13 November 2009

Two-Timing Nefertiti?

There are two Nefertiti stories making the rounds -- one important and one maybe not so much.

We'll start with the lesser news of the day, yet another attempt to tell us what the real Nefertiti really really looked like.

Two Italian scholars -- Franco Crevatin , an ethnologist at Trieste University, and Stefano Anselmo, an expert in the history of cosmetics -- have created a computer-generated image (left) which they believe is closer to Queen Nefertiti's actual face than the one shown in the famous painted bust (below left) displayed in Berlin's newly-opened Neues Museum.*

You may remember the hot news last March when the statue of the most beautiful woman in the world, Nefertiti, went through a CT scan [if you don't remember, have a look now at Vanity, Thy Name is Uppity Woman, which tells you all you need to know]. Briefly, the scan revealed a hidden face under the painted plaster: inside the bust was a limestone core that was, in fact, a highly detailed inner sculpture of the queen. And this limestone face differed in small but significant ways from the external plaster face:

The inner face had 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.

Starting from the entirely reasonable assumption that the outer image had been idealized (for portrait painters have always smoothed away their client's blemishes, bumps, and wrinkles), the Italians took the inner core as the 'true' picture of the queen.

"To reconstruct the face," Stefano Anselmo says, "I studied the art of the 18th Dynasty, the epoch of Akhenaten: masterpieces which depict persons possibly physically related to the queen. The artists preferred curved lines for the faces. Taking account of the imperfections revealed by the CAT scan I created slight hints of sagging around the lips, similar to lines, and the first signs of circles under the eyes."

And, as cosmetician, he added, "I worked mainly on the complexion, replacing the greys of the CT scan with a biscuit-amber tone, which was presumably the skin colour of Nefertiti."


I can buy the subtle differences -- shallower eye sockets, less pronounced cheekbones, lines around the mouth and a tiny bump on the bridge of the nose. I'm less convinced by the thickening of her lips or rounding of the chin. (I see no justification for these changes: check back to scrutinize her scanned images on the earlier post).

But the skin colour truly shocks.

Compare the colour painted on the plaster bust as she now appears (left). The artist certainly didn't idealistically lighten her skin (or she would have been chalk-white, as women often are on wall paintings). Rather, her skin has very much the tone you see on Egyptian women today.

You don't believe me?

Have a good look at the luscious Khadiga el-Gamal (right), wife of the heir to the Egyptian throne; oops, sorry, I mean wife of President Hosni Mubarak's son.

''Reproducing the face of a queen who is surrounded by such mystery required months of painstaking, detailed work,'' Franco Crevatin said.

Yes, indeed. Perhaps they should have spent more of this time travelling in Egypt. And less time contemplating Black Athena.

Lovely earrings, though.

Who Two-Timed Whom?

The new reconstruction will add just one more controversy to the many Nefertiti disputes that continue more than 3,500 years after her death.

Hot right now is the issue of repatriation: does she stay in Berlin or hotfoot it back to Egypt? This tug-of-war plagued her triumphant exhibition as the über Meisterwerk in Berlin's Museum Island's Neues Museum. The Egyptian Antiquities Department allege that she was exported illegally by the German excavation team in 1912. "Entirely legal!" huff and puff the Germans.

More on "Two-Timing Nefertiti?" in the next post.

Meanwhile, here she is in all her outer glory:

* Their findings were published this month in Focus Storia, an online history journal.


Upper left: Reconstruction of the 'true face' of Nefertiti, © Stefano Anselmo, Casa della Vita
Centre left: Image of the bust of Nefertiti courtesy the Neues Museum

Lower right: Photograph of Khadiga el-Gamal from ArabianBusiness.com

Video of the bust in the Neues Museum: Eine Kurzfilm von Kathrin Rosi Würtz (via YouTube.com)


  1. So the idea of an African Queen with black skin is just too far fetched for you, is it?

    And why should the model for Nefertiti's skin colour be from the delta region. She was a Theban after all located further south of Egypt. And the population even today tends to be darker the further you go south.

    But in any event, i dare suggest that the populations of AE before the Invasions and occupations by Libyans,Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Turks were much more light skinned than present.

    Is there any other region on the face of the Earth besides Africa which has to explain or justify the presence of sophisticted culture within its borders as indigenous?

    1. Anonymous2/9/15 18:49

      Because African history is too powerful, too old and too profound to admit to, without feeling you can no longer claim to be superior. The European elites have done a great deal of damage the the mental state of common people.

  2. Mghani,

    I don't think I ever said that Egyptian culture was not indigenous: it certainly was.

    Still, that doesn't make Nefertiti a 'biscuit-amber' colour. Rather, I'd leave the colour question to the artists of the time -- who clearly painted her skin in a lighter tone.

    If you have any other information, please let me hear!

    Why do you think she was Theban? We really don't know her ancestry (or at least I don't), or even if she was Egyptian born.

  3. Thanks for that link, Marc. Of course, I haven't read the book yet but (judging from the ZeitOnline review) I can't see that Bénédicte Savoy has changed the thrust of the legal argument. He does, however, put it usefully in the context of post WWI acrimony and archaeological politics. For the moment anyway, I'll stick with the version of events I outlined in 'Two-Timing Nefertiti II'. Or do you take another view?


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