Hidden for 4,000 years - is this the world's first gay kiss?

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As the "gay cowboy flick" Brokeback Mountain opens in Britain amid indignant protests from old Wyoming ranch hands, it emerged yesterday that such controversies are almost as old as art itself.

What may be the first depiction of a gay kiss was discovered in a 4,000-year-old Egyptian tomb, according to a recent conference at the University of Wales.

Their arms entwined, their torsos and noses touching Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were painted together for eternity in an embrace usually associated with heterosexual couples of the 5th dynasty.

Just as there has been much wringing of hands and protestations that "there ain't no queer in cowboy"in Marlboro country over Ang Lee's portrayal of two gay ranch hands, this intimate pair have long been considered "problematic" to Egyptologists.

One of the largest and most beautiful of all the tombs in the necropolis at Saqqara, south of Cairo, the two men's final resting place was discovered in 1964. The archaeologist Ahmed Moussa made the rare find of two men of equal status buried together in a tomb decorated with images of them holding hands or locked nose to nose.

In a recent talk at the University of Wales on Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt Greg Reeder explained that the affectionate embrace might suggest the pair were lovers. Describing an image of the two men tightly clasping each other in the offering chamber, Mr Reeder said: "Here, in the innermost private part of their joint-tomb, the two men stand in an embrace meant to last for eternity."

The official view by one of the world's most eminent Egyptologists, Zahi Hawass, is that they were brothers, perhaps even conjoined twins. Other eminent academics have also suggested the similarities in the names would suggest this to be the case and there is a danger that modern European eyes fail to resist the temptation of seeing the images as homoerotic. Nevertheless, the tomb has become a favourite for gay couples.

The "Tomb of the Hairdressers" or "Tomb of Two Brothers" as it has become known was in fact the burial place of King Niuserre's manicurists.

While the paintings do show wives and children, the two women are obliterated or omitted from a scene of a final banquet.

"Same-sex desire must be considered as a probable explanation," said Mr Reeder, adding: "We can only say for certain that the carvings show a profound intimacy between the two men, and the people who built the tomb were possibly unsure how to portray this."

Such depictions of the "love that dare not speak its name" have been setting art lovers and audiences all a flutter for years. The groundbreaking 1971 film Sunday, Bloody Sunday was the first mainstream movie to show two gay characters kissing while few forget the tabloid furore when Brookside aired the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss more than a decade ago. Since then countless soaps have followed suit while the Channel 4 series Queer as Folk broke all barriers with explicit sex scenes.

In the year that gay unions were legally sanctioned, it is unlikely that Brokeback Mountain will cause more than a few murmurs of protest on this side of the Atlantic. But as America's religious right continues to air its disapproval, their objections are being drowned out by loud accolades and applause as the film collecting numerous award nominations.