Male and Female Mummies: Bad Grammar, Bad X-rays, Bad Judgment

It should not be so hard to tell a woman from a man. Yet three of the five male mummies from the Brooklyn Museum that were CT-scanned in the last eighteen months at North Shore University Hospital were at one time thought to be women. One of the clearest benefits of the recent CT-scans performed on Brooklyn’s mummies was clarification of their sex. Why were they once thought to be women? These determinations were made on the basis of bad grammar, bad x-rays, and bad judgment.


Mummy and Portrait of Demetris, Hawara, Egypt, Painted cloth, gold, human remains, wood, encaustic, gilding (13 3/8 x 15 3/8 x 74 13/16 inches), 50—100 C.E., Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 11.600.

Demetris entered the Brooklyn Museum collection in 1911. He lived in the first century C.E. when many Egyptians had Greek names, the result of Alexander the Great’s conquest in the fourth century B.C.E. Demetris was thought to be a woman because his name—written on his linen wrappings—ended in “is,” a feminine grammatical ending in classical Greek. Scholars early in the twentieth century thought that a man could only be named “Demetrius.” One early curator commented that Demetris’ portrait represented a particularly “homely” woman. Later x-rays proved that he was anatomically male and showed he was an example of a particular Egyptian custom of Greek, male names ending in “is.”


Coffin and Mummy of Thothirdes, Saqqara, Egypt, Wood, paint, linen, human remains, (7 x 10 x 56 inches), Dynasty 26 (664-525 B.C.E.), Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1521E.

Thothirdes’ masculinity was questioned because of bad x-rays. In spite of the beard of Osiris on his coffin, in spite of his red face—a trait traditionally associated with portrayals of Egyptian men—an x-ray very early in the twentieth century suggested to an early curator that he was “clearly female.” The most recent CT-scan showed, on the contrary, that Thothirdes is unquestionably anatomically male. This is a particular relief since it means that his beard and red face make better sense.


Cartonnage of Hor, Thebes, Egypt, painted linen, gesso, human remains, (69 3/4 x 18 1/16 inches) Late Dynasty 25 (712-656 B.C.E.), Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.50E.

Finally, “The Lady Hor” was identified as female because of her lovely face, “clearly feminine” in the judgment of an early curator. Again the face was red, but the lack of a beard on the cartonnage coffin and the face’s delicacy was taken as proof that Hor was a woman.


CT-scan of Hor at North Shore University Hospital.  Photo by Adam Husted.

The CT-scan, however, left no doubt that he was a man. Sometimes judgment alone is too subjective to make this determination.

As a curator, I now miss the opportunity to compare male and female mummification practices in Brooklyn’s galleries. But I hope that we have now settled this issue for good.