Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Bust of Nefertiti

Dr Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) has made it his mission to repatriate as many ancient Egyptian artefacts as possible. He has already achieved remarkable results. His stated ambition is to recover six major icons of ancient Egypt that currently reside in foreign museums. They are, in no particular order; the Rosetta Stone in The British Museum; the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin’s Neues Museum, the Zodiac from Dendara Temple in the Louvre Museum; the bust of the vizier Ankhaf in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the statue of Hemiunu in Hildesheim near Hannover; the image of Rameses II in Turin. In a short series of articles we will describe each item and, where possible, determine its provenance.

The Bust of Nefertiti

Perhaps the most readily recognized and certainly the most controversial item on Dr Hawass’s wish list is the 3,300 year old bust of Nefertiti, the primary royal wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Exhibited in the Neues Museum in Berlin, the bust depicts a beautiful woman in royal attire adopting a regal and somewhat haughty pose. The structure of the face is fine and the coloring is distinctly paler than that shown for other women from the area at that time. Nefertiti’s name means ‘The Beautiful One has Come’. Her name and her non-Egyptian features have led many to wonder whether Nefertiti came from another country. There is no proof at this time that she was born of other than Egyptian parents in Egypt.

The bust is an iconic work of art depicting a famous ancient Egyptian royal personage and that alone is sufficient reason for the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt to want the item to be returned to its original home. The two pictures of Nefertiti’s bust show how the object might have looked before it was damaged and how it currently appears.

The full story of Nefertiti’s bust; how it was found; how it became German property; the so-called “second face” of Nefertiti and the possibility that it might be a fake makes for fascinating reading.

The first question is: ‘Did Germany obtain the bust legitimately?’

The bust was found on the site of the capital city established by Pharaoh Akhenaten called Akhetaten, the ‘Horizon of the sun Disc’. Today the archaeological site is known as Tel Amarna. A German archaeological expedition of 1912 claimed to have found the bust in the ruins of the studio of a famous sculptor named Thutmose. Chief archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt was captured by its beauty, and it is suggested that he hatched a plan to remove the piece from Egypt. The Egyptian Antiquities Authority was responsible for dividing the spoils of excavations between the foreign archaeologists and Egypt, and to determine which should stay and which were permitted to leave.

Gustave Lefébvre, the inspector of Antiquities was responsible for dividing the finds from the Amarna region. Lefébvre was not an Egyptologist and he settled for a 50/50 division, with objects made of plaster going to the Germans. It seems that Borchardt hurried the negotiation and listed the bust of Nefertiti as that of ‘a painted plaster bust of a princess’ of little value. He offered as proof various cropped photographs of the bust to Lefébvre who apparently, without studying the dirty object in great detail, relinquished the bust to the Germans. It has been suggested that Borchardt applied the dirt and described the bust as “plaster” as a deliberate ruse to ensure the item was on the German “to go” list. In fact the bust, while it has a limestone core, has a stucco surface and it would have qualified as a “plaster” item.

Borchardt, under no illusion as the beauty of the bust and elated with his success wrote the following entry in his diary: ‘Suddenly we had the most alive Egyptian artwork in our hands. You cannot describe it with words. You can only see it.’

The bust of Nefertiti was exhibited in Berlin's Egyptian Museum in 1923. The delay of eleven years was not explained. Apparently it stood in Borchardt’s sponsor’s living room for ten years. It has remained in Germany ever since. The Egyptian government has made several attempts to have the bust returned, but Germany has so far refused. Even Adolf Hitler, enamoured with the bust, announced that it would remain in Germany forever. In 2007 a request for the bust to be loaned to Egypt was rejected on the grounds that the bust was to fragile to travel.

The second question concerns the ‘second face’ of Nefertiti.

In March 2009, researchers in Germany announced that they had used computed tomography or CT to scan the bust of Nefertiti. The scan had revealed that the bust of Nefertiti has two faces. The team led by Dr. Alexander Huppertz, director of the Imaging Science Institute at Berlin's Charite hospital and medical school, discovered a detailed stone carving that differs slightly from the external stucco face. The findings, published in the monthly journal ‘Radiology’, are the first to show that the stone core of the statue is a highly detailed sculpture of the queen.

It was previously believed that the limestone internal structure was merely a support for the stucco features. The stucco covering is only 2 to 3mm thick, which gives some credence to the claim that it is too delicate to travel.

The differences between the faces are minor, but the external face eliminates some slight imperfections. Certain features have been ‘improved’ such as the creases at the corners of the mouth and a bump on the nose of the stone version. It appears that someone, possibly the Pharaoh or Nefertiti herself, may have ordered the adjustments between stone and stucco.

Starting with the pictures from the CT scan, two Italian scholars -- Franco Crevatin, an ethnologist at Trieste University, and Stefano Anselmo, an expert in the history of cosmetics -- produced a computer-generated image which they believe is closer to Queen Nefertiti's actual face than the one shown in the famous painted bust.

The wider nostrils and the creases at the corner of the mouth have some justification, but the plump lips, rounded chin and the skin colour cannot be scientifically justified. In fact it appears that the “Africanisation” of the face is based more on imagination that science.

The third question concerns the possibility that the bust is a “fake”

An art historian and expert on ancient Egypt claimed that the bust of Nefertiti could be a fake. Henri Stierlin, who has studied the subject for 25 years, believes it was made in 1912.

Stierlin believes the bust is a gypsum copy. "It seems increasingly improbable that the bust is an original," he said. He suggests it was made by an artist named Gerardt Marks on the orders of Ludwig Borchardt to test pigments used by the ancient Egyptians.

A number of clues have led him to suspect the piece to be a fake including the missing left eye, which he says was an insult for an ancient Egyptian who believed the statue was the person.

He also said the style of cutting the shoulders straight was not used by the Egyptians and that Nefertiti’s facial features were accentuated similarly to the Art Nouveau style, which was popular in Europe at the time.

The bust was made of stone and covered in plaster, neither of which can be dated, but the pigments appeared to be “really ancient,” he said.

Documents published earlier this year show that Borchardt did not supply a description, which is surprising for an exceptional work which was found intact. A team of French archaeologists working at the same dig never mentioned the find.


The legality of taking the bust out of Egypt:

Although Borchardt may have devalued the bust in his description to Lefébvre, but the bust is essentially, on the surface at least, a plaster object. In accordance with the terms of the division of spoils applied by Lefébvre the Germans were “within the law” to take the bust with them.

The claim that it is too delicate to transport:

The bust has endured through 3,300 years. The original discovery site was destroyed by time and pillage. The bust was found in 1912, handled, wrapped, crated, shipped to Germany and moved several times since. It experienced two World Wars, has been subjected to several studies including a CT scan and yet it has survived. More probably the German authorities are using the fragile excuse because they believe they would have little chance of getting the bust back if it was loaned to Egypt.

The two faces:

The CT scan clearly shows the limestone details of the face of the same woman, a face with certain imperfections perhaps realistically reflecting her age. When Nefertiti moved to Akhetaten where the bust was found, she was already a mother of three daughters. What is not acceptable is the computer graphic reconstruction of her “real” face which, unlike forensic facial reconstruction techniques is based on imagination rather than science.

The claim that it is a fake:

In view of the recent CT revelation of the stone face beneath the plaster, it is unlikely that the charge of it being a fake can be sustained. The evidence is too flimsy. A suggestion that a plaster coating was applied to the stone bust to smuggle it out of Egypt is somewhat disingenuous. If Borchardt had wanted to disguise the find, surely the beautiful plaster and pigment workmanship was entirely unnecessary. He could have made a ‘cow’s head’ instead to hide the original limestone.

The bust will remain the subject of intense scrutiny and challenge, but in the opinion of this writer it will remain legally and logically in the hands of the German Museum Keepers.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Six Icons for Repatriation?

Dr Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) has made it his mission to repatriate as many ancient Egyptian artifacts as possible. He has already achieved remarkable results. His stated ambition is to recover six major icons of ancient Egypt that currently reside in foreign museums. They are, in no particular order; the Rosetta Stone in The British Museum; the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin’s Neues Museum, the Zodiac from Dendara Temple in the Louvre Museum; the bust of the vizier Ankhaf in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the statue of Hemiunu in Hildesheim near Hannover; the image of Rameses II in Turin. In a short series of articles we will describe each item and, where possible, determine its provenance.

The Dendara Zodiac

Dendara Temple is a Ptolemaic Temple built on the site of several previous ancient Egyptian Temples dedicated to the goddess Hathor. It was built over a period of several decades around 100 BC to 50 BC. The temple is located about 60 kms north of Luxor on the western bank of the Nile River opposite the provincial town of Qena.

The sculptured bas relief of the star map was found carved into a sandstone slab mounted in the ceiling of the portico of the Osiris chapel at Dendara Temple. The circular star map shows the position of the stars and includes various animal shapes conforming to the constellations. A calculation based on the position of the stars on the map combined with the age of the temple building, indicate that the zodiac shows the night sky in about 50BC, possibly in the reign of Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Ptolemaic Dynasty. Cleopatra’s image is carved into the rear wall of the temple.

In 1802, during Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt, the zodiac was sketched by Vivant Denon (who was later appointed the first director of the Louvre). Examination of Denon’s sketch aroused controversy concerning the date of the zodiac. Various “experts” presented opinions of its age ranging from tens of thousands of years to a few hundred years and there was additional disagreement as to whether the carving was a true star map or an astrological chart.

The sandstone slab was removed from the ceiling of the chapel by master mason Jean Baptiste Leloraine using masonry drills, chisels, saws, jacks and, according to one report, even explosives. The zodiac of Dendera was transported to France in 1821 apparently with the permission of the Egyptian ruler of the time Mohamed Ali Pasha. The sandstone slab was installed in the National Library of Louis XVIII in 1824. In 1964 the zodiac was moved from the Bibliothèque Nationale to the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

In modern days, visitors to Egypt who view the plaster replica of the zodiac bolted to the ceiling of the chapel in Dendara and those who study the original sculpture in the Louvre Museum, look in vain for an image of the present day astrological chart. The ancient Egyptians did not use the positions of the stars to produce astrological readings, although they did believe that certain constellations could have a negative effect on events. Regrettably for modern astrologers who cast horoscopes based on the stars, the zodiac does not represent an early form of the zodiac they currently use. The Dendara zodiac is fundamentally a star map. It shows the actual position of the stars in 50BC; a true night skyscape used when celebrating the mysteries of the resurrection of Osiris, the lord of the underworld.

The artwork of the bas relief is of a very high standard. As previously mentioned, the original slab was sandstone, a more difficult medium for fine sculpture than limestone which forms the basis for the beautiful bas relief sculptures in the temple at Abydos and in other sites.

The night sky is represented by a disc, held up by four female figures assisted by falcon-headed beings. The thirty-six divisions around the circumference each represent 10 days totalling the 360 days of the Egyptian year. The additional five days making up the full year were always considered to be the days “outside the year” won by the sky goddess Nut. The constellations within the circle include the signs of the zodiac, most of which are seen as they are today. Aries, Taurus, Scorpio, and Capricorn are readily recognized, whereas other forms are more Egyptian: Aquarius is shown as Hapy, the god of the Nile flood, pouring water from two vessels and the Great Bear is shown as a bull's foreleg.

Two eclipses are represented exactly where and when they occurred. The solar eclipse of 7 March 51 BC is depicted as the goddess Isis holding a baboon (the lunar god Thoth) by its tail, signifying her attempt to stop the moon from hiding the sun. The lunar eclipse of 25 September 52 BC is represented by a udjat-eye. The five planets (in addition to Earth) that were known at the time are associated with certain signs of the zodiac. Venus, the morning star is behind Aquarius; Jupiter is near Cancer; Mars the red planet is directly above Capricorn; Mercury and Saturn are shown in this particular configuration that occurs only about once every thousand years. It has been dated between 15 June and 15 August 50 BC.

It is clear that a date in mid 50BC had particular significance, but what that significance may have been has been lost over time. One credible suggestion is that it may have been the date of the completion of the construction of Dendara Temple and that the sculptured zodiac commemorates that date in the same way an official opening plaque might do today.

The Dendara zodiac was removed and transported to France in an act that would be described as gross vandalism and theft if it occurred today. The wanton removal of this historic work of art resonates with the similar act performed on the Elgin Marbles. The permission granted by Mohamed Ali Pasha to the French was at best flimsy and certainly did not take into account the preservation of Egypt’s heritage. The zodiac might be considered to be more representative of Greek astrology than Egyptian, but the Macedonian pharaohs of the Ptolemaic Dynasty are an integral part of ancient Egyptian history.

Egypt’s claim on the Dendara Zodiac

It would seem that Egypt might have a realistic expectation of having the zodiac returned to them, particularly if French archaeologists are denied access to Egyptian digs unless the zodiac is repatriated, a strategy that might be employed.

The French may claim that by exhibiting the zodiac in the Louvre Museum in Paris, many more visitors have the opportunity to see this ancient artefact that would be the case if it were returned to its original place in Dendara. This is probably true. There is a replica of the zodiac in the ceiling of the Osiris chapel in Dendara temple, but many visitors to Egypt do not even visit Dendara temple and of those who do, only a fraction are taken by their guides to see the zodiac.

What would the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt do with the slab of sandstone? Perhaps it should not be reinstalled in Dendara temple, but rather set up for viewing in an Egyptian Museum, but how would that be better and more accessible than the Louvre Museum in Paris?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Six Icons for Repatriation?

Dr Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) has made it his mission to repatriate as many ancient Egyptian artifacts as possible. He has already achieved remarkable results. His stated ambition is to recover six major icons of ancient Egypt that currently reside in foreign museums. They are, in no particular order; the Rosetta Stone in The British Museum; the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin’s Neues Museum, the Zodiac from Dendara Temple in the Louvre Museum; the bust of the vizier Ankhaf in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the statue of Hemiunu in Hildesheim near Hannover; the image of Rameses II in Turin. In a short series of articles we will describe each item and, where possible, determine its provenance.

The Rosetta Stone

The technological achievements of the ancient Egyptian civilization can readily be seen in the splendid temples and tombs that adorn the ancient land. However the key that archaeologists needed to unlock the secrets of the civilization was an understanding of their hieroglyphs. Without the meaning of the hieroglyphic inscriptions we would have scant knowledge of ancient Egypt. That was the scenario before the discovery and deciphering of the Rosetta Stone, arguably the most significant discovery in Egyptology. The question posed is whether the Rosetta Stone was obtained legitimately by the English.

The Rosetta Stone was discovered in Egypt in 1799 by a Lieutenant in Napoleon’s occupying army named Pierre-François Bouchard. The 760 kg slab was found built into the foundation of an old wall during the renovation of Fort Julien near the port city of Rashid, known to Europeans as Rosetta. Napoleon had brought 167 scientists or ‘savants’ with him on his campaign to Egypt and they had formed the Institut de l’Égypte in Cairo. The Rosetta Stone was cleaned and sent to the Institut in July 1799 where the scholars recognised the importance of the artifact.

Napoleon returned to France shortly after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone while the savants remained behind with the French troops. The French army resisted the attacks of the British and Ottoman forces for a further 18 months. In 1801 when the English troops under Sir Ralph Abercromby threatened to capture Cairo from the French expedition, Napoleon’s famous savants left Cairo for the supposed safety of Alexandria, taking all the ancient artefacts they had found, including the Rosetta Stone, with them. Had they remained in Cairo, in terms of the capitulation of the city they would have been permitted to leave and take their collection (including the stone) back to France. However, when Alexandria was captured some five months later, the terms of capitulation had changed and they were compelled to hand over their collection, including the Rosetta Stone, to the English General Hutchinson.

The Rosetta Stone was not shipped to England immediately, but remained in Egypt for a further year, stored in a warehouse along with the defeated French General Menou’s personal baggage. Despite the terms of capitulation, when the English Colonel Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner claimed the stone, the French General refused to hand it over, claiming it was his personal possession. A heated and acrimonious discussion ensued. The object was eventually handed over to the English along with dire warnings as to what would happen if the French Troops still billeted in Alexandria heard of the “theft”. The English took possession of the Rosetta Stone in the streets of Alexandria from where it was shipped to Portsmouth on a captured French frigate the HMS Egyptienne arriving in February 1802. At the end of the year, after various copies of the script had been taken, the Rosetta Stone was transferred to the British Museum where it remains.

The inscription of a single text in three different scripts enabled scholars and particularly Jean-François Champollion to decipher hieroglyphs for the first time. Remarkably nothing quite like it has been discovered since. Before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, slow progress was being made in deciphering hieroglyphs. Scholars had come to recognize that hieroglyphs were neither symbolic nor esoteric, but characters used to write ancient language; and that Hieratic and Demotic were cursive forms of the same script. Eventually hieroglyphs would have been deciphered without the Rosetta Stone, but who knows how long it would have taken.

Visitors to the British Museum will have seen the slab of stone, clearly engraved in three sections, each using a different script. In earlier years the 760 kg Rosetta Stone was often incorrectly identified as basalt, because of its black colour. It is however granitoid stone. The black colour was the result of the stone being coated on numerous occasions with printer’s ink. Paper was laid on the “inked” stone and an impression was transferred to the paper using a rubber roller. The impressions were sent to various institutions for study. In recent years the stone has been cleaned and its original grey granite colour has been revealed.

The stone is damaged and the inscription incomplete, nevertheless sufficient of the three scripts (hieroglyphs, Demotic and Greek) remained to enable the Greek version to be used as a basis to unravel the Egyptian scripts. Thomas Young started the process by working on the relationship between Demotic and Greek. He found a word in Greek occurring more than once and he looked for a group of signs in Demotic appearing an equal number of times. He also selected the frequently recurring groups such as “king” “Ptolemy” and “Egypt” and found likely equivalents. Young had discovered many elements of hieroglyphs from other temple inscriptions such as royal names, gender determinatives and certain phonetic signs. He was able, through this method to identify about eighty Demotic words with their hieroglyphic equivalents. He was convinced that individual hieroglyphs had phonetic values.

Young sent his findings to Champollion in 1819, but despite this evidence Champollion continued for two years to believe that hieroglyphs were symbolic and devoid of phonetic values. Only when he received a copy of a bilingual inscription in Greek and hieroglyphs from the base block of an obelisk excavated by W.J.Banks at Philae, with Banks’ deduction that one of the cartouches in the hieroglyphic section spelled Cleopatra, did Champollion abandon his previous theory. Once he accepted Young’s work as correct (which he never acknowledged) Champollion went on to use the Rosetta Stone to lay the foundation on which the present knowledge of hieroglyphs is based.

The translation of the Rosetta Stone reveals how difficult it must have been to decipher the hieroglyphs. For example we might consider that having found the word “king” in Greek, it would be a simple matter to find the word in the other scripts. However the word for “king” in Demotic was written as “he of the great house” (Pharaoh) whereas in hieroglyphs the same word was written as “he of the sedge and the bee” (ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt).

Thanks to the inspirational work of Young and Champollion we are now able to read the wonderful history of ancient Egypt directly from inscriptions on temples, tombs and papyri. The Rosetta Stone is indeed the key to our understanding of the ancient civilization of Egypt. It was found by the French during Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt. It was claimed by the English as the spoils of war when the English defeated the French in Egypt.

The question is, should it remain in the British Museum or does it rightfully belong to the people who made it, the Egyptians?