of Hadrian, famous not just for his wall building but also for his love affair with Antinous.
When Antinous drowned in the Nile, Hadrian wept like a woman and made him into a god.
Visiting the museum
Like most of London’s major museums, visiting the Petrie Museum is free, although a donation is welcome. You can find out more here.
The talk I’m part of is called Every Good Thing and will celebrate objects from the collection for LGBT History Month. There are other LGBT speakers talking about their favorite objects and an Egyptologist to explain some of the history.
It will be at 6pm on 26 February (2013). Entry is free, but you have to register on Eventbrite to reserve a space.