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Bust of Nefertiti

The bust of Nefertiti is one of the best-known finds in the world dating back to ancient Egypt. Nefertiti was the wife of Akhenaten, the infamous pharaoh who introduced a new monotheistic religion of the sun god that supplanted the worship of all the other gods. He portrayed himself as the incarnation of the sun god. Nefertiti served as his queen between the 1.350s- 1.330s BC (almost 3.5 thousand years ago). The royal couple lived in Akhenaten’s new capital Amarna, about halfway between Cairo and Luxor.

Presentation of the Nefertiti bust shortly after discovery in 1912. Left to right Hermann Ranke Paul Hollander and Mohammed es-Senussi.

Presentation of the Nefertiti bust shortly after discovery in 1912. Left to right Hermann Ranke Paul Hollander and Mohammed es-Senussi.

On December 6, 1912, German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt excavated the ruins of an old house in Amarna. The house had been identified as belonging to a sculptor named Thutmose. In one of the rooms came to light more than twenty plaster molds incomplete or barely sketched, stone heads completed, and others still to be finished. They saw a “skin-colored neck” in the rubble. The excavators put aside their tools and first revealed the lower part of the bust and then the blue headdress with their hands. The portrait of Nefertiti was almost intact. Ludwig Borchardt noted that the colors were still so bright that they appeared to be “freshly painted.”

One of the first photos of The Nefertiti Bust, Amarna, 1912

The missing parts of the left ear were searched for and discovered; the missing left eye was also searched for but never found. Only later, Borchardt wrote, did he realize that this eye had never been put in its place; thus, the bust had never been completed. It is believed that the bust was placed on a wooden shelf and fell because of a collapse but remained almost intact and was later preserved by the rubble above. Ludwig Borchardt was unable to continue working at the site after the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

Bust of Nefertiti

Handwritten note by Ludwig Borchardt on the discovery of the bust. Aside from a quick sketch, it contains the remark “No use describing it, you have to see it.

Made around 1.340 BC, or in the last years of the reign of Akhenaton, the 47 cm high bust is made of limestone, entirely covered with painted plaster, and does not show any hieroglyphic inscription. The right eye is made of limestone with rock crystal included for the pupil and the iris finely worked in order to give expressiveness to the face. There are several theories on the missing left eye which suggest that the eye was either lost during the excavations or the bust never had the left eye because it was originally used as a model.

Bust of Nefertiti

nefertiti eyes

Nefertiti is unquestionably beautiful with her slightly almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, thin nose, fleshy mouth with sensual lips, and long and elegant neck. The face, perfectly symmetrical, appears to be made up according to the fashion of the period. Egyptian women, as well as men, applied around the eyes a line of kajal (also called kohl), a mineral-based compound mixed with animal fat; and wore ochre, mixed with oils and fats as a lipstick, and powder as a blush.

The bust of the queen is then completed by a sumptuous crown with a golden band at the height of the forehead and a central diadem that goes around the headdress.

As per the agreements of the period with the Egyptian authorities, the find was taken by the financier of the excavations, James Simon, who donated it in 1920 to the Prussian state and was exposed to the public for the first time in 1924. The bust of Nefertiti is now preserved in the Neues Museum in Berlin.

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