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.

1 comment:

  1. A recent edition of KMT magazine gives this explanation as to why the Nefertiti bust was not put on display in the Berlin Museum for several years. The concession holder, James Simon, was the owner of the bust and he kept it in his private collection before donating it to the museum for all the world to see.
    *"The excavation was paid for by James Simon, treasurer of the German Oriental Society, (DOG) with his own money.
    Simon thus intended to avoid gift taxes to be paid by the society.
    Simon was also the concession holder at El Amarna and thus legally owned the German share of what was found there.
    He first loaned and then donated all of these objects to the Berlin Egyptian Museum in 1920."
    (explaining that the bust was kept in a private collection thus the reason
    why she was not put on show immediately)
    Jan Bailey