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Avatar Extraordinaire: the Bust of Nefertiti

Updated on May 12, 2015

Egyptian Queen


A glorious find

The bust of Nefertiti (Neues Museum, Berlin) has barely been outside of controversy since German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt found it in the ruins of the Egyptian city of Akhetaton, also known as Amarna, in 1912. Experts have identified it as Queen Nefertiti (1370-1330 BC) because a similar woman appears on a relief dated 1345 BC, of Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton, his wife (Nefertiti) and three daughters. Akhenaton, born Amenophis IV, changed his name and founded the city of Akhetaton in 1400 BC, to worship Aton, the sun god. Until then, Egyptian religion had been polytheistic and much concerned with life after death, rather than wellbeing in contemporary life. Borchardt actually found the bust in the workshop of ancient Egyptian sculptor, Thutmose, and experts believe he made it for students to copy.

The bust is 19 inches high, and is coloured delicately and brightly with a range of pigments. An Egyptian crown covers the head, throwing the unadorned face into stunning relief, while a collar-like necklace sits around the shoulders. The bust is in good condition, apart from a chip on the rim of the hat-like crown, the broken-off Uraeus or cobra-like ornament on the crown’s front, and damage to the ears. With her large eyes and delicate features, Nefertiti certainly has claims to beauty, but what really brings this out are the proportions of the crown to the face, and the way that the whole is balanced gracefully upon the angle of the neck and the shoulders. Over time, Nefertiti has earned the regard of the Mona Lisa and the mystery of Cleopatra. In 2009, the Neues Museum dedicated an exhibition to her. However, as is often the case with ancient artefacts, several mysteries surround the bust.

Mysteries and questions

Apart from showing a photograph of the bust to Egyptian officials, Borchardt did not make the world aware of the bust until 1924. Before then, the only people to have seen the bust were Emperor Wilhelm II and a benefactor of the 1912 expedition, James Simon. The other benefactors were German royalty, while the German Oriental Society organised it. This has led to speculation that Borchardt either deceived the Egyptians into handing it over or that the bust is a fake. In 1912, Egypt was under British rule, while the French were in charge of curating archaeological finds. Under the rules, Borchardt was allowed to take half of his findings back to Germany. Since its 1924 uncovering, Egypt has made several attempts to reclaim the bust.

In Der Spiegel, journalist Christoph Spiedler writes of the claims made by Henri Stierlin, an art historian based in Geneva, that sculptor Gerhard Marcks made the bust for Borchardt as a model upon which to display an antique necklace. Johann Georg, a Saxon duke visiting the expedition finds was so taken by the bust, that the embarrassed Borchardt upheld the fiction of its antiquity. Art historians claim that nothing in the work of Marcks resembles the bust; however, this does not exclude his having made it. What is certain is that, if it is a fake, its maker took great pains to replicate the work of antiquity. And if the bust really is authentic, it is remarkable in a number of ways.

The left eye cavity is empty, while the right eye socket is inlaid with an “eye” of quartz coloured with soot and fixed with beeswax. According to Alistair Sooke, who presented the bust in his BBC television series, Treasure of Ancient Egypt, the left eye is missing because the sculptor made the statue to be displayed from the right. However, other historians claim that the statue is unfinished – and this is a possibility – or the eye could simply have been lost.

Over time, the bust has been subjected to analyses that include x-ray fluorescence and infrared spectroscopy. The core of the bust is made of limestone and it is covered with a layer of stucco. CT scans of the bust have revealed that irregularities on the limestone features have been smoothed over with stucco. In 1923, Borchardt had the paint in the stucco analysed and discovered copper oxide (blue and green), iron oxide (light red), orpiment or arsenic sulphide (yellow), and also soot and calcium carbonate or chalk, to create white pigment, all in use in ancient Egypt. However, it is possible to replicate ancient pigments.

Another issue is the bright, almost modern colour of the statue. The painted chest of Tutankhamen appears (to my eye) just as bright in colour, and many reliefs and wall paintings from this era are still in good condition. Until a number of these are scientifically dated, the bright colours of Nefertiti won’t exclude it from being an ancient artefact.

Historians like Henri Stierlin point out other artistic anomalies, like the squared-off shoulders of the piece, unknown in ancient sculptures. However, the city of Amarna, where Thutmose made the statue, was a place of artistic experimentation. Helen Gardener points how this change in location brought about a shift in the art of the Egyptians, one of which can be seen in a statue of Akhenaton, dated about 1375, almost the age of the bust. The statue is curvaceous and life-like, in contrast to the rigid linearity of orthodox Egyptian statutory.

Bright Colours


The beauty puzzle

One thing that strikes me about the bust is how it approximates the 1920s’ ideal of beauty, having an art-deco-ish quality in terms of construction and colouring. And Helen Gardener writes about how contemporary looking the statue is. I quote: one thinks of those modern descendents of Queen Nefertiti, the models in the fashion magazines, with their gaunt, swaying frames and mask-like pallid faces and enormous shadowed eyes. But the finds on several Egyptian expeditions of the time influenced the art, beauty and fashions of the day. The tantalising question is: did the ancients influence our ideal of beauty or did antiquarians like Borchardt transpose contemporary ideals onto fantasises of ancient times?

Henri Stierlin claims that the damage to the ears and crown of the piece is deliberate, done to make the piece seem authentic, because damage is most often on the extremities of any piece. Combined with the story of the necklace, this sounds plausible - until you wonder why would Borchardt have lavished so much work, in terms of construction and pigmentation, upon a piece of fakery? The only way to really uncover the truth is to carry out tests on the limestone core of the bust, and compare the results to artefacts that have a similar date, that is, 1345 BC. This, I suspect, will not be done in the near future. I believe we will continue to speculate over the bust of Nefertiti, for a long time yet.


Art Through the Ages by Helen Gardner

Why is Nefertiti Still in Berlin by Tracy Wong

Der Spiegel



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