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The Nefertiti Bust

Randy H. Sooknanan

ASAG Journal

February 1, 2020

Nefertiti, the wife of a pharaoh named Akhenaten during the 18th Dynasty of Egypt is the most recognizable queen of ancient Egypt. Her painted sandstone bust, which was discovered in 1912 became a global icon of feminine beauty and power. It is one of the most copied artworks of ancient Egypt and is currently housed in the Neues Museum in Germany. Her name means, "beautiful woman has arrived" as we can see from the world-famous bust created by the ancient sculptor Thutmose. Since its excavation over 100 years ago, there are a few controversies over the authenticity of the artifact as well as the provenance of the bust itself.


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Who was Nefertiti?

Nefertiti was an Egyptian queen who is often recognized for the famous bust of her likeness. To understand the famous bust (a sculptural portrait of the shoulders, neck, and head), we must first understand its subject. Nefertiti and her pharaoh husband briefly, out of 3000 years of ancient Egyptian history, shook up the culture so much that Akhenaten was subsequently disregarded and his ideologies were completely abolished following his reign.

The couple is known for a religious revolution, in which they worshiped one god only, Aten, a sun deity. This was a total contradiction to the religious system featuring the many gods of ancient Egypt we know today. It was during their rule they experienced widespread contempt for this drastic shift in ideologies. Thus her reign was a time of tremendous cultural upheaval, as Akhenaten reoriented Egypt's religious and political structure of worship.

They will forever be remembered as the rulers that abandoned Egypt's traditions and established the first monotheistic religion along with moving the royal palace from the traditional capitals of the Egyptian kings to build an entirely new royal city at Amarna.

We know relatively little about Nefertiti's life prior to her marriage to Akhenaten. Archeologists believe she was from a noble family in the royal capital of Thebes, and some even claim that she was the one to introduce her husband to the monotheistic cult of Aten. All we know for sure is that she rose to become a very powerful woman, who may have also ruled as a pharaoh alongside her husband until his death. In the end, they are yet another example of historical figures who are models of human ingenuity even though they were not very well received during their era of history.

Discovery of the bust 

Initially, when the artifact was found it was under scrutiny for being a fake due to how incredibly well intact it actually is. It has since been tested and proven to be over 3000 years old. It is really quite remarkable that we have such a wonderfully preserved example of ancient art surviving to the modern age.

When it was discovered the Egyptian antiquities office had a rule stating royal member artifacts could not be removed from the country. Ludwig Borchardt was a German archaeologist who found the artifact. In 1912 Ludwig submitted a photograph showing only a partial view of the bust to the antiquities office and after approval for removal based upon that photo, he took the bust back to Germany. The photo of course did not illustrate the magnificence of the find. To this day it is disputed whether or not the bust was illegally taken from the nation of Egypt. Over the decades since Germany has rejected repeated requests from Egypt for her return.

Borchardt had excavated it along with several other objects from the studio of the ancient Egyptian sculptor Thutmose and had brought his finds to Germany as part of an agreement with the Egyptian Antiquities Service. While there is no proof that Borchardt’s dealings were explicitly illegal, as early as 1925, the Egyptian government began to take issue with Germany’s possession of valuable antiquities by imposing sanctions, and the bust has been the source of tension between the two nations ever since (1).

After the 1912 excavation, Ludwig returned to Germany with public and political controversy about the find which led him to ensure it was kept out of the public gaze until 1924. 'He kept it in his living room for 11 years before handing it over to a Berlin museum.' (2) Later 'the statue was famously admired by Adolf Hitler, who referred to it as "a unique masterpiece, an ornament, a true treasure". During the Nazi years, Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering planned to give it back to Egypt, but Adolf Hitler said the bust would have pride of place in a museum for Germania, the expanded Berlin that was due to be the capital of his Thousand Year Reich.' (3).

It is currently on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin, where it was originally displayed before World War II. The Nefertiti bust has become a cultural symbol of Berlin as well as ancient Egypt (4),

Modern controversy over the bust

In 2009, the refurbished Neues Museum in Berlin celebrated its reopening, with the bust of Nefertiti prominently displayed as one of its main attractions. The celebration coincided with one of the Egyptian government’s repeated pleas for the official return of the bust to Egypt. The museum has staunchly refused to give up the sculpture, asserting that the bust was acquired legally by the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt in 1912 (5).

This controversy relates to a general growing public awareness about the provenance—and politics—of antiquities held in European and American museums. In 2016, Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, two artists from Germany, made a bold statement about these issues by staging an event they called 'NefertitiHack'. They secretly mapped the sculpture using a consumer-grade 3-D scanning device, and then released the data openly under a Creative Commons license. The artists’ intention was “to inspire a critical reassessment of today’s conditions and to overcome the colonial notion of possession in Germany,” according to their website (6).

Many groups have advocated for using digitally-produced replicas either as stand-ins for objects that are returned to their places of origin, or vice versa—as ways of offering highly accurate replicas in place of the originals. The sharing of data between institutions and groups who lay claim to objects has also been suggested as a way to ease tensions over restitution. Nelles and al-Badri’s project is a critical statement about the growing questions around repatriation and public access to objects via 3-D models and other data, as the Neues Museum does not allow photography or publicly share its own 3-D model of the bust (7).

In Art History

Egyptian art of course has a very distinct look, but as always, there are exceptions. This bust is one of the most unique works of Egyptian art as it tells us a bit more about their ancient culture. Thus when we think of the immortalized faces of ancient Egypt, it's easy to picture the gilded funerary masks that covered the mummies of pharaohs like Tutankhamen. There is another face, however, that is just as beautiful but more realistic. The bust of Queen Nefertiti is one of the most famous pieces of ancient Egyptian art, functioning as an icon of timeless beauty ever since it was uncovered. It is a masterpiece unlike anything else.

The Artifact

Nefertiti's bust was likely created around 1340 BCE, near the height of Akhenaten's power. It is 44 pounds and life-sized, carved from a single block of limestone. The concept of a royal portrait was nothing unusual in ancient Egyptian society; the temples and palaces of Egypt are full of them. What makes this portrait unique is its depiction of the queen (8).


While we're familiar with the blocky and solid monumental portraits of Egyptian rulers, Nefertiti's bust looks vastly different. Not only is the face carved with softly curved cheekbones, strong chin, and sharp nose, but the limestone core was covered in gypsum stucco, which was then painted. The result is an incredibly lifelike depiction of the queen. Nefertiti's bust is colored with golden-brown skin, red lips, colored jewelry, and crown. The eyes are set with crystal, and one pupil is made with black wax. The other eye was never finished (9).

The Artist

Who was it that created this timeless masterpiece? Well, the best clue comes from the actual site where the bust was found and excavated. Nefertiti's bust was not uncovered in a tomb or ancient palace hidden from time, but rather it was discovered with a workshop. 'Specifically, it was in the workshop of Thutmose, the official court sculptor' and favorite artist of Akhenaten (10).

The fact that this bust was found in Thutmose's studio in Amarna tells us something: this bust was probably just a model. It seems likely that Thutmose created this as a reference so that he had the queen's likeness with him while designing other royal, and possibly monumental portraits.

Within Thutmose's workshop, archaeologists found a series of partially completed busts, masks, and faces. Many of these were extraordinarily realistic, showing wrinkles and folds and all the other characteristics of an individual face. When modern researchers scanned Nefertiti's bust, they found that the original portrait looked a little different. The cheekbones were less defined, there were wrinkles on the cheeks, and the nose had a characteristic bump to it. It appeared that he captured her as exactly as he saw her and then reshaped it a little to reflect his culture’s ideal of beauty and royal authority.


3,400 years later her chiseled and elegant features still remain proud as they are held high upon her swanlike neck she continues to smile down serenely towards us while she draws half a million tourists to see her every year.

The 'bust is one of the first ranking works of Egyptian art mostly due to the excellent preservation of the color and the fine modeling of the face' (11).
Researchers concluded that she is Tutankhamun's biological mother, a daughter of Amenhotep III and Tiye.

Most depictions of Queen Nefertiti have shown that although she was truly beautiful, she also had a blank left eye. Many historians speculate about the reasons for that anomaly; from the failure of the artist to complete their work on the bust to a suspected river blindness. Nefertiti may have suffered from an ophthalmic infection, and actually lost her left eye, though the presence of an iris in other statues of her contradict this possibility. It is now widely accepted that the artist responsible for this bust, Thutmose, had created the left eye, but it was later destroyed. In any event, it adds to the mystic of Nefertiti bust.


The Nefertiti Bust

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