Museums are filled with Ancient Egyptian artifacts of pharaohs from all over the world. Today, we will examine the Nefertiti Bust, and its complicated history.
Nefertiti is not only an icon of feminine beauty, but this bust, located in the Neues Museum in Berlin, is a common subject of debate for art repatriation.
Who was Nefertiti?
Nefertiti was the Great Royal Wife of Pharoah Akhenaten of Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty in the 14th century BCE. Very little is known about Nefertiti, but some historians suggest that she may have been a foreign princess. She also may have been Akhenaten’s co-regent.
A Look at the Bust
A bust is a sculptural representation of a person’s likeness, typically of the head, neck, and, occasionally, chest. Nefertiti’s bust was sculpted in 1345 BCE, and possibly carved by Thutmose. It is 19 inches tall, weighs 44 pounds, and has a limestone core covered with layers of stucco. The face is completely symmetrical aside from the missing left eye. She wears her iconic blue cap crown with a golden diadem and a broad floral-patterned collar.
Excavating Nefertiti’s Bust
In 1912, the German Oriental Company found the bust in Thutmose’s workshop with other unfinished busts of Nefertiti. The Company’s archives had a document from 1942 recording a meeting in 1913 between the lead archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt and an Egyptian official, dividing the archeological finds between Germany and Egypt. The secretary who authored the document claimed that Borchardt wanted to keep the bust for Germany, and Borchardt has since been accused of concealing the bust’s value and lying about its materials and appearance.
The Bust’s History of Display
The Nefertiti bust has been in Germany since 1913 but was kept a secret at Borchardt’s request until 1920 when it was permanently donated to the Berlin Museum. It was put on display with Borchardt’s writings in 1923, but it was moved several times due to the World Wars until it was discovered by the American army in 1945 and then but back on display. The sculpture has moved several times between East and West Berlin but was returned to the Neues Museum in 2009 where it has since remained.
What Egypt Has to Say
Since 1924, Egypt has repeated requested the bust’s return. Since the 1920s, Egypt has threatened to ban German excavations, to offer other artifacts in exchange, and to reopen negotiations to no avail. In 1933, Hermann Goring of the Nazi Party considered returning the bust as a political gesture, but Hitler refused. When America had discovered the bust, Egypt requested its return, but the U.S. directed Egypt to discuss its return with the new German government.
Lead Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass argues that the bust was wrongfully taken and argues for it’s return, and he asked UNESCO to intervene in 2005. German art historians frequently point to the 1924 document claiming that the bust was taken legally and argue that it is too fragile to move.
Conclusively, this bust has been an icon in beauty, archeology, repatriation, and cultural significance. Its controversy is like that of the Elgin marbles in terms of legality and ethics of its removal from Egypt, yet she is somehow the face of two nations. What is to become of the sculpture whose subject has been known as the most beautiful woman in the world? Again, does Egyptian art only belong to Egypt? How are today’s museums, historians, and governments to resolve the conflicts from a century ago?
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