Reviewed by Jennifer Turner (University of Birmingham)
Published on H-Empire (September, 2018)
Commissioned by Gemma Masson (University of Birmingham)
Who better than Joyce Tyldesley to delve into the fascinating story of Nefertiti? The author’s accessible storytelling format is well known from her earlier publications on notable ancient Egyptian female figures (Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh , Nefertiti: Egypt’s Sun Queen , and Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt ), including Nefertiti, an Egyptian icon for whom tantalizingly little information remains. This new volume explores Nefertiti’s history through a captivating bust, and incorporates insights on Tyldesley’s own long-standing personal interest in this object. The introduction and following initial chapter provides evidence for one of the most fascinating periods of Egyptian dynastic history, known as the Amarna period, in which Nefertiti lived. The remainder of the volume is divided into two parts: the first considers the bust’s ancient context, juxtaposed by the following discussion of the artifact’s modern acquisition and reception. The majority of the narrative reinforces and is underpinned by the importance of context (both archaeological and modern) in order to consider the wider implications of who Nefertiti was and what she means to us today. The book also features visually striking images of the Nefertiti bust, detailed excavation plans, illustrations, and maps, which aid the reader in visualizing the bust’s excavation and museum display history (though a minor point would be that there is no link to these images within the narrative where it might have been useful to draw readers’ attention). The accompanying bibliography is full of relevant material, including publications from key scholars working on Amarna; traditional works (though the author points to early sources that are now outdated); and online resources, such as the Amarna Project and various museum websites. Focusing on such an internationally recognizable image of ancient Egypt will certainly appeal to wide audiences, while exploring the lack of solid facts surrounding Nefertiti’s life and the history of the bust illustrates the difficulties that scholars, museum professionals, and others in related fields face in contextualizing ancient objects.
The preliminary discussion explores the Amarna period of ancient Egypt, a phase during the prosperous New Kingdom (1,550-1,070 BC) in which the pharaoh Akhenaten abandoned the traditional pantheon of gods and established a new royal power base at Tell-el Amarna in Upper Egypt. This era of Egyptian history is a complex and hotly debated period of Egyptology full of alternate or opposing views, thus this section of the book is brief and yet consistent in recognizing that much more could be said. The many unknown aspects and fragmented evidence of Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti’s lives are recounted in a succinct overview, and frustration is shared by both author and reader in the many important aspects of the Amarna period that lay beyond our comprehension, such as Akhenaten’s motivations for the physical move to Amarna and even the number of people who followed their king. Many unanswered questions concerning Nefertiti, including her uncertain lineage and mysterious disappearance from the surviving archaeological record, are also explored. On occasion Tyldesley offers her personal view on certain theories yet acknowledges the alternative ideas of other key scholars, encouraging the reader via the accompanying chapter notes to pursue other publications for further insight and information.
Part 1, “Creating Nefertiti,” focuses on the creation process of the bust, including physical evidence from an ancient workshop where the object was discovered at Amarna amid other pieces of unfinished royal sculpture. Though some of the evidence is ambiguous, the sculptor’s undoubted connection to the production of royal portraiture during this period allows Tyldesley to effectively reconstruct the workings of the domestic house and professional space, aided by illustrations and references to original excavation notes. This section also provides a nuanced discussion of the making and meaning of images in ancient Egypt, exploring the significance of ancient terminology for images and different materials used, issues of accessibility, and decorum. The identity of the anonymous craftsman is also explored through a discussion of the function of statuary and the contrasting modern definitions of “art” versus ancient objectives. The function of commemorative images in ancient Egypt, where art is primarily practical rather than simply aesthetic, is reinforced by Tyldesley as predetermined by various rules and perceived meanings, in which the individuality of the artist is unrecognized. Understanding the tradition and conventions of statuary is important to consider in the light of Akhenaten’s artistic innovations, which extended to Nefertiti and their children. In contrast to traditional female images (both royal and elite), which were often passive beside a dominant male figure, Nefertiti is found in other representations actively participating in religious rituals and even smiting scenes, further contributing to the idea that Akhenaten and his immediate family were considered (or considered themselves) as living gods, and that she held a special status beside him. Aspects of Nefertiti’s identity and imagery, such as the characteristic flat-topped blue crown featured on the bust, are explored with insightful observations on the bust’s lack of inscription and thus the object’s “silence.” Questions of the reality of Nefertiti’s appearance are also considered via an evaluation of “imperfect” areas of the bust, for example, the creases around the mouth and the missing iris from the left eye, and the use of modern techniques, such as scanning and facial perception studies, which conclude the section with a dialogue on beauty. This discussion is of course relevant to wider depictions of both male and female forms in ancient Egypt; a youthful, idealistic appearance demonstrated a woman’s physical beauty and fertility, while for men this portrayed physical strength and capability. Yet depictions of aging figures and men with portly stomachs became favorable over time as a demonstration of maturity, wealth, and success; even Akhenaten’s own surviving statues and their unusual physical appearance have driven various theories about the “reality” of their likeness. Thus the insights such artifacts provide into how ancient people chose to portray themselves, including observations of race, gender, and artistic decorum, is another fascinating discussion about the function of ancient images.
Part 2, “Recreating Nefertiti,” relays the modern intrigue in Nefertiti, including the often used titles of “the Mona Lisa of the ancient world,” the “it” girl of ancient Egypt, and the “poster-girl” for Egyptology. This section delves deeper into the modern story of the bust’s acquisition prior to World War II, and the modern reception and replications of the Nefertiti bust, including the variation in faithfulness to the original versus modern connotations and replicas. The notion of ownership of ancient objects within the early twentieth century is a particularly important area of discussion; Tyldesley effectively retells the story of the bust’s discovery, including the controversy surrounding the excavation team’s procurement of the bust, and the history of excavating within Egypt during this time, including the introduction of newly clarified laws relating to the ownership, sales, and export of antiquities. Using notes from the original excavation diaries and navigating the many developments in the legalities of acquiring objects, Tyldesley provides a fascinating account of events from 1912 to the present surrounding the bust and its display. Amid the changing nature of museum exhibitions of ancient Egyptian objects from “curiosities to entertain rather than educate” to important educational and cultural resources, modern advances in 3D scanning and use of plaster casts have further influenced and advanced museum displays today (p. 65). The changing perceptions of colonialism and cultural heritage with regard to the “proper” place for objects and the ownership of Egyptian objects in foreign museums further add to our understanding of twentieth-century excavations and the purchasing of objects, and engage with ongoing debates about the ownership of another country’s cultural assets. That requests for repatriation have continued to be turned down (recent attempts took place in 2005 and 2011) are noted among considerations of the bust’s increasing popularity with the public, particularly the bust’s status as a symbol of national identity and affiliation with Berlin. Regardless of ownership, Tyldesley makes clear in her narrative that the “post-Amarna” adventures of the Nefertiti bust are an incredibly interesting and rich part of her history (p. 152). Modern representations of Nefertiti in novels, theater, television, and opera, and the use of her image in promotional material attest to her continued fame, coupled with ongoing academic debates about her position at Amarna, all of which demonstrate our interest and fascination with this woman.
Tyldesley successfully explores how an object can represent different things to different people; its personal meaning to the author is contrasted with the diversity of meaning for other audiences, past, present (including current readers), and future. This observation serves us well in considering other ancient artifacts, and ancient culture more generally. The opening quotation from the author James Baikie in an early twentieth-century publication on Amarna, which emphasizes the modern desire to “realise individual personality,” is successfully discussed by Tyldesley, with her closing remarks echoing Baikie’s passion for the past, and preserving and discovering truth (p. 1). The “silence” of absent or lost archaeological records is not unique to Nefertiti but is an overwhelming characteristic of many aspects of ancient Egypt. Tyldesley notes that this does not necessarily obscure some immense meaning to Nefertiti’s identity and role within the royal palace but rather reflects the overall nature of what has survived, what may be lost to us, and how early archaeologists dealt with finds and attributed meaning to them. Ultimately, Tyldesley provides an intertwined reassessment of Nefertiti’s own place in history (which Tyldesley suggests is often seen as an unparalleled high status but that is in reality “difficult to confirm” [p. 85]) and a commentary on the history of Egyptology more generally. The discussion of the bust and its iconic status allows interested readers with varying degrees of knowledge about its importance to be provoked into considering its place in the present; it is particularly refreshing for the discussion of Nefertiti, for whom more images survive than any other Egyptian queen, to incorporate more modern focuses, such as agency, ethnicity, and the museum’s responsibilities with regard to ancient artifacts. This book is a welcome contribution to the discussion of how we understand and display ancient objects, and will certainly be an educational and entertaining read for anyone interested in ancient Egypt.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-empire.
Jennifer Turner. Review of Tyldesley, Joyce, Nefertiti’s Face: The Creation of an Icon.
H-Empire, H-Net Reviews.
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