One of the most famous works of Egyptian art, the limestone bust of Nefertiti was discovered in 1912 by German archeologist Ludwig Borchardt near the modern Egyptian town of Tell el-Amârna. It was found in the workshop of the ancient sculptor Thutmose and smuggled out of the country disguised as pieces of broken pottery.
Nefertiti was the most important queen of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who ruled Egypt from 1353 to 1335 BC. During his rule, the pharaoh changed his name to Akhenaton—“one who serves Aten, the Sun God”—and embraced a new, monotheistic religion that emphasized ethics. Nefertiti was granted high status, equal nearly to that of her husband. Some scholars believe that she was the force behind the new religion and that she even ruled as co-regent for some time. After Akhenaton’s death, nearly all traces of him and his powerful wife were wiped out, perhaps by the priests whose religion they had rejected.
Nefertiti’s bust, which is nearly 3,400 years old and about twenty inches tall, was found in nearly perfect condition. Only the earlobes were chipped. The work was left unfinished, however, since the left eye socket seems never to have been filled. It is possible that Thutmose used the bust as a model for his pupils. Whether the bust captures the queen’s likeness or portrays an ideal beauty is open to question.
A controversy erupted in 2003 when Joann Fletcher, a British archeologist funded by the Discovery Channel, identified a previously discovered mummy as Nefertiti. Although she offered substantial evidence, Egyptian authorities rejected her claims.
The bust can be seen today at the Altes Museum in Berlin. It remains not only one of the best known works of Egyptian art but also a model of feminine beauty, giving new significance to Nefertiti’s name, which translates to “the beautiful one is come.”
- In the last days of World War II, the bust of Nefertiti was moved out of the Soviet sector of Berlin, creating a dispute over its ownership. It was returned in 2005.
- A Google search for Nefertiti turns up 472,000 hits, a testimony to the lasting power of her image in the twenty-first century.
- A pair of Hungarian artists calling themselves Little Warsaw recently stirred a controversy by setting the bust of Nefertiti atop a headless sculpture of a woman in a transparent garment.