Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz

In 1912, while excavating the workshop of the 14-th century B.C. sculptor Thutmose, at Tell el-Amarna in Middle Egypt, German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt discovered this exquisit painted bust of Queen Nefertiti— perhaps the most recognizable Egyptian artifact from ancient times. Nearly 20 inches tall and made of limestone coated with gypsum plaster, the bust (now in Berlin’s Staatliche Museum is nearly mathematically perfect: Nefertiti’s chin, mouth, nose and uraeus (the sacred cobra that adorns her crown) are allmost exactly symmetrical about the vertical axis of her face.

Curiously, only Nefertiti’s right eye is inlaid with painted rock crystal. Borchardt combed the debris of Thutmoses’s studio in search of a second inlay, but it never turned up. Upon carefully examining the hollowed out left eye, Borchardt concluded that “the eye was never filled in with inlay” He believed that the bust was used as a model for ancient sculptors, who studied its empty eye socket to learn how to hollow out and inlay stone sculpture.

The bust marks an important transition in the artistic portrayals of Nefertiti (1380–1340 B.C.), the principal wife of the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten, the so-called “heretic king.”Akhenaten also called the world’ first “montheist,” developed a new religious doctrine devoted to the worship of the Sundisk Aten; to celebrate this cult, he constructed a new capital city at Amarna, which he named Ahkenaten. During the early years of Akenaten’s reign; artists depicted Nefertiti as an ugly woman (see, for example the many sandstone and limestone reliefs of the queen making offerings to Aten). But around the eighth year of Akhenaten’s reign, Nefertiti’s likeness began to be softened considerably;the woman shown here, for example, is serene and graceful. It is possible that this bust was the prototype of the new Nefertiti, used as a model by royal sculptors for susequent depictions of the queen.