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.
For decades, it was believed that Nefertiti had vanished from the records around Akhenaten’s Regnal Year 12, either due to death or having fallen from grace. But the discovery of the Deir El-Bersha quarry graffito changed all that; for it proved she was alive in Year 16 as a Queen.
Dr Aidan Dodson stands firm in his belief that the bust portrays Nefertiti, “The head is a proper forensic reconstruction by a specialist in such work. As far as the accuracy of the reconstruction is concerned, I have no means of judging, other than through the high professional reputation of the sculptor involved. The reconstruction was also done to see if the mummy DIDN'T look like Nefertiti. Genetics, however, are the key evidence: the reconstruction is a secondary point; and the various ancient representations are not consistent with each other in detail - although there is a common underlying bone-structure consistent with the reconstruction.”
Limestone fragment with cartouche of Neferneferuaten Nefertiti. Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Dodson puts forth his arguments for why he considers the Younger Lady to be Nefertiti, “The absence of male children depicted among Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s brood in the Amarna tombs should by no means be taken as indicating they had no such offspring. These theories are based on strong circumstantial evidence, as there is no obvious other candidate, apart from Nefertiti, among individuals actually named in the archaeological record. In this case, genetically the Younger Lady is Tutankhamun's mother; genetically she was EITHER the sister of his father (generally agreed to be Akhenaten, although I know that there are dissenters), OR his first cousin (following on from three previous generations of first-cousin marriages). As we have no evidence whatsoever of a sister-wife of Akhenaten, and there are credible reconstructions that make Nefertiti such a first cousin, I plump for her.” And, in the same breath, he dismisses Kiya as a likely candidate.
Noting the “silence” in historical records regarding the parentage of Nefertiti in comparison to “the repeated mention of Queen Tiye’s parents” Dr Marianne Eaton-Krauss wonders, “What if one of the daughters of Amenhotep III changed her name to Nefertiti when she became Akhenaten’s spouse? Still, if Nefertiti were indeed Amenhotep III’s daughter and a sister of Akhenaten (and/or Smenkhkare?), the absence of the titles King’s Daughter and King’s Sister from her titulary would be remarkable, given the extensive documentation for her.”
Three daughters of Pharaoh Akhenaten participate in a ceremonial procession in this wall relief from a tomb in Amarna. Barring sporadic instances, princes were, as a rule, not depicted in art until the early Nineteenth Dynasty.
A Question of Color
Dr Aidan Dodson, who is all set to release the new edition of ‘ Amarna Sunset ’ soon and plans to pen a stand-alone book on Nefertiti, which will also cover the facial reconstruction, denies suggestions that the bust showed a pale, almost white skin tone, “This bust may not have looked like it under studio lights, but the skin colour was actually matched to modern Egyptian women. The Berlin bust shows very light skin tone.” Dwelling on the subject noted Egyptologist, Dr Raymond Johnson, explains the issues of race and skin tone, “From the beginning of human history Egypt was the gateway out of the African continent, but was also the main route back in. The population of Egypt was always a mix of European and African races, and the Egyptian court – and royal harem – reflected this. Amenhotep III’s many wives included foreign wives from countries all around Egypt and the Mediterranean, including Caucasians, but he was certainly of mixed blood, as was Queen Tiye. We can never know for sure what the skin color of this princess might have been, but as the child of Amenhotep III and Tiye, she was undoubtedly not pure Caucasian. A brown skin color would have probably been more true to the individual represented, and to her times.”
The facial reconstruction of the Younger Lady mummy from KV35 next to a 3D replica of its head created from digital mapping. (Photo: Travel Channel’s ‘Expedition Unknown')
In response to those who saw a rather “European-looking” Nefertiti bust, British Egyptologist Dylan Bickerstaffe avers, “I'm astonished to see people complaining that this likeness is too ‘white’. It’s a shade darker than the Berlin bust. True, Egypt is currently a mixed race - and colour shades of the present population vary enormously - but what evidence is there that Amenhotep III had any black ancestry? What evidence is there of foreign queens being the mothers of kings? A lot of people are so desperate to avoid upsetting the growing lobby of people who have decided that ‘the Egyptians were black’ (because the Egyptians were black!) that they pass over any evidence to the contrary in silence. It is not just the Nefertiti bust that shows pale skin, so does the tomb of Nefertari, and numerous depictions in New Kingdom tombs.
“The Egyptians weren't shy about depicting their neighbours in a variety of skin hues (e.g. three different darker shades for Nubians at Beit el Wali, and the range depicted for foreign peoples in Rekhmire's tomb). As to the reconstruction in question, a compromise has been struck by adopting a darker hue (which some would now call 'black') than the Berlin bust. The real objection of most people to this reconstruction is that she looks too miserable, and is not beautiful enough. I repeat - all the images we have of Nefertiti are idealisations, or abstract exercises from the extreme phase in Amarna art.”
But Egyptologist, Dr Steve Harvey, says that we should abandon “… antiquated discussions of race; a pseudo-scientific category best left out of it. The Berlin bust is only one of many wildly diverging images of Nefertiti. These are works of art, and as such cannot really be regarded as providing a benchmark for a close comparison to human remains, regardless of the arguments one way or the other.” The prime objection that some scholars and enthusiasts raised was that instead of stating it was the face of the Younger Lady, the reconstruction team had declared the bust to be the true likeness of Nefertiti—and had decked her with an identical flat-topped crown and matching jewelry. Worse, it was also alleged that the artist, Élisabeth, had modeled the lower half of this sculpture on her own face!
Limestone or calcite head of a statuette, possibly Pharaoh Aye – believed by some to have been Nefertiti’s father. The royal uraeus would have probably been added after completion. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Realism and Reconstructions
Sofia Aziz, who specializes in the study of ancient Egyptian medicine elaborates, “It must be difficult to do a reconstruction from a mummy. The nasal bones would have been damaged during the mummification process and the eyes and eyebrows would have collapsed. In fact, on closely inspecting this reconstruction she does appear like the mummified face. I respect all the hard work that must have gone into this project, but it looks too much like a collapsed mummified face being given fillers/Botox. How can anyone argue this is exactly how the Younger Lady appeared?”
Detail of a talatat block from Amarna shows Nefertiti with her eldest daughter Meritaten. It is also suggested that this is Kiya with her unnamed daughter. Brooklyn Museum.
But such exercises by world class experts call into question the methods they adopt to arrive at accuracy. Not so long ago, specialists reconstructed Tutankhamun’s face in at least three different ways. If they all saw the same craniofacial structure, and had used similar techniques, why would their versions be as different as chalk and cheese? Russian Egyptologist, Victor Solkin, refers to this aspect in relation to the new bust, “It was a huge mistake to create an image with the tall blue crown of Nefertiti. This will cause more confusion amongst the media concerning the queen. The face of Tutankhamun was an example of how different the results of such reconstructions made by different specialists can be. So, to me this is just another version, quite ugly even by its impression.”
This graceful, translucent drinking cup made of Travertine (Egyptian alabaster) is in the form of a white lotus blossom. It is inscribed with the names of Amenhotep IV and Queen Nefertiti, suggesting the vessel must have been made before Year 5 of the king's reign, when he changed his name to Akhenaten. Metropolitan Museum of Art
Sofia Aziz explains why this reconstruction is off the mark, “A CT scan of the skull was not carried out. It was an external laser imaging of the mummified head from which a 3D printed replica was produced, which would explain why this reconstruction is not accurate.” Citing her past experience in reconstructing ancient Egyptian faces, well-known Forensic Egyptologist, Janet Davey, states: “Yes, I saw the hand held scanner which had inherent problems with gaining a reliable image of a body lying down. A CT scanner and visualisation workstation such as Siemens Syngo Vis would give accurate data.”
Terming the forensic facial reconstruction of the mummy of the Younger Lady a “beautiful job” Raymond Johnson, opines, “The forensically reconstructed face with its narrow skull, deep-set eyes, and triangular jaw is beautiful but in no way resembles the portraits that survive of Nefertiti.” All of this makes one wonder: if the mummy of Nefertiti has already been positively identified, why then are millions of dollars being spent in following-up on the KV62 double-burial theory proposed by Dr Nicholas Reeves in 2015?
The author expresses his gratitude to Dr Aidan Dodson , Dr Steve Harvey , Dylan Bickerstaffe , and Victor Solkin for their invaluable inputs in this series.
Photos of the 3D bust of the Younger Lady , courtesy: Travel Channel, ‘Expedition Unknown’.
[The author thanks Heidi Kontkanen , Merja Attia and Oliviero Piccinali for granting permission to use their photographs. The public archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art can be accessed here.]
Top Image: Detail of the Berlin bust of Nefertiti; and the latest 3D sculpture of the queen based on the mummy of the Younger Lady; design by Anand Balaji (Photo credit: John Bosch and Travel Channel); Deriv.
By Anand Balaji
Independent researcher and playwright Anand Balaji , is an Ancient Origins guest writer and author of Sands of Amarna: End of Akhenaten .
Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton, The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt , 2004
Nicholas Reeves and Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Valley of the Kings, 2008
Aidan Dodson, Amarna Sunset: Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb, and the Egyptian Counter-Reformation, 2009
Joyce A. Tyldesley, Nefertiti: Egypt’s Sun Queen, 1998
W. M. Miller, The Theban Royal Mummy Project .
Howard Carter and A.C. Mace, The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen, 1977
Marianne Eaton-Krauss, The Unknown Tutankhamun, 2016
Nicholas Reeves, The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure, 1990
Richard H. Wilkinson, Kent Weeks, The Oxford Handbook of the Valley of the Kings, 2015
The problem with the skin is not so much its tone as the light patches around the eyes looking like she has fallen asleep on the sun bed with her shades on! If anything the reconstruction proves the younger Lady is NOT Nefertiti. The reconstruction has a narrower face, broader nose and longer upper lip. Unfortunately no DNA test can identify Nefertiti as she has no proven relatives for comparison.
DNA tests on New Kingdom pharaohs has shown them to be of overwhelmingly Near Eastern ancestry. They spoke a Semitic language and portrayed themselves as neither black nor white but inbetween Nubians and Europeans.
These caucasoid mummies were exceptions and were not native to Egypt. The native people of North Africa have never been Caucasoid.
Many Egyptian mummies had blond or red hair with blue eyes with European looks. About time people face the truth of human society, out of Africa story is now looking ordinary !!
These arguments about her color are silly. As Claudio S already wrote, the Egyptians were not black Africans.
Egypt has been a multi ethnic society since ancient times. The idea of a racial controversy with it is a ridiculous and meaningless one.