Tag Archives: Nefertiti bust

Book Review – ‘Nefertiti’s Face: The Creation of an Icon’ by Joyce Tyldesley

Joyce Tyldesley’s new book concerns Ancient Egypt’s most well-known poster-girl: Nefertiti, or – more accurately – a painted limestone and plaster bust of her now in the Neues Museum in Berlin. Tyldesley has already written an excellent biography of the lady herself, and uses this opportunity to discuss her most famous representation – and how it skews our entire impression of who she was. The book follows the successful format of the biography of a single object adopted by Laurence Berman, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in his accessible study of the Late Period ‘Boston Green Head’. As a fellow curator, the idea of spending a whole book on a sole museum object is particularly appealing to me.


Now, I must confess personal bias here – Joyce is a friend and University of Manchester colleague, and we have discussed the content of the book extensively. Yet the finished product is one of the most important popular and accessible books now available in Egyptology. It chimes in with a welcome mood of reassessment of the history of Egyptology explored very provocatively – though sometimes in rather acerbic terms – in more academic works; the real value here is that, thanks to the popularity of her previous books and online courses at the University of Manchester, the general public are actually likely to read Joyce Tyldesley’s work.


Joyce and the Manchester Museum replica of the bust.

The book is divided into two parts: the ancient context of the bust and the importance of image production in ancient Egypt (a personal research interest of my own); and the modern reception of the object. The ancient archaeological setting is an especially fascinating one: a sculptor’s workshop at the centre of the production of a vast and still-experimental series of royal images. Nefertiti’s bust is rarely considered in the context of contemporary sculptural practice, which is surprisingly well-attested at Amarna. Tyldesley packs a lot in: notably, the vexed question of how the bust actually left Egypt, a convincing rebuttal of theories that it’s a fake, and the intriguing history of official replicas of the bust. From Adolf Hitler’s fascination with her beauty to the unlikely appropriation of its imagery for Sci-Fi movies, the bust of Nefertiti has had a powerful effect on Twentieth and Twenty-First Century popular culture.

A description, attributed to Hitler, expresses a populist tone that has a sinister and familar ring to it today:

“Oh, these Egyptologists and these professors! I don’t attach any value to their appraisals. I know this famous bust. I have viewed it and admired it many times….”

Who needs an expert to know anything? This reminds us that an object can mean many things to different people, whether or not we like those people is a different matter.

Most importantly, Tyldesley eloquently argues against an exception status for the queen herself. The one-in-a-million chance that such a (seemingly) exceptional piece should be so exceptionally well-preserved has vastly inflated our expectations of her role. As Tyldesley points out, the best comparison is with Nefertiti’s mother-in-law, Queen Tiye (who was actually more ‘famous’ before the seductive bust was found).

Ancient culture in general, and the Nefertiti bust in particular, is so over-loaded with modern meanings and significations that it is a wonder the queen’s slender, elegant neck hasn’t snapped under the strain.


‘Nefertiti’s Face: The Creation of an Icon’ is launched at Manchester Museum on Thursday 25th January, and will be on sale in our shop thereafter.



Filed under Egypt events, Egypt events at the Manchester Museum

Curator’s Diary 19/12/12: Nefertiti and Amarna in Berlin

Nefertiti 100I have just returned from a trip to Berlin, where I took the chance to see a major new exhibition at the recently reopened Neues Museum: ‘In the Light of Amarna: 100 Years of the Nefertiti Discovery’. The exhibition was timed to coincide with the centenary of the discovery of the famous painted plaster bust of Queen Nefertiti, on the 6th of December 1912. So soon after Manchester’s own centenary and because of our rich Amarna holdings (we have almost 800 objects from the site) it seemed an ideal opportunity to revisit the Berlin Egyptian and Sudanese collections.

The exhibition space is split between two levels. It opens with the excavations of the Deutsches Orient-Gesellschaft (DOG) at Tell el-Amarna, led by Ludwig Borchardt, which discovered the bust. Borchardt’s brief diary entry contains what is still an apt description of the bust today: “No use describing it, you have to see it.” Indeed, having established that the bust is in many ways indescribable, the exhibition as a whole is arranged to build anticipation: only at the very end does the visitor come face-to-face with Nefertiti herself.

Yet the key strength of the display is the much-needed context it gives to this singular piece of sculpture. Borchardt’s excavations for the DOG are placed within the setting of early 20th century Egyptian archaeology. The dig was funded by James Simon, a Jewish entrepreneur who was the son of a wealthy cotton merchant – circumstances very similar to Jesse Haworth’s support Petrie’s work in Egypt, which formed the basis of the Manchester Museum Egyptology collection. Of the many captivating archive photos in this section, one showing the Nefertiti bust and other Amarna sculpture in Simon’s home (before being given to the state museums) was particularly striking.

The contested nature of the finds division that led to Nefertiti being brought to Berlin is not ignored, and the role of the German press in helping to form popular opinion is particularly well illustrated. In the current exhibition, particular emphasis is placed on the fragility of the bust. Indeed, the exhibition is essentially formed around Nefertiti – rather than Nefertiti being moved to the centre of the exhibition. Given the condition of the bust, it seems unlikely that she’ll be travelling very far any time soon.

Pottery moulds for faience objects such as this (Acc. no 2557) were a common find at Amarna. This examples bears the names of Nefertiti.

Pottery moulds for faience objects such as this (Acc. no 2557) were a common find at Amarna. This examples bears the names of Nefertiti.

What fascinates me about the (very brief and atypical) Amarna Period is not so much the protagonists themselves, their beliefs or suggested abnormalities, but rather the fact that those characters exert such a disproportionate amount of interest for the general public and academic community alike.

The new exhibition acknowledges this interest and – while presenting the famous bust in its proper archaeological context – explicitly addresses the fact that the bust has often been taken out of context, most notably attested by Nefertiti’s numerous appearances in pop art and kitsch. The decision to place the ‘modern reception’ section of the exhibit close to the gift shop was well-advised, showing how much Nefertiti remains a commercial icon.

Replica of Nefertiti's painted bust in Manchester

Replica of Nefertiti’s painted bust in Manchester

The entrance to the main section, on the upper level of the exhibition, is dominated by a stylised shaft of orange Aten-like light. Using a necessarily small selection of key objects, the prelude to Akhenaten’s reign is covered, before life (as opposed to death) at Amarna is explored in detail. The large numbers of objects on display reflect the density of finds: countless fragments of stone, faience, glass. In its object selections, the new exhibition parallels many of Manchester’s holdings. All of this material, illustrating various aspects of life at the city, succeeded in providing the famous bust with a realistic setting among living people. The famous ‘workshop’ of the sculptor Tuthmose is seen as just one of several areas at Amarna engaged in producing objects for the elite, whether stone sculpture, pottery or glass and faience objects.

Manchester’s replica bust of Nefertiti – created in the 1930s and one of a limited number of ‘official’ copies – remains very popular. In the old galleries, many visitors were mislead into thinking that this was the real bust (despite being labelled as a replica), perhaps because it was included alongside genuinely ancient objects from Amarna. By including our replica bust, along with other Amarna copies, in our ‘Fakes and Replicas’ cases in Ancient Worlds, we hope to allow visitors to experience something of the indescribable bust in three dimensions. Yet we also want to emphasise the desirability of this particular image, and highlight its unique place in the replication of Pharaonic visual culture.


Filed under Curator's Diary