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The Heretic Queen, Nefertiti


That famous bust

Article by Al-Ahram Weekly

Nefertiti's bust in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, perhaps the best-known work of art from Ancient Egypt, was unearthed in 1912 by the German excavator Ludwig Borchardt. Back then, the law required discoveries to be brought to what was called the "Antiquities Service", where a special committee supervised the distribution. Nadja Tomoum, director of the SCA's foreign relations office, said Borchardt, who discovered the head at Tel Al-Amarna, either did not declare the bust, or hid it under less important objects. Either that, or the Egyptian authorities failed to recognize its beauty and importance. According to Borchardt himself, he did not clean the bust but left it covered in mud when he took it to the Egyptian Museum for the usual division of spoils. The service, on that occasion, took the limestone statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and gave the head of Queen Nefertiti to the expedition because it was made of gypsum -- or so they thought.

There were those who said that Borchardt had disguised the head, covering it with a layer of gypsum to ensure that the committee would not see its beauty, and realize that it was actually made of beautiful painted limestone. Whatever happened, Tomoum said, the antiquities authorities did not know about the bust until it was put on show in Berlin's Egyptian Museum in 1923, and had certainly never expressly agreed that this piece should be included in the German share of the Tel Al-Amarna finds.

The principle, since the earliest days of cultural property legislation, has been that the country of origin must expressly permit every single national cultural treasure export. With respect to the bust of Nefertiti, the Egyptian authorities did not give that permission. The Egyptian government later made an attempt to have the bust returned, but Hitler, who had fallen in love with it, refused. He announced that she was his beloved possession, and would remain in Germany forever


The exquisite painted limestone bust has been on display in solitary, stunningly dramatic surroundings at the museum ever since. Two years ago, however, in a highly curious curatorial decision, two Hungarian artists were allowed to fuse the ancient bust onto a contemporary bronze-cast body for a few hours in an attempt to visualize how Nefertiti's body might have looked like.

Read Michelle Moran's Blog, History Buff.