Joyce Tyldesley takes a new look at the world-famous portrait of Nefertiti, and considers what its purpose might have been.
Nefertiti’s bust was carved over three thousand years ago, in the Amarna workshop of the Chief of Works, Thutmose. There is no evidence that the bust ever left the workshop. Instead, just a few years after its creation, Amarna was abandoned and the bust, an unwanted reminder of a discredited regime, lay forgotten in a storeroom. It was rediscovered by a German archaeological mission in 1912, and it is now displayed in Berlin’s Neues Museum (see right). However, we don’t need to travel to Berlin to gaze at the bust. Many Western museums display replica Nefertitis alongside their genuine Egyptian artefacts and many more sell replica Nefertitis in their gift-shops (see the display, opposite, bottom!). This ubiquity has turned Nefertiti into an ancient world celebrity.
Standing 48 cm tall, the Berlin bust shows the head and upper torso of a woman. She has a narrow face with prominent brow ridges and cheekbones, a long nose and full lips. Her eyes are almond shaped and her chin firm; her left eye is missing. A tall, flat-topped blue crown decorated with ribbons tops her head, which lacks visible hair. The bust has been created from carved limestone coated with layers of gypsum plaster and painted, so that the core itself is invisible.
Although the bust is widely recognised as the portrait of an outstandingly beautiful woman, it would be wrong to assume that Nefertiti herself was outstandingly beautiful. The Egyptians did not expect their statues to be exact likenesses. It was the addition of regalia (the crown, false beard, crook and flail), which identified a statue as a king or queen, and the addition of the name which identified it as a particular person. The same principle applied to non-royal art. Craftsmen sold off-the-peg figures, and tomb artists painted near-identical men and women. In all cases it was the addition of the name that converted the standard image into a particular person.
Nefertiti’s bust is uninscribed, and so its identification is based on our recognition of the crown as a headdress unique to Nefertiti. We see this crown repeatedly in 2-D and 3-D Amarna art, and every time we see it we identify the wearer as Nefertiti. The origins of the crown are obscure, although its shape and colour suggest that it may have developed as a female version of the blue war crown worn by many of Egypt’s kings. Its shape is also reminiscent of the headdress worn by the goddess Tefnut.
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