Rethinking an Egyptian Mummy from the British Museum: Gender-Expansive Identities in the Roman Period of Egypt (15 min)


Emily B. Sharp, Cornell University


In 1835, the British Museum acquired a perplexing human mummy, cataloged EA 6704. Simply identified as “male, Graeco-Egyptian” during the sale, this mummy presented both masculine and feminine attributes. The meticulously decorated body had extensive padding to simulate feminine soft tissue of the breasts and hips, but retained masculine facial iconography painted in the form of a stylized beard. Since the mummy’s exhumation in the 1800s to the present day, each new wave of scholars prioritized different attributes to biologically sex EA 6704, wavering between “male” and “female.” In 2014, the British Museum confirmed a “male” identification based on the presence of “preserved” genitalia. However, a later study in 2019 proved that the “preserved penis” was actually made of linen, degrading the foundation upon which EA 6704 had been classified.

My research offers a new critical approach to EA 6704. Both this method and, I propose, the mummy themselves, challenge traditional methods of classifying sex/gender that perpetuate colonial narratives of Egyptian life. By highlighting the flaws in methodology and the tenuousness of earlier scholars’ findings, I demonstrate the necessity of contextualizing the mummy within its cultural ontology by drawing on Egyptian primary textual and iconographic evidence. I also utilize new work in social bioarchaeology and queer studies to argue for broader and more culturally appropriate possibilities regarding sex/gender. These findings contest past conclusions concerning EA 6704, and suggest that gender-expansive lives in ancient Egypt existed and persisted under Roman rule. To this end, the reevaluation of EA 6704 may lead to the discovery of more mummified individuals whose identities have been elided to fit into western expectations of a two-gender binary.