Saturday, 28 February 2015

Really old frocks, rocks and cocks



It was all about frocks, dear! Certainly, the superb LGBT History Month Objects of Desire event, in London's best "hidden treasure" the fabled Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, on Thursday began and ended with a pair of the most miraculously preserved examples of ancient Egyptian garments - with, of course, many more fascinating objects (and speakers) in between...

The concept of the evening, genially hosted as ever by that expert in all things LGBT-history-related Egyptologist John J Johnston, is that a series of individuals whose area of expertise is not Ancient Egypt are invited to select an item from the museum's vast collection and to have a chat about why their chosen artefact attracted them. It's a great formula for discussion - as we found when we attended a similar event there two years ago. And so it was that Hils, the History Boy, Jim and I went along with much anticipation. We weren't disappointed.



First up was Geoff Slack, film and television costume designer, to talk about the above beautiful Fifth Dynasty bead net dress. Knowing a thing or two about how clothing is constructed, he agreed that the conservators of the dress had probably accurately captured the way it would have been when it was originally worn (found as it was as just a pile of beads, the threads rotted away long since its burial) - and, as Mr Johnston's slide helpfully pointed out, if worn with minimal undergarments was not too dissimilar to the type of outrageous costume worn today by the likes of Cher or Katy Perry.



The discussion then steered into how other costume designs - notably some of those worn by Elizabeth Taylor in her epic Cleopatra - were wildly inaccurate and rather reflected the era in which they were made than the way clothes were worn in Dynastic Egypt. Artistic licence vs historical accuracy; a common phenomenon, even today.



Moving swiftly on, Professor Sharon Morris - senior lecturer at Slade School of Art and poet - came on to talk about a lovely papyrus fragment of the Book of the Dead of Nes-Ptah, notable in its own way for its obvious portrayal of powerful women enjoying the fruits of their privilege at the top of Egyptian society. Fascinated as she is in the relation between words and images, Prof Morris talked about the way women writers have often featured analogies of the glittering times of old Egypt to act as a juxtaposition for the state of society today. Her own favourite modern poet, Hilda Doolittle (known as "HD") often incorporated Egyptian themes in her abstract verse, as some passages she read illustrated.



Egyptian classical history is full of homoerotic art, but it wasn't until the Romans took over that more "realistic" funerary portraits such as the above image of a "young man from Hawara", described by founder Flinders Petrie as "the Red Youth", became commonplace. Our next guest Mark O'Connell (shortlisted for the Polari First Book Award 2013 for his book Catching Bullets: Memoirs of a Bond Fan) is fascinated by them, and the discussion ventured a few theories about why quite so many appear to our eyes as apparently gay, beautiful young men - were they revered athlete pin-ups (a la David Beckham?) or genuine portraits of departed male partners?.



Nice to look at, whatever.



Dr Nathaniel Coleman, UCL lecturer in Philosophy of Race, came next - to talk about the controversial collection of terracotta heads from Memphis, identified by Petrie as "foreigners". Dr Coleman is strongly of the opinion that the collection, the way the items were catalogued and presented, was evidence of Petrie's own predilection for eugenics, and that they even have their modern equivalents in racial stereotyping (such as on gay dating sites). This, needless to say, generated a slightly heated debate with members of the audience, whose interpretations were at variance with Dr Coleman's.



Hamish Steele - animator and graphic novelist, author of Pantheon: The True Story of the Egyptian Deities - chose to talk about the most famous gay artefact of all in the Petrie archive, a papyrus fragment that tells a particularly smutty story from the Tale of Horus and Seth. That saga in itself might well be the sort of thing a superhero comic/film might tackle - the everlasting battle between vengeful uncle and son, taking on the guise and form of various mythical animals as they thrash out their differences (and thrash each other). However, it would seem that not all the "thrashing" was necessarily so violent - the passage this particular papyrus reveals is one of a sexual liaison between the two, and one of the oldest (and corniest) chat-up lines ever: ‘How lovely are your buttocks! And how muscular your thighs…’

Unsurprisingly, this almost 2000-year-old equivalent of Grindr was chosen by one of the participants at the previous event in 2013. However, this was the first time the papyrus was actually on display - and it was fascinating to see it.



Finally, saving the "surprise reveal" till last, we were greeted by the arrival of a real Ancient Egyptian! Well, almost. Rob Eagle - visual anthropologist and documentary film-maker - is also a dressing-up fan, and decided to come appropriately garbed for the occasion, to talk about another frock - a First Dynasty linen dress (known, internationally, as 'the Tarkhan dress'). By far the oldest piece of intact clothing in the collection (and indeed, one of the oldest on display in the world), its conservation and how it might have been worn drew the discussion into a fab analogy with modern attitudes to "men in skirts", and how these have changed over the millennia.

With that final flourish, a most absorbing and stimulating evening drew to a close. Sheer magic...

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology never fails to astonish and entertain - and in the next few months alone, there are showings of Carry on Cleo and The Spy Who Loved Me (with its fabled battle between Jaws and Bond in Karnak Temple) to look forward to!

2 comments:

  1. this sounds absolutely fascinating! I love H.D.'s work, by the way

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    Replies
    1. I was unfamiliar with her, I must admit. Always fascinating to discover a "new" pioneering spirit in gay history... Jx

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