Tag Archives: Nefertiti

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.


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MAES Lecture 09/11/15: ‘The Mysteries of Nefertiti’ by Dr. Aidan Dodson

Replica of Nefertiti's painted bust in Manchester

Replica of Nefertiti’s painted bust in Manchester

The next Manchester Ancient Egypt Society lecture will be given by Dr Aidan Dodson (University of Bristol)

The Mysteries of Nefertiti

Monday 9th November, 7:30pm
Pendulum Hotel, Sackville Street, Manchester, M1 3AL
All welcome

Nefertiti remains one of the most iconic figures of ancient Egypt, but ideas about her origins, career and fate have varied greatly over the decades. Dr Dodson will review what we really know about her, including some of the very latest discoveries and his own views on the possible location of her tomb.

Dr Aidan Dodson is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol, and a former Simpson Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. Amongst his 17 books are two volumes on his history of the later Eighteenth Dynasty, Amarna Sunrise and Amarna Sunset (AUC Press, 2014 and 2009).

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What is missing from the tomb of Tutankhamun?

Keeper of Secrets? Anubis on his shrine

Keeper of Secrets? Anubis on his shrine

The world of archaeology is holding its breath. Will radar results confirm recent claims that there may be more to the tomb of Tutankhamun (KV 62) than it’s discoverer Howard Carter, and most Egyptologists since, believed?

The excitement centres on the claims of English Egyptologist and established authority on Tutankhamun Nicholas Reeves. Reeves is not a crack-pot, which makes the claims all the more exciting. Referring to recent 3D scans by high-tech conservation firm Factum Arte, Reeves identifies the possible traces of two previously undetected doorways leading off the burial chamber of KV 62 – with potentially sensational implications. Not least, that there is an intact storeroom to the west and a continuation of a one-time corridor leading north, perhaps containing the burial of Nefertiti (or, rather ‘Smenkhkare’ as she may have been styled as pharaoh and predecessor of Tutankhamun). Although other scholars have critiqued some of the methods, such as the art historical evaluation of the scenes on Tut’s burial chamber wall, Reeves’ claims seem intriguingly possible. Even if Nefertiti does not lie behind the north wall, two additional (intact) chambers of any size or shape would be of enormous interest.

I recently wrote an article on the objects – other than coffins, sarcophagi and canopics – found in the Kings Valley tombs for a Handbook of the Valley of the Kings. Tutankhamun’s tomb contents are often regarded as a ‘full set’ of objects, despite some losses of valuable items in (limited) robberies. While there are many correspondences between Tutankhamun’s objects and the fragmentary remains found in other tombs, it is interesting to consider what is not represented in Tut’s assemblage.

We know from records on ostraca that tombs were stocked in advance of the royal funeral proper, so this would have allowed time to seal up a storage chamber in the manner of the ‘Annexe’ and of the burial chamber itself. The ‘Treasury’ appears to have been left open in anticipation of the elongated poles used to carry the Anubis shrine.

Ram-headed divine statue from the tomb of Tuthmose III now in the British Museum (EA 50702)

Ram-headed divine statue from the tomb of Tuthmose III now in the British Museum (EA 50702)

One curious category of divine statues is not attested in KV 62, showing fearsome entities with hippo, gazelle or turtle heads. These are known from wooden examples in the tombs of Tuthmose III, Horemheb and Ramesses I, some now in the British Museum. As so often, these wooden sculptures had their precious metal coatings removed either by tomb robbers or during a state-sanctioned sweep of the Valley at the end of the New Kingdom. Tutankhamun’s objects are unique in that they retain their gilding. At a discussion of Tutankhamun’s tomb goods in Cairo in May, Professor Stephen Quirke emphasised the importance of these divinities being in close proximity to the king’s sarcophagus. Might the putative ‘secret’ western chamber contain (fine, gilded) versions of such images?

The number of shabti figures provided for a royal burial seems to have increased steadily during the 18th Dynasty – from the one known example for Ahmose I to the supposedly “complete” set of 413 examples for Tutankhamun. But a couple of generations after Tut, Seti I was given in excess of 1000 examples – so should more shabtis be expected of Tut?


So-called ‘guardian statue’ of Tutankhamun

Thirty years ago, Reeves drew attention to the fact that no papyri had been found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Drawing analogies with hollow statues containing papyri in the tombs of Amenhotep II, Ramesses I and Seti I, papyrus scrolls might have been secreted in the kilt parts of the so-called ‘guardian statues’ flanking the entrance to the burial chamber. Though X-rays showed no such cavities, the question remains: if they existed at all, where are Tutankhamun’s papyri and what might they contain? While hardly likely to be a diary of the Boy King, they are likely to be funerary texts from an interesting time of religious transition.

While the original intended contents of Tutankhamun’s burial is unknowable, it is an intriguing possibility that further objects may await discovery.

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Curator’s Diary 19/04/13: Fragments of a Shattered Image

One of the most exciting aspects of working in a Museum is the occasional discovery of long-forgotten gems that lie in storage and which are often only brought to light by the chance enquiry of an inquisitive researcher. Such was the case this week when Anna Garnett, our British Museum ‘Future Curator’ trainee and I went in search of objects bearing ancient Egyptian plaster, to take samples for a researcher. Lists of object numbers, provenances and dates gave some indication of the sort of objects we were looking for but – because many of the items in the collection have still not been photographed – the physical identification of items often yields a surprise.


I was pretty sure that I knew all the “key” pieces in the collection. These tend to be the ones that are mentioned in publications, because of their own significance or their relationship to other objects of note. These connections are not often obvious, and usually require book-based research. Yet, sometimes you open a drawer, register the form or decoration of something and immediately recognise it as part of a larger whole. Thus it was with genuine amazment that I opened a drawer to discover a piece of one of the most famous paintings to survive from ancient Egypt. I don’t mind admitting that I let out an audible gasp of surprise. How could I not have read that THIS was here?!


Princesses in the Ashmolean. Note the size of the adult heel!

The colours were a clue but the patterning was unmistakable. A small-ish piece (20 x 15cm) of mud brick, with thin painted plaster coating from Petrie’s excavations at Amarna. Number 8740. It is part of the much larger scene featuring two small princesses – daughters of Akhenaten – from a palace wall now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Petrie (Tell el-Amarna, 1894, p. 15) describes “the patronising air of the elder sister chucking the little one under the chin” and speculated that the paintings of the two figures is “perhaps the only use of light and shade by the Egyptians.” The princesses sit beside the much larger-scale foot of an adult – Akhenaten or Nefertiti – showing how large the original wall scene must have been. Petrie records many smaller fragments of painted plaster belonging to the wall – and that is what we must have in Manchester.  Our fragment seems to represent part of a patterned fabric – a cushion? – in the reds and yellows distinctive of this scene.

Other bits are doubtless scattered in collections around the world. But the thrill of recognising just one small part compares with Petrie’s joy at first sight of the whole.


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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.


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Investigating Tutankhamen’s curse… and 100 years of Nefertiti’s bust.

Dr. Joyce Tyldesley is Senior Lecturer on Manchester University’s Certificate Course in Egyptology, and Honorary Research Associate here at The Manchester Museum. Joyce is the well-known author of many accessible books on Egyptological topics, and her latest – Tutankhamen’s Curse: The Developing History of an Egyptian King – is published on the 9th of February. The book tells the story not just of the Boy King, but – arguably of more interest – addresses the reasons why we are fascinated by him.

Joyce Tyldesley and Nefertiti

Joyce and Nefertiti

I recently met with Joyce, who came to the Museum to examine one of our objects for her next book. Her interest lay not a genuine artefact, however, but in a replica: our reproduction of the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti. This iconic image was discovered in 1912, and thus joins our Egypt galleries in celebrating a centenary this year. It was found by a German mission working at Tell el-Amarna, the short-lived royal residence city of Nefertiti’s husband Akhenaten (c. 1352-1336 BC), and is now housed in Berlin.

Joyce is currently writing an account of the modern obsession with the bust, and its central place in our impression of ancient beauty. As it is impossible to handle the original bust, Joyce asked if she could examine the Manchester copy as it is one of a number of accurate replicas made in Germany and now in several museums.

Manchester Nefertiti replica bust

Bust displayed previously

The Manchester bust – although not genuine, and never claimed to be – has always been popular with visitors. The new Ancient Worlds galleries will reflect the popularity of Nefertiti and her time by including both a rich selection of objects discovered at Amarna and several Amarna-style artworks: some educational copies and some made with the intent to deceive.

The modern reception of Tutankhamen and Nefertiti offer a fascinating insight into the continuing  allure of Ancient Egypt. The Museum is delighted that Dr. Tyldesley has used some of our objects in her research, and I eagerly anticipate the publication of both books.


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