Few ancient Egyptian royals are capable of garnering as much attention, generating frenzy, and stoking controversy globally as the legendary beauty Queen Nefertiti can.
Despite having been a powerful woman who is believed to have co-ruled with her husband, Akhenaten, before donning the role of Pharaoh after his death, she remains enigmatic. This iconic Amarna personage is instantly recognizable thanks to a magnificent bust of her that survived the ravages of time.
The recent reconstruction of Nefertiti’s face, based on the theory that the mysterious female mummy, called the Younger Lady, discovered in the tomb of King Amenhotep II is none other than the queen herself, has the world divided over the manner, form and color in which she is depicted.
Using state-of-the-art technology, a team of scientists at the University of Bristol in England partnered with well-known French sculptress, Élisabeth Daynès to produce a bust that has created quite a stir.
From Beneath the Sands
Thutmose, ‘The King’s Favorite and Master of Works’, was the official court sculptor during the latter part of King Akhenaten’s reign in the ancient capital, Akhetaten, that the monarch had established to glorify the sun god, the Aten.
The artist’s incredible body of work that surfaced during excavations at the site in modern-day Tell el-Amarna is one of our finest insights into that obscure period. French Egyptologist, Alain Zivie, rightly honors Thutmose as “the Michelangelo of ancient Egypt.” The royal sculptor’s atelier, which was abandoned when the court relocated to Thebes, yielded a wealth of statuary in various stages of completion.
Many official portraits and 22 plaster casts were unearthed at this spot; these have been identified as various members of the royal family and unknown individuals, presumably contemporary residents of Amarna. But among all this art, one in particular stands out for its superlative execution – Thutmose’s pièce de résistance – the alluring bust of the Great Royal Wife, Nefertiti.
Discovered on December 6, 1912 by the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft (German Oriental Society) roughly 3,300 years after it was created, this life-size polychrome masterpiece measuring 48 centimeters and weighing 44 pounds (20kg) fascinated Ludwig Borchardt, the leader of the mission, who found the glorious object tremendously fascinating.
“Suddenly we had the most alive Egyptian artwork in our hands,” he wrote in his diary, “Description is useless, see for yourself.”
The German archeologist added that the sculpture was, “The epitome of tranquility and harmony.” There was never a truer word said, for, the face of Nefertiti has in time become a symbol of eternal beauty, power, dignity, and grace. The precise function of the one-eyed bust remains unknown, though it is theorized that it could have been a sculptor’s model.
Only a few details about the Amarna interlude, when Akhenaten declared the Aten as the supreme deity, can be positively ascertained. Lacking definitive proof, Egyptologists have thus far been unable to arrive at a consensus on many aspects of life in Akhetaten. Even the identities of some royals and their relationship to family members poses many a conundrum.
Tossed into this baffling milieu is Nefertiti — a woman of uncertain origin whose name means “the beautiful one has come.” She bore Akhenaten six daughters and essayed a powerful role on the politico-religious stage.
The fact that extant evidence suggests she wielded unprecedented influence in court has perplexed scholars for long; because even her illustrious mother-in-law Queen Tiye, the Great Royal Wife of the “Magnificent” Amenhotep III, did not exercise such an enormous degree of power.
But Nefertiti disappeared from the scene almost as soon as Akhenaten died in Regnal Year 17 and shortly before the child-ruler, Tutankhaten (later Tutankhamun), became king. What happened to her and how did she meet her end? Did she die as Pharaoh or a mere queen? These are but some of the questions about Nefertiti that have dogged Egyptologists’ for over a century.
Stunning Cache of Kings
French Egyptologist Victor Loret made an astounding discovery in the Valley of the Kings on March 9, 1898 when he stumbled upon the tomb of the Eighteenth Dynasty king, Amenhotep II (KV35). It was not the endless riches of this pharaoh that caught the world’s imagination, but, something even more priceless.
For, tucked away in the dark recesses of the upper and lower pillared sections of this sepulcher was an unimaginable assemblage of royal mummies that rivaled those of pharaohs and priests from the Seventeenth to the Twenty-first Dynasties found by Emil Brugsch in the Deir el-Bahri (DB320) cache in 1881, the date of its official discovery.
So, this bonanza of monarchs, hitherto missing from the DB320 list, and indeed history itself, was now accounted for.
KV35, the large tomb, boasted complex architecture and was the first in the Valley to be found containing an intact pharaonic mummy within the sarcophagus in the burial chamber—well before Tutankhamun.
When Loret entered the side room on the right (Chamber Jc), the sight that met his eyes stirred him; for, there lay the mortal remains of three individuals beside each other, with their feet pointing towards the door.
Upon closer inspection of the cadavers, the Frenchman noted that the first body seemed to belong to an Amarna era woman whose forehead and left eye were covered with a thick veil. The broken arm of this lady was found placed beside her. As we have now learned, this was the body of Queen Tiye (Elder Lady).
Another corpse was found placed near the wall, and Loret assumed this to be a shaven-headed male, next to whom lay a wig. “The face of this person displayed something horrible and something droll at the same time. The mouth was running obliquely from one side nearly to the middle of the cheek, bit a pad of linen whose two ends hung from a corner of the lips.
The half-closed eyes had a strange expression, he could have died choking on a gag but he looked like a young playful cat with a piece of cloth. Death which had respected the severe beauty of the woman… turned in derision and amused itself with the countenance of the man,” the archeologist recorded.
We now know that this is the body of an Amarna lady (Younger Lady). But, with no clarity on her identity, various candidates have been proposed – from Sitamun to Nefertiti. Ensconced between these two mummies was the body of a young child, who Loret assumed was Prince Webensenu, the son of Amenhotep II.
Almost the entire left side of the face and chest of the Younger Lady were brutally hacked in antiquity – whether this desecration occurred post or ante mortem remains unresolved.
It is hard to determine the identities of several royal dead from the late Eighteenth Dynasty – be they male or female. What we do know is the name of a few prominent adult women who are attested in records: Queen Tiye, Sitamun, Nefertiti, Kiya, Meritaten and Ankhesenamun.
In a harem of hundreds of women; and in a royal family with dozens of princesses – both local and foreign – all we have are six names. Whatever scant evidence we have managed to gather in modern times about these royals has come in the form of DNA tests; and these results have raised more questions than have provided answers.