Bust of Contention: Nefertiti’s sculpture raises issues of Race and Color—Part II
The recent attempt at reconstructing the face of the iconic beauty, Nefertiti, by basing her looks on the mummy of the Younger Lady found in KV35 has caused an enormous uproar among Egyptophiles all across the globe. They say it is an insult to the origins of the ancient queen to be shown with lighter skin. But, those involved in the project stand their ground and state that this is the true likeness of the mother of King Tutankhamun, and that the bust appeared white because of the studio lights. Not many are convinced with these responses – and the jury is still out on the former conclusion.
The facial reconstruction sculpture of the mummy called the Younger Lady, bearing what is said to be the true likeness of Nefertiti who is speculated by some scholars to have been Tutankhamun’s biological mother. (Photo: Travel Channel, ‘Expedition Unknown')
On 6 February 2018, as part of the Travel Channel’s show “Expedition Unknown” that delves into the lives of three iconic women from ancient Egypt – Hatshepsut, Cleopatra and Nefertiti – the host, Joshua Gates, unveiled the reconstructed face of the Younger Lady. DNA tests conducted in 2010 identified her as the mother of Tutankhamun, full sibling of the male mummy found in KV55 (Akhenaten); and by virtue of that, a daughter of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. “Since Tut’s father was the Pharaoh Akhenaten, and since Nefertiti was the great royal wife of Akhenaten, this makes the mummy a prime candidate to be Nefertiti herself,” claimed Joshua.
However, he hadn’t arrived at this controversial identification of the Younger Lady all by himself – one that was proposed by Professor Joann Fletcher of the University of York in 2003 before being shot down by Dr Zahi Hawass – but by collaborating with Amarna expert Dr Aidan Dodson , a team of scientists at the University of Bristol in England, Egyptian museum officials, and popular paleoartist Élisabeth Daynès . Using the latest laser imaging technology, the team scanned the head and digitally mapped the face, allowing 3D prints to be produced; one of which was given to the reconstruction expert, who used standard forensic data on average thicknesses of flesh at key points to build up a ‘living’ head around the 3D print using clay. The result was then cast in flesh-like silicon, eyes added and finished using paints.
Reflecting on the entire process, Élisabeth revealed, “This project is very special and very complex. I worked closely with forensic paleopathologists and anthropologists to determine accurate muscle, skin and soft tissue depth. Everything was meticulously calculated by hand. In all, it took more than 500 hours to create the bust. Even the jewelry was handcrafted by designers who work for Dior.”
Limestone trial piece showing the head of Nefertiti. This drawing of the Queen, with the lips cut out, was found in the 1890s in Amarna. It shares the iconic features of the Berlin bust. Petrie Museum, London. (Photo: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg ))
Zivie once observed that the face of Nefertiti “is part of our culture, like a picture of Che Guevara or Einstein or the Mona Lisa in Paris.” Dr Joyce Tyldesley provides an equally compelling assessment, “Her instantly recognizable face adorns a variety of modern artifacts, from expensive jewelry to cheap postcards, t-shirts, and bags, all over the world. She has appeared on page, stage, screen, and opera. This enduring obsession is the result of just one object: the lovely and mysterious Nefertiti bust….”
Given this overwhelming level of adulation, it was but natural that eyebrows were raised when the reconstructed face of the Younger Lady dubbed “Nefertiti” was shown to the public across the world. Netizens were an extremely unhappy lot with many taking to Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms to express their immense displeasure. Far from striking awe in people’s hearts, the bust raised a storm, for their beloved queen was portrayed as a nervous woman who appeared like a “European tourist after a summer holiday in the Med”. The sculptress, Élisabeth, had in the past recreated the face of Tutankhamun—an effort that most felt was repulsive.
Right profile view of the ‘Younger Lady’ mummy from KV35. Over the years, experts have proposed various names, ranging from Nefertiti to Sitamun, to identify this person. Wikimedia Commons. (Photo: G. Elliot Smith )
The Younger Lady as Nefertiti
Given the age and poor state of preservation of the Younger Lady, the theories proposed pertaining to her are insufficient, circumstantial, and inconclusive. So not everyone is convinced cent percent that the mummy used to create this face is indeed Nefertiti. Some sections seem to want to state positively that DNA has “proven” the relationship between certain individuals of the Amarna period, but extracting DNA from Egyptian mummies has proven troublesome, and whether or not the results are truly as accurate as some wish to believe, is a debatable point. Over the last decade there have been many attempts with varying and ambiguous results.