02 April 2009

Vanity, Thy Name is Uppity Woman (Updated)

Her name means "The Beautiful One who has come" -- but apparently she got a little touch-up help from an Amarna-age beautician.

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!

'Beauty of Nile' unmasked -- wrinkles and all

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.

Well, maybe.

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).

If Thutmose really took a plaster cast from the queen's own face, it is doubtful (to put it mildly) that he meant to turn that treasure into ... plaster.

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.

Not a frail woman

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


  1. A side-note:
    Perhaps it is wise to not include
    "woman" in the translation of the
    name, as I think to recall that
    "The Beautiful One who has come"
    could refer to a goddess (coming
    out in a procession on a festival
    day), seeing the existence of other names of that type. But I could not refind where I read that, alas.

  2. That's a very good point, Aayko. I'll make the change.

  3. Anonymous4/4/09 11:44

    I should point out that although official worship was (we can imagine) led by the Pharaohs, the practice of worshiping the sun's disk had only started with Akhenaten, and was ended, I read, during Tutenkhamun's reign as a puppet of the old guard.

  4. Anonymous6/4/09 17:41

    Your blog on Nefertiti is amusing and informative. Oddly, no one ever seems to see the obvious other side of this. Akhenaten kept insisting that Nefertiti was beautiful in order to convince himself and Egypt that surely beautiful, healthy Nefertiti would soon produce a son and heir for him. Akhenaten did not really mind the fact that her beauty faded a bit as Nefertiti aged. But he was catatonic that Nefertiti did not produce a male heir. Amarna is filled with iconography showing that Nefertiti will soon produce a male heir for Akhenaten, which indeed could be viewed as being the essence of Akhenaten's new religion -- worshipping the One God is the way to be sure to have a royal male heir by the Queen of Egypt. But Nefertiti never produced a son. The dark side of the emphasis on Nefertiti's beauty is that when she failed to produce a son, she was totally banished from sight, with no sign of a funeral or any mourning of her mysterious, sudden exit from history.

    Jim Stinehart
    Evanston, Illinois

  5. Anonymous,

    The later Queen Nefertari (wife of Ramses II) is shown in her own tomb's wall paintings sacrificing at the high altar, just as Nefertiti had been depicted (albeit on more public monuments). She was also present at the investiture of a new First Prophet at Karnak, so there is a good possibility that she, too, could approach the great deities directly.


    We just don't know what happened to Nefertiti. Banished? murdered? died a natural death? became co-regent? ruled under the name of Pharaoh Smenkhkare? The state of play is summed up at Nefertiti's Tour Egypt web page.

    That said, it must have been a huge disappointment when she produced six daughters (four of whom died very young) and no son. This failure would have been especially important in Nefertiti's case since she represented the cosmic female principle in the new religion.

  6. Anonymous13/4/09 23:45

    Judith Weingarten:

    You wrote: “That said, it must have been a huge disappointment when she produced six daughters (four of whom died very young) and no son. This failure would have been especially important in Nefertiti's case since she represented the cosmic female principle in the new religion.”

    Yes, Nefertiti’s failure to bear a son was a fatal blow to the new religion that Akhenaten was trying to institute. As to the deaths of their six daughters, two died as sickly little girls, two died as young teenagers or pre-teens, probably after being impregnated by their father, and two died in their early 20s, after bearing sickly female babies to their father who quickly died. There is no way that Nefertiti could have ruled as Smenkhkare or otherwise, because Nefertiti had so conspicuously failed in her primary role of bearing Akhenaten a male heir. All four daughters who made it to age 12 courageously tried to accomplish what their mother had failed to do, but in vain, and with truly tragic consequences. (The story of Lot’s wife in Genesis is the same as the story of Nefertiti, except that in the Bible the very young teenage daughters are successful in bravely insisting upon bearing their father the male heirs their mother did not.)

    Thus the “beauty” of Nefertiti has a very dark underside. Prior to Nefertiti’s ignoble, sudden disappearance, Akhenaten kept claiming to the world that his wife, Queen Nefertiti, was unbelievably beautiful, not because she was pretty or because he greatly loved her (though both were true), but rather in a desperate assertion that through faith in the One God, the Queen of Egypt would in due course be sure to produce a fine male heir for Akhenaten. That never happened (as opposed to Abraham’s faith that in due course beloved, beautiful Sarah would eventually bear Abraham a proper male heir), and Akhenaten’s dramatic, monotheistic religious reforms were totally rejected by Egypt within a generation after Akhenaten’s passing.

    My point is that Nefertiti’s “beauty” was extraordinarily important in world history, and in fact ended up very, very badly.

    Jim Stinehart
    Evanston, Illinois

  7. Adrienne Giacon15/4/09 02:24

    I think it is often the case we put the limited perceptions of our own societys onto that of the past. When these treasures were first dicsovered the western ideals were that every woman had to produce a male heir or she was useless. This does not mean it was also the case in Egypt. AKhnenaton had other wives. AS did Amenhotep his father. Often in the past a son of a lesser wife would assume power. Or a Daughter would become ruler.Often sons were not even mentioned in stelae until they assumed power.This was the case with Akhenaton. His brother Tuthmosis was mentioned in few places. The fact that Nefertiti was given equal status- and many beleive became Smenkhare shows that being a female was not an impediment to rule Egypt.
    There is also no definitive evidence that Akhenaton Physically fathered his daughters children. In ceremonial titles, as in keeping with their religion, they became the Kings wives. This offered them the highest status they could be given. AS such they were then on a par in a ceremonial way with Hathor. How else could they be in communication or be an incarnation of the divine on earth, if they are not given the status she had in the other worlds.
    Not everything is literal.
    Not everything is done then from the same perspective as we see things today.
    They wove the other worlds together with the physical. Wlked between them. AS shown on releifs and in texts. Had Oracles and Prophets and soothsayers. Not everything is black and white as most in the West prefer it to be.

    I must also mention here that Amenhotep III actually started the leaning towards the worship of the Aten. There is also conjecture that he and Akhenaton had a joint rule for some time. As such the move was to wrest the power from the Amun priesthood who were a little over zealous at the time.

  8. Anonymous15/4/09 20:37

    Adrienne Giacon wrote: “Akhnenaton had other wives. As did Amenhotep his father. Often in the past a son of a lesser wife would assume power.”

    Yes, that is why except for Amarna, we never see any other pharaoh of Egypt desperate to sire a son/grandson by his own daughters. Any other pharaoh would instead have sired an heir by a lesser wife from his harem. But Akhenaten’s mother, the powerful Queen Tiye, had forbidden her husband, Egypt’s richest pharaoh, Amenhotep III (the “King of Kings”), from naming as his successor any of his dozens of sons by lesser wives upon the untimely death of their beloved firstborn son, Thutmose. Instead, powerful Queen Tiye insisted that the new rule of succession in Egypt from now on would be that the next pharaoh must, if possible, be a biological male descendant of both the prior pharaoh and his main wife #1, the Queen of Egypt. Amenhotep III, despite his gargantuan harem, was truly in love with his own wife (that is, his main wife #1, powerful Queen Tiye), and he honored her command by duly choosing as his successor Akhenaten, whom Amenhotep III never liked, but who was the biological son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. Akhenaten for his part well realized that the o-n-l-y reason why Akhenaten had become pharaoh was because of his beloved mother’s new rule of Egyptian succession, which required that the next pharaoh be a biological descendant of both the old pharaoh and his main wife #1, the Queen of Egypt. So Akhenaten was the only pharaoh in history who was absolutely desperate to sire a son by his main wife #1, Queen Nefertiti, or failing that, by one of his daughters by Nefertiti. This was the only time in 3,000 years of ancient Egypt when that particular dynamic played out. Unfortunately for Akhenaten’s brand of monotheism, his mother’s new rule for Egyptian successions turned out to be an absolute disaster, as neither Nefertiti nor any of her four oldest daughters proved capable of bearing a son to Akhenaten. By contrast, Abraham’s brand of monotheism is still with us today, as his main wife #1, Sarah (who like Nefertiti had been beautiful in her prime and truly beloved by her husband), bravely risked her own life expectancy by bearing Isaac in advanced middle age (age 45 in regular, 12-month years, being 90 stated 6-month “years”), a critically important feat that Nefertiti failed to accomplish. These stories only occur once in 5,000 years of mankind’s history, and in each case the future of a new monotheistic religion hung in the balance. My point is that Nefertiti’s beauty turned out to be a major turning point in history, when that beauty tragically failed to be a harbinger of bearing a male heir.

    Jim Stinehart

  9. Adrienne Giacon23/4/09 05:18

    Intersting comments Jim. But many of it appears to be conjecture? From where do you gain the information that tells you that Queen Tiye insisted her blood son be Akhenaton? Where do you get the information that AMenhotep III did not like his son originally called Amenhotep IV? If anything Akhenatons religous worship of the Aten, is often interpreted as the deification of his father Amenhotep III who started to focus on the new worship of Aten?

    From where do you get the statement that Akhenaton was obssessed with gaining a son? I would be interested to see this. It is often assumed that Tutankhamen was Kiyas son. But once again this has not been proved. It will be interesting to see what the latest range of DNA tests can tell us.
    If you do have texts that support your theories, I would love you to share them?

  10. Anonymous23/4/09 21:44

    Adrienne Giacon wrote:

    1. “Interesting comments Jim. But many of it appears to be conjecture? From where do you gain the information that tells you that Queen Tiye insisted her blood son be Akhenaton?”

    All Egyptologists agree that Queen Tiye was “powerful”. The essence of a Queen’s power is to insist that her husband’s designated successor (and actual successor) be a blood son of the Queen, assuming that there is a competent blood son (and that the Queen survives her husband, both of which happened here), not the son of a minor wife from her husband’s harem. Powerful Queen Tiye would not allow her husband, Amenhotep III, to choose as his successor one of his manly sons by his hundreds of minor harem wives. Yes, popular Amenhotep III had the power to choose such a successor, but that would have totally undercut the standing of his beloved wife Queen Tiye, and would have shown that Queen Tiye was not powerful after all. Powerful Queen Tiye insisted that Egypt’s future pharaohs should be Queen Tiye’s blood descendants, not the offspring of minor harem wives. (Yes, I know that Amenhotep III himself was the offspring of a minor harem wife. Queen Tiye’s power consisted, first and foremost, of instituting a new rule of succession for Egyptian pharaohs.)

    2. “Where do you get the information that Amenhotep III did not like his son originally called Amenhotep IV?”

    Amenhotep III’s two greatest pleasures were (i) hunting, and (ii) his gargantuan harem of 1,000 lovelies. Akhenaten never went hunting once in his entire life, as far as we can tell, and Akhenaten had a small, inconspicuous harem. Amenhotep III was a “let the good times roll” type of guy, whereas Akhenaten was a religious zealot. Amenhotep III dearly loved his firstborn son, whom he very publicly promoted at a very early age. Meanwhile, we hear nothing of Akhenaten until Akhenaten is pharaoh. Likewise, Abraham’s favorite son was Ishmael, whose case he argues to YHWH (Genesis 17: 18), Isaac’s favorite son was Esau, whom Isaac tries to name as Isaac’s successor (chapter 27 of Genesis), and Jacob’s favorite son was Joseph, to whom alone Jacob gives “the coat of many colors”. The first two are literal firstborn sons, and the third is a type of firstborn son, since Joseph is the firstborn son by Jacob’s favorite main wife, Rachel. In all cases -- Amenhotep III, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- the result is the same. The firstborn, favorite son of such great monotheistic leader gets the shaft, and properly so, and the successor in all four cases is a younger, non-favorite son: Akhenaten, Isaac, Jacob, Judah.

    3. “If anything Akhenaton’s religious worship of the Aten, is often interpreted as the deification of his father Amenhotep III who started to focus on the new worship of Aten?”

    Not only did Akhenaten not deify his father (that would have been blasphemous to monotheistic Akhenaten), but also Akhenaten refused to live in the same town as his disliked father, moving out of Thebes to a new city Akhenaten created: Amarna.

    4. “From where do you get the statement that Akhenaton was obsessed with gaining a son? I would be interested to see this.”

    (a) Look at the next to last picture that Judith Weingarten posted. It is typical in showing Nefertiti, with her sexual features very pronounced, including a see-through dress, with one to six daughters standing behind here, and usually with Akhenaten, twice her size, standing in front of her (not pictured here), wearing a bull’s tail of virility. Although Akhenaten jettisoned most anthropomorphism, he always kept that bull’s tail of virility in all those many portraits that are so typical of Amarna. The rays of the sun-god Aten, with small hands at the end, shine down on Akhenaten and Nefertiti, but not on their daughter (or daughters). “Nefertiti’s transparent dress is open and shows her naked with the intention of stressing her fertility, while Akhenaten’s kingly power and virility…is indicated by the bull’s tail hanging down behind him.” Michael Haag, "The Rough Guide to Tutankhamun", Rough Guides Ltd, London (2005), at p. 24.

    (b) As to text, we’re pretty much limited to Akhenaten’s Great Hymn to the Aten, which is literally brimming with requests to Aten for a son (by Nefertiti):

    "O You, who make semen grow in women,/ who creates people from sperm,/ who feeds the son in his mother's womb,/ who soothes him to still his tears,/ You nurse in the womb!/ Giver of breath to nourish all creatures/ When the child emerges from the womb to breathe on the day of his birth,/ You open wide his mouth to supply his needs./ …When You rise, You make all arms firm for the King./ Every leg is on the move since You founded the Earth,/ You rouse them up for your son, who emerged from your body./ The King who lives by Maat [divine justice],/ the Lord of Two Lands [Upper and Lower Egypt]:/ Nefer-kheperu-Re [-Rah], Sole-one-of Re [Wah-n-Rah],/ the Son of Re [Sa-Rah] who lives by Maat,/ the Lord of Crowns, Akhenaten, great in his lifetime./ And the great Queen whom he loves,/ the Lady of the Two Lands:/ Nefer-neferu-Aten Nefertiti,/ who lives and is rejuvenated forever and ever."

    (As usual, Rah or Re is equated with Aten, being but different manifestations of the One God. Note the key phrase Sa-Rah, which is the name of Abraham’s wife who in the Bible fulfills the divine Covenant by giving birth to Isaac. Genesis 18: 15-16 tells us that Abraham’s wife is re-named “Sa-Rah”/Sarah precisely because she receives a divine blessing to bear the great initial monotheist a son. The lines of poetry set forth above are similar to Abraham’s heartfelt thoughts all those long years Sarah was childless.)

    5. “It is often assumed that Tutankhamen was Kiyas son. But once again this has not been proved. It will be interesting to see what the latest range of DNA tests can tell us.”

    It’s much more likely that Amenhotep III is the biological father of Tut, and that Sitamen (Akhenaten’s older full-sister) is the birth mother of Tut. Amenhotep III died at about the time of the child’s birth, and Sitamen died in childbirth, so neither parent was there to be able to try to promote infant Tut ahead of the man with the best bloodline claim to the throne: Akhenaten.

    Kiya cannot be Tut’s birth mother. The eyes in Kiya’s portraits were ruthlessly scratched out at Amarna, and minor wife Kiya and her child were ruthlessly exiled (just as minor wife Hagar and her child Ishmael were similarly ruthlessly exiled by the first monotheist in the Bible). Meanwhile, Tut was one of the very few people on earth who actually liked Akhenaten. Tut is lying there today, in Tut’s tomb, wearing Akhenaten’s skullcap (comparable to a Jewish skullcap) that honors the One God: Aten.

    Jim Stinehart

  11. Dear Jim, Adrienne, and Anonymous,

    Akhenaten's father, Amenophis III, began the worship of the sun disk. The living A III was already identified with the sun god Ra-Horakhty (and Tiyi with the sun god's consort, Hathor). He built a shrine in Karnak dedicated not to Amun but the sun-god, "who rejoices on the horizon in his name , the Sunlight which is in the Sun-Disk (Aten).

    Jim, I think that prayer is a prayer of Akhenaten to his own father, the Sun-disk. A is the physical son of the Sun-disk, 'thy son who came forth from thy body'. A is king on earth as his father is king in heaven. I don't see it as longing for a son; rather he is the son speaking to his father.

    Anyway, I suspect we are all getting beyond what is known (the succession is certainly murky), and beyond my Egyptological competence. Let's stop here.

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  13. It was wondering if I could use this write-up on my other website, I will link it back to your website though.Great Thanks.


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