When Egyptologists entered the tomb for the first time more than four decades ago, they expected to be surprised. Explorers of newly exposed tombs always expect that, and this time they were not disappointed – they were confounded. There, carved in stone, were the images of two men embracing. Their names were inscribed above: Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep. Though not of the nobility, they were highly esteemed in the palace as the chief manicurists of the king, sometime from 2380 to 2320 B.C., in the time known as the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Grooming the king was an honored occupation.
Archaeologists were taken aback. It was extremely rare in ancient Egypt for an elite tomb to be shared by two men of apparently equal standing. The usual practice was for such mortuary temples to be the resting place of one prominent man, his wife and children. And it was most unusual for a couple of the same sex to be depicted locked in an embrace. In other scenes, they are also shown holding hands and nose-kissing, the favored form of kissing in ancient Egypt. What were scholars to make of their intimate relationship?