The Beautiful Woman Returns


Tell el-Amarna is not usually included in the itinerary of a visitor to Egypt. This is partially due to the not undeserved reputation for wickedness on the part of the inhabitants.1

Amarna, once proud capital of a mighty empire, rapidly deteriorated into a ghost town, surviving only as a useful quarry for the stone which was needed in the extensive building works at nearby Hermopolis. Once the supply was exhausted the city was quickly forgotten and, over the centuries, the mud-brick walls gradually collapsed to be buried beneath a blanket of wind-borne sand, leaving a low, bumpy landscape punctuated by occasional mud-brick ruins. Amarna remained an obvious archaeological site, but one of little interest to anyone. Its geographical limitations ensured the preservation of its secrets. No other pharaoh was tempted to establish a city on the Amarna plain and no substantial modern town ever developed, although the site is sprinkled-with evidence of late Roman/Christian occupation and a handful of modern villages have caused the riverside sections of the Great Palace to disappear under cultivated fields. As the desert sands blew over their city, and the temple scribes adjusted their country’s official history to exclude the heretic kings, the names of Akhenaten and Nefertiti vanished from Egypt.2

Our first modern reference to the as yet unnamed archaeological site comes from the writings of Edme Jomard, a Frenchman who visited Amarna during the 1798–9 Napoleonic invasion and who made a plan of his discovery, noting ‘a great mass of ruins… [which] does not feature on any map’.3 Twenty-five years later John Gardner Wilkinson, under the mistaken impression that he was exploring Alabastronopolis, became the first egyptologist to visit the tombs of the Amarna nobles. Sketches of some of the scenes within Meryre’s tomb, together with a hastily drawn map of the city, were later to appear in his great work Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians.4 Other antiquarians followed over the years but, although the tombs were recorded by Robert Hay, Nestor L’Hote and A. Prisse d’Avennes, their work remained unpublished and the city site generally unknown. It was only in 1842 with the arrival of Richard Lepsius, leader of the Prussian epigraphic expedition, that a thorough record was made of the then known monuments and tomb scenes.

The brief Prussian expedition, two seasons totalling a mere twelve days of what must have been extremely hard labour, was followed by a far longer French mission which again concentrated on the cliffs. The French held the concession to work at Amarna between 1883 and 1902, during which time they uncovered more of the southern tombs of the nobles and fitted protective iron gates to prevent the theft of engraved scenes which enterprising tomb robbers were eager to saw off the walls and sell to western collectors. This precaution almost certainly came too late. Amarna had already become the focus of gangs of unofficial excavators, local people employed by black-market traders to dig for treasures which could be sold on the increasingly rapacious antiquities market. Their furtive digging disrupted the stratigraphy, robbed the site of its valuables and threw up vast piles of ancient potsherds, which may still be seen on the surface today.

The ‘accidental’ discovery, in 1887, of the Amarna letters by a local woman reportedly digging for sebakh, sparked a renewed interest in the site, which was gradually establishing itself on the tourist map. Already in 1873 Amelia B. Edwards, author of the first travellers’ guide to Egypt, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, had included Amarna in her list of important Middle Egyptian sites, although due to bad weather conditions she herself was thwarted in her intention to visit the tombs.5 Miss Edwards, like many other European visitors accustomed to the westernized luxury of Cairo, was shocked by the levels of poverty and disease to be seen in Middle Egypt:

It may be that ophthalmia especially prevailed in this part of the country, or that being brought unexpectedly into the midst of a large crowd, one observed the people more narrowly, but I certainly never saw so many one-eyed human beings as that morning at Minieh… I believe it is no exaggeration to say that at least every twentieth person, down to little toddling children of three and four years of age, was blind of an eye. Not being a particularly well-favoured race, this defect added the last touch of repulsiveness to faces already sullen, ignorant and unfriendly.6

So affected was Miss Edwards by the sight of the native Egyptians that she found herself unable to visit modern towns. She was not alone in her shock. Almost half a century later Mary Chubb, who accompanied the Egypt Exploration Society’s expedition to Amarna at a time when the western archaeologists were expected to treat the illnesses of the local people, was similarly struck by the high level of ‘pink eye’, ‘eyelids badly swollen and red, the eye closed and discharging, and the eyeball, if you could manage to see it at all, very bloodshot’, which fortunately responded well to an application of warm boracic water.7

Amarna never ranked highly as a casual tourist attraction. Sadly deficient in spectacular temples and awe-inspiring pyramids, the nearby modern towns were not geared up to the tourist trade and, lacking the sophistication of Cairo and the romance of Thebes, had very little to offer the visitor with a limited interest in egyptological research. Access to the site could be a problem for those who did not enjoy the luxury of their own boat; in John Pendlebury’s 1930 account of Amarna he stressed how difficult it was to actually reach the antiquities. The intrepid traveller was instructed to drive out from Malawi in a hired car and cross the river by boat having first arranged for donkeys on the opposite bank. Failure to arrange for the donkeys in advance would mean ‘the complete absence of transport at the proper price of five piastres the donkey and three the boy, and also of the guards who are supposed to keep the keys of the tombs’.8 The local people enjoyed a bad reputation for theft and general unspecified wickedness, and as Norman de Garis Davies noted, ‘the evil reputation of the inhabitants of El Amarna seems to have deterred early visitors from penetrating inland’.9 This local churlishness and lack of respect for their own womenfolk was something that the western archaeologists could turn to their own advantage:

The introduction of girls [into the workforce], never used by us at Abydos, is explained by the fact that in the district round Tell el-Amarna women hold a distinctly lower position in the eyes of their men-folk than in the villages further south, and consequently do much more of the hard work.10

Flinders Petrie, who worked at Amarna for a 1891–2 season, brought the first scientific excavation to the city site, although his technique of what was essentially rapid random sampling combined with occasional conservation now seems very dated in comparison with modern archaeological practice. He was followed, in 1902, by Norman de Garis Davies who, working under the aegis of the Egypt Exploration Society founded by Miss Edwards, commenced a detailed epigraphic study of the tombs of the nobles. The tombs were dirty, dark and bat-infested; their walls had suffered from ancient and modern vandalism and much of the plaster which held the reliefs had started to crumble from the walls. The American egyptologist James Breasted, visiting Amarna while on honeymoon in 1895 and taking the opportunity to copy some of the tomb scenes, had been shocked by what he found:

Unfortunately, and to the shame and disgrace of the French administration, I find the finest inscriptions in Amarna so mutilated by the fellahin that I can hardly use them. I told Brugsch of it at the museum today – he was greatly surprised, having known nothing of it. I am so filled with indignation against the French and their empty, blatant boasting, ‘la gloire de la France’, that I can hardly contain myself. I could have wept my eyes out in Amarna. Scarcely less indignant must one feel against the English who are here only for the commerce and the politics of it, and who might reform matters if they would. A combination of French rascality, of English philistine indifference & of German lack of money is gradually allowing Egypt to be pillaged and plundered from end to end. In another generation there will be nothing to be had or saved.11

Davies, working under the most trying of conditions, recorded the tombs and boundary stelae from 1902 to 1905, eventually publishing his Rock Tombs of el-Amarna in six volumes,12 a magnificent achievement and one which, as the walls of the tombs have continued to deteriorate over the years, is of ever increasing value to egyptologists.

The royal tomb, which had been discovered by locals in the early 1880s, had been thoroughly stripped of all valuables by the time the secret of its entrance was revealed to the French mission. A. H. Sayce, writing from Luxor on 26 February 1890, was able to give details of the ‘new’ tomb:

The tomb and mummy of Amenophis IV, the ‘Heretic King’ of Egyptian history, have been found at Tel el-Amarna… The tomb has proved a second pit of Der el-Bahari to the antiquity dealers of Ekhmim, by whom it has been worked. Now that it has been despoiled of the precious objects it once contained, they have condescended to inform us of its exact position… The mummy of the king has, unfortunately, been torn to pieces… The beautiful objects of ivory and alabaster which have lately been on the market of ‘antikas’, the bronze rings and enamelled porcelain [faience] which bear the cartouches of Amenophis IV and the solar disc, the delicate glass and bracelets of solid gold which have been offered for sale to travellers, have all come from the desecrated sepulchre.13

Despite Sayce’s fear that the inscriptions within the tomb must be hopelessly ruined, those scenes which had escaped the New Kingdom vandalism inflicted by those determined to eradicate all memory of Akhenaten’s reign were at this time substantially complete. It is therefore the greatest misfortune that the photographic record of the French mission has been lost, while the surviving line drawings are both incomplete and inaccurate. Since the official discovery of the tomb the walls have suffered greatly, particularly during 1934 when a feud between rival groups of guards resulted in the deliberate mutilation of rooms Alpha and Gamma. Work on the clearance and recording of the tomb had started in the 1930s but was interrupted by the war, so that the first publication of the tomb was eventually made a century after its discovery.14

In 1907 the Amarna concession was awarded to a team of archaeologists from the German Oriental Society working under the direction of Ludwig Borchardt. Their initial work, a survey of the whole city site and an exploratory series of trial trenches, was followed by an excavation proper. Working in the eastern section of the city they made their way down what was known as ‘High Priest Street’, digging a small strip trench along the road. It was during this expedition that the now world-famous bust of Nefertiti was recovered from the workshop of the sculptor Tuthmosis. The advent of the First World War put an end to the German excavations, and the furore which followed the unveiling of the Nefertiti head in Berlin ensured that their concession was never renewed. Instead, in 1921 the Egypt Exploration Society started work at Amarna where they have continued intermittently ever since under a series of highly distinguished directors including T. Eric Peet, Leonard Woolley, Francis Newton (who was taken ill during the 1924 season at Amarna and sadly died at Asyut), F. Ll. Griffiths, Henry Frankfort and John Pendlebury. The present phase of work, which started in 1979, is under the direction of Barry Kemp of Cambridge University. His team has so far produced a detailed survey of the site, and has conducted a series of excavations focusing primarily on the workmen’s village.

The decoding of hieroglyphics at the beginning of the nineteenth century had allowed egyptologists to read the inscriptions carved into the great Amarna boundary stelae. Once again the names of Akhenaten and Nefertiti could be spoken at Amarna. However, far from casting light on the hitherto little-known late 18th Dynasty, the readings at first caused intense confusion. Who was this new pharaoh? None of the rediscovered names could be tied in to the King Lists which formed the backbone of Egyptian history. It took several years for the fragmented evidence for Akhenaten’s unconventional reign to be pieced together, and for the reasons behind his subsequent obliteration to be understood. Although Nefertiti was now recognized as Akhenaten’s consort, and her name was matched to her image on the boundary stelae, little was known of her role within the royal family. The stelae made it obvious that Akhenaten held his wife and daughters in great affection, but it was Queen Tiy, whose monuments had not been erased during the purges which followed the Amarna period, who was cast as the influential female figure in Akhenaten’s life. Nefertiti attracted little attention, and it was only with the discovery, or more particularly the display, of the Berlin bust, that the general public became Nefertiti-conscious. Instantly, Nefertiti became the most recognized female figure from ancient Egypt, famous not for her achievements, which were still largely unknown, but for her beauty. Many scholars of the Amarna period have seen the recovery of the bust as the true start of Nefertiti’s tale, and have begun their accounts of her life accordingly.

The studio of ‘the Chief of Works, the Sculptor’, Tuthmosis, lay in the southern suburb, home to several workshops producing goods for the temples and palaces of the central city.15 Tuthmosis is one of the few Amarna period sculptors whom we know by name, the others being Bak, son of Men, whose works had held pride of place at Thebes, and Iuty (or Auta), chief sculptor of Queen Tiy, who is shown in the tomb


Fig. 8.1 The workshop of the sculptor Iuty

of Huya working on a statue of the ephemeral Princess Beketaten. As Chief of Works Tuthmosis was as much a civil servant as an artist, administering a large factory-like workshop whose sculptors and apprentices would have been dedicated to producing endless portraits of the royal family.

Excavation of his studio, and the attached house where Tuthmosis lived with his family, at first suggested that the workshop must have had two separate production lines: the carving of heads and limbs for inclusion in composite stone statues, and the production of gypsum plaster casts of both royal and non-royal heads. In fact these plaster heads, some so realistic that they were originally identified as ‘death masks’, played an important part in the production of the stone sculptures.16 It would have been unthinkable for the royal family to spend endless hours sitting before a sculptor as he laboriously chipped away at a stone block. Instead, the stone sculpture was preceded by a clay or wax model of the subject, plaster casts of the model being submitted to the commissioning official for approval at various stages in its development. When all were agreed that the model conformed to accepted artistic standards, and was as good a likeness as required, it was copied in stone. At this stage the plaster casts would have become redundant and, being of no further use, were presumably thrown away. Twenty-three plaster heads and faces were recovered from Tuthmosis’s workshop, and we must assume that these represent either busts which were in the process of being carved when Amarna was abandoned, or plaster casts which Tuthmosis had kept for some reason, possibly as a form of reference library. Two of the female heads have been identified on stylistic grounds as depictions of Nefertiti, and it seems highly likely that Kiya is represented among the anonymous non-royal women.

Tuthmosis was forced to relocate his studio when the court moved from Amarna. We may assume that he removed everything which he considered to be of value, leaving only the unwanted and broken fruits of his labours. Model heads, unfinished statues and miscellaneous limbs of the Amarna royal family, now dead and not particularly revered, were not worth transporting to Thebes, and Tuthmosis packed over fifty examples of his work into a small storeroom which he sealed before departing. The now world-famous limestone bust of Nefertiti was left sitting on a shelf, but eventually, as the shelf collapsed, toppled forward to be buried knee-deep in rubble.

The discovery of the head, and the story of its export – or its smuggling – to Germany, is an archaeological tale which has grown in the telling, entering the realms of mythology with accounts of Borchardt concealing the bust among a bushel of vegetables or encasing it in plaster so that it resembled a plain block of stone.17 We know that the bust was discovered by a local workman on the afternoon of 6 December 1912. The rules by which concessions were then granted dictated that all finds should be split 50:50 between the museum service, then run by the French, and the excavator, who would normally distribute his share of the booty among his sponsors. This ‘division’ occurred at the end of the digging season, and the authorities always had first pick of the finds. Instead of the bust of Nefertiti, Inspector Lefebvre accepted on behalf of the museum service a painted relief of the royal family. Borchardt’s role in this choice is unclear. Did he deliberately conceal the true nature of the head by displaying it to the inspector coated in grime? Was the inspector merely shown a bad photograph, or even a crude copy of the bust? Did Borchardt argue that Berlin already had a relief of the royal family, while Cairo had other statue heads of the royal family? Now, having seen the bust cleaned and displayed in its full glory in Berlin, Lefebvre’s choice seems inexplicable. To the inspector, however, faced with the task of dividing up the spoils of an entire season, and perhaps confronted with a dirty bust in a dark Egyptian room, the true value of the head may not have seemed obvious.

When, in November 1913, the Amarna finds were exhibited in Berlin, the head was excluded from the display: It had been given to James Simon, the backer of Borchardt’s expedition, and it was not until 1920 that the bust was donated to the New Museum, Berlin. In 1924 Nefertiti also went on display. Public reaction was immediate and enthusiastic. Egyptology was all the rage in post-war Europe and the well-publicized discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen some two years earlier had already sparked a wave of interest in Egyptian-style jewellery, clothing and interior design.18 Nefertiti with her clean-cut, almost contemporary good looks fitted well into the current craze and soon became the museum’s star exhibit. Predictably, the Egyptian government responded to the publicity by demanding the immediate return of their ‘stolen’ treasure, and all German excavations in Egypt were stopped. The Germans, however, would not consider losing Nefertiti without some compensation. The return of an archaeological artefact apparently obtained by legitimate means would set a dangerous precedent and, in any case, Nefertiti had acquired a symbolic value beyond her artistic or historical importance and she continued to draw large crowds to the museum.

Eventually a swap was negotiated. In return for the head, Berlin would receive two famous statues, each of great artistic merit: a standing statue of Ranefer and a seated statue of Amenhotep son of Hapu. From an egyptological point of view, this was an eminently sensible exchange. However, public opinion was very much against the deal, and it was eventually called off. Another move was made to return Nefertiti to mark the accession of King Fuad in 1933, but Hitler, who is rumoured to have included the bust among his favourite pieces of art, ensured that the head remained in Berlin. During the Second World War the bust was hidden for safety in a salt mine whence it was recovered by American troops and eventually donated to the Egyptian Museum, (West) Berlin. Today Nefertiti’s head, accession number 21300, remains in the reunited Berlin Museum. Whether it is right that it should do so is very much a matter of opinion. While most archaeologists would agree that a collection of artefacts should not be broken up without good reason, Cairo Museum is undoubtedly a very crowded place suffering from a permanent shortage of funds and a chronic lack of space. In Berlin Nefertiti receives the care and attention fitting to a star exhibit. She stands as a symbol of Egypt, a useful ambassadress who introduces visitors to the history of her homeland. Whether she would ever have attracted this kind of attention as just one among the many exhibits of Cairo is a moot point.

The bust is carved from a brittle limestone coated with a layer of gypsum plaster moulded to even out faults in the symmetry of the piece. Forty-eight centimetres high, it shows Nefertiti’s head, her long neck and her collar region but is deliberately cut off before her shoulders. Nefertiti wears her unique flat-topped blue crown decorated with golden streamers whose red, blue and green inlays reflect the colours in her broad beaded necklace. Her whole head, with the exception of the eye sockets, is painted in natural colours; Nefertiti has a delicate pink-brown skin, deeper red-brown lips, a straight nose and delicately arched black eyebrows. There is no hair visible under her heavy crown. She has suffered remarkably little damage, although the tips of the ears and the top edge of the crown have been slightly chipped, but the left eye is missing from its socket. The right eye, which glances slightly downwards, is inlaid with rock crystal, ringed with a black kohl line and has a black pupil. Despite an intensive search Borchardt was unable to find the missing left eye and, as the socket shows no trace of any adhesive, it is generally accepted that this was not in place when the head was stored away.

Various explanations have been put forward to explain the missing eye, some more fanciful than others. Several authorities have, for example, suggested that Nefertiti must have suffered from a serious eye complaint; either cataracts, which would cause the eye to appear opaque, or an ancient equivalent of the eye diseases observed at Amarna thousands of years later by Amelia Edwards and Mary Chubb. None of her other images, however, confirms this diagnosis and all show two matching, apparently healthy eyes. At least one writer of romantic biography has suggested that the eye was deliberately omitted by Tuthmosis as a means of gaining revenge on the promiscuous queen who had spurned him as a lover.19 It is unlikely that the bust is simply unfinished, as its style would indicate that it is a relatively early piece falling somewhere between the exaggerated Theban depictions of the queen and her later, more realistic images. Nor is it likely that a single eye would be gouged out as a means of attacking the memory of the dead queen. More reasonable is the theory that the piece was intended to serve as an artist’s model and teaching aid, the eye socket being deliberately left empty to allow pupils to study inlay techniques.

Nefertiti, on the strength of this one piece, is now widely recognized as an international, timeless beauty:

The portraits of other queens of romance, such as Cleopatra and Mary of Scotland, are apt to leave one wondering where the charm came in about which all men raved, but no one could question for a moment the beauty of Nefertiti. Features of exquisite modelling and delicacy, the long graceful neck of an Italian princess of the Renaissance, and an expression of gentleness not untouched with melancholy, make up the presentation of a royal lady about whom we should like to know a great deal and actually know almost nothing.20

Everyone accepts that beauty is a highly subjective concept, and that features which appear beautiful to one race or generation may not have any appeal to others. Undoubtedly, the fact that this image of Nefertiti fits well into a westernized ideal of beauty, her pale skin, slender neck and delicate bone structure occasionally leading to comparisons with the late, and undeniably beautiful, Audrey Hepburn, has added to her public appeal. Several writers have attempted to explain the impact of the bust on those seeing it for the first time. Julia Samson, for example, has described watching visitors approach Nefertiti:

All are held in wonderment, spellbound by its appearance; some immobilized longer than others; some returning not once, but again and again, almost unbelievingly.21

Personal experience suggests that others, less well informed, may be faintly disappointed as they view the queen for the first time. They do not expect to find the left eye missing; most modern reproductions either make good the defect, or show the queen in profile. Nor do they quite expect the stark symmetry of the queen’s face. Few of us are blessed with absolutely symmetrical features but Nefertiti, in the form of her bust, has been, and this contributes to her perfect but remote and faintly inhuman appearance.22To Borchardt this symmetry endows Nefertiti with an aura of peace, making her ‘the epitome of tranquillity and harmony’.23 To Camille Paglia, who uses Nefertiti’s name and image in the title of her exploration of the continuity of western culture through art, Nefertiti in the form of her bust appears beautiful but streamlined, severe and untouchable:

As we have it the bust of Nefertiti is artistically and ritualistically complete, exalted, harsh and alien… This is the least consoling of great art works. Its popularity is based on misunderstanding and suppression of its unique features. The proper response to the Nefertiti bust is fear.24

Nefertiti herself would probably have approved.

Historical Events

Years Before Christ 




Archaic Period (Dynasties 1–2)

Unification of Egypt


Old Kingdom (Dynasties 3–6)

Djoser step-pyramid at Sakkara

Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza


First Intermediate Period (Dynasties 7–11)


Middle Kingdom (Dynasties 11–13)

Theban kings re-unify Egypt


Second Intermediate Period (Dynasties 14–17)

Hyksos kings in Northern Egypt


New Kingdom (Dynasties 18–20)

Amarna Period

Ramesses II


Third Intermediate Period (Dynasties 21–25)

Kings at Tanis

Nubian kings


Late Period (Dynasties 26–31)


Ptolemaic Period

Egypt part of Roman Empire


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