The most beautiful woman in the world, Nefertiti, was made famous by her painted bust in the Berlin's Egyptian Museum. The bust was made with an inner core of carved limestone, which was first plastered and then richly painted. Flesh tones on the face give the piece amazing life.
Yesterday, the journal Radiology revealed that a CT scan had uncovered a hidden face under the plaster.
It was always thought that that the inner limestone was just a support. Not so.
Using the latest computer tomography (CT) techniques developed for medicine, researchers discovered that the core was, in fact, a highly detailed inner sculpture of the queen. And this limestone face differs in small but significant ways from the external plaster face:
The inner face has less prominent cheekbones, a slight bump on the ridge of the nose, marked wrinkles around the corner of the mouth and cheeks, and less depth at the corners of the eyelids.
Dr. Alexander Huppertz, director of Berlin's Imaging Science Institute, suggests that someone expressly ordered the adjustments between stone and plaster when royal sculptors immortalized the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten (r. 1353-1336 BCE).
John H. Taylor, a curator for Ancient Egypt and Sudan at London's British Museum, said the scan raises interesting questions about why the features were adjusted.
"One could deduce that the final version was considered in some way more acceptable than the 'hidden' one, though caution is needed in attempting to explain the significance of these changes."
Caution, my foot!
headlines the Independent. The newspaper makes no bones about it: Nefertiti had a facelift. And adds for good measure "Call it ancient world Botox."
Photoshop, Pharaoh Style: New York Times
Nefertiti's Real Wrinkled Face Found in Famous Bust: National Geographic
You get the idea.
A little more seriously, Huppertz suggests "The changes could have been made to make the queen adhere more to the ideals of the time."
Who can help but speculate? And he does: "It is possible that the bust of Nefertiti was probably commissioned (by King Akhenaten himself ) to represent her according to his personal perception."
What husband wouldn't want that, when he's paying for a portrait of His Great Royal Wife?
Possessed of Charm, Exuding Happiness, Mistress of Sweetness, beloved one, soothing the king's heart in his house, soft-spoken in all, Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt, Great King's Wife, whom he loves, Lady of the Two Lands, Nefertiti.
A Sculptor's Model?
The bust of Queen Nefertiti was found inside the Amarna workshop of the royal sculptor, who described himself as The King's Favourite and Master of Works, the Sculptor, Thutmose.
It was excavated by the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt in 1912.* Entries in his diaries show that he was beside himself with excitement when he unearthed his find. "Suddenly we have the most alive Egyptian artwork in our hands," he wrote. "You cannot describe it with words. You can only see it."
He assumed that the sculptor would have taken an original plaster mask of the queen's face and used it as a model for the bust.
Nefertiti seems to incarnate an ideal of beauty which we share. But has everyone suddenly forgotten that this is not a finished piece? And perhaps was never meant to be finished? Like many other plaster portrait heads found in Thutmose's studio (as the four here), it shows a keen interest in the individual traits of the living face -- at least in the unfinished state. So, the iconic bust of Nefertiti may well be a sculptor's model -- a piece meant for study and to be copied by apprentices (see now update below).
Pharaohs didn't do plaster.
At best, this is the starting point for a major piece, not the end result.
The sculptor was surely not prettying up plaster for her husband.
Besides, Akhenaten seems not to have minded wrinkles.
Here she is praying to the sun. Wrinkles are the least of her worries -- pictured, as she is, with an oversized ear, protruding chin, and a thin, stretched neck.
An Uppity Woman
Nefertiti was often depicted on temple walls the same size as the king, signifying her importance. She is shown conducting rituals and worshipping the sun-disk Aten -- a role hitherto reserved for the pharaoh, and yet Nefertiti is seen doing the same. The king as a god himself, as well as the high priest, had always been the only person allowed to communicate with his fellow deities. This changed dramatically after Hatshepsut and when Nefertiti started to address the gods in her own right.
Whether or not she was ever elevated to the status of co-regent, there is much evidence that Nefertiti enjoyed unprecedented power, perhaps equal in status to the king himself.
Most impressively, she is shown on a relief from the temple at Amarna (left), smiting a foreign enemy with a mace under the rays of the Aten. Even if her victim is also female, she shares with Akhenaten the serious business of smiting Egypt's enemies. A second stela shows her driving a chariot, another activity normally associated only with the king.
Frailty, thy name is not Nefertiti.
Nor is she a modern cover girl. The Berlin Museum has recently installed a new lighting arrangement for the famous bust. It reveals fine wrinkles and slight bags under the queen’s eyes and on her neck.
Will we ever stop imposing our standards of female beauty on the past?
And now I hope that Egyptology will quit producing so many good stories for a bit. It's more than time that I get back to Zenobia and the 3rd-century C.E.
Update 4 April 2009: New Evidence of the sculpture as a working model.
Having now read the full CT report (again, thanks to Aayko Eyma), one of many interesting observations is the fact that Nefertiti's missing left eye was not, as has been thought, a result either of its long burial or an excavation mishap, but was never put in its socket. The lens of the right eye is a rock crystal inlay (2 mm thick) with a pupil made of black-coloured wax. The left eye, on the other hand, seemed to have never been filled with an inlay and contained no lens and no pupil.
The authors surmise that this was a deliberate omission and shows that the bust was probably just a working model at the time of its creation, serving as a copy model. Thus, the royal sculptor Thutmose may have used it to demonstrate to his apprentices how to make the hollow in which the eye would be set in the carved stone.
* The Egyptian government wants the bust back, claiming that it was deceptively disguised when the finds were divided between the archaeological authorities and Germany in 1913. The Independent story briefly covers this dispute. More at Spiegel Online.
My thanks to Aayko Eyma of EEF-Day (30-31 March 2009) for this 'Breaking News' on the CT scans.
Upper left: Via Associated Press
Upper middle left: Via Welt On Line. And have a look at the extraordinary fine detail of her ear (Bild 4).
Lower middle left: From Wikipedia.org
Right: From TourEgypt.net
Bottom left: From Wikipedia.org