The bust of Nefertiti was found on 6 December 1912 during an excavation at the Middle Egyptian site of Tell el-Amarna. The excavation campaign was led by the Egyptologist and architectural historian Ludwig Borchardt (1863–1938). In the course of the subsequent partage, or division of the finds, the bust was allocated to the German share.
Tell el-Amarna is the Arabic name for the region surrounding the ancient Egyptian city of Akhetaten (which translates to “Horizon of the Aten”), the capital city of King Akhenaten, founded around 1350 BC. Both this site and the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten (1351–1334 BC) formed a major focus of international Egyptological research around the turn of the 20th century. Scholars were particularly intrigued by Akhenaten’s founding of the first monotheistic religion. The unusual artistic style of his epoch also aroused great interest, especially since many objects from Amarna were then appearing on the art market, and some of these objects had already been purchased for the Berlin museum. German Egyptologists therefore also sought to carry out their own excavations at Tell el-Amarna.
Film “Akhenaten’s Dream of a New Capital” © Sammler und Jäger Filmproduktion GmbH, 2012
Following a successful exploratory campaign in 1907, Ludwig Borchardt first proposed a plan for long-term excavations at Tell el-Amarna to the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft (German Oriental Society). This society had been founded in 1898 to promote the study of antiquity in the Near and Middle East. The sole sponsor of the project was the Berlin entrepreneur and patron James Simon. As was common at the time, the requested licence was granted by the Egyptian Council of Antiquities. In order to counteract the growing threat of looting and the illegal export of cultural objects, the local authorities were keen to award excavation licences to experienced archaeologists.
In the winter of 1911–1912 Borchardt and his team began excavating at Tell el-Amarna. They concentrated on the city itself, and by the beginning of the second campaign had already uncovered several residential houses and villas. The ancient urban area had already been measured out in its entirety beforehand, and had been divided into quadrants, which are referenced by scholars to this day.
The numbering of the excavated houses logically followed the names of these grid squares, so that the workshop complex with the famous deposit of numerous plaster models and the two royal busts was given the designation “P 47.2”. An inscription later led to the complex being attributed to the sculptor Thutmose.
As is still the case today with area excavations in settlements, the excavation work was carried out simultaneously at several locations by a large number of workers under the supervision of the participating scholars. Progress and results were recorded both in the field through sketches and in the evening in the excavation diary.
On the day before the famous find the excavation team already suspected that they had discovered a sculptor’s workshop in the complex in the area P 47.2. Since high-ranking noble guests from Saxony had announced their intention to visit on 6 December 1912, after lunch Borchardt left the supervision of the excavation to his colleague, the Egyptologist Hermann Ranke, and set off for the banks of the Nile to meet the guests.
Borchardt’s description of the day in the excavation diary reads as follows:
At 12:30 scouts were sent out to inform us of the arrival of the “Indiana” of the Hamb[ur]g.-America line, on which Prince Joh[ann]-Georg of Saxony with wife and sister-in-law, along with Princess Mathilde of Saxony will arrive. [….] Borchardt dashes off to meet them. When he gets to the ship he learns that the ladies and gentlemen have already headed inland. He dashes back. In the wadi he receives a note from Ranke, which informs him that ‘something good is coming out’. At the very same moment the royal company arrives. Walk to the excavation in House P.27.2 …
Short descriptions of the individual finds follow, including the well-known entry regarding the the bust of Nefertiti
During this find the visitors are more excited than perhaps desirable. 4:15 off to the house. Senussi reports that he felt 3 more plaster heads and one granite foot. 4 guards placed at the site. Tea on the veranda. At sunset the guests go to the steamboat, which by this point has almost reached Hagg Quandil. 7:30 we all go to dinner in khaki.
9:30 back to the house.
Diary. 12:40 to bed after this dizzy day.
Entry by Ludwig Borchardt in his excavation diary 1912–1913 on finding the Nefertiti Bust, page 43 (detail), Archival./Akte/67/43 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung
Aside from this entry of 6 December 1912 only one other description by Borchardt exists. It first appeared 10 years later in his publication of the find. There he writes:
Then just a short distance in front of the east wall – 0.20 m from it, 0.35 m from the north wall – in front of us at about knee height first a skin-coloured neck with painted red ribbons was laid bare … above the neck the lower portion of the bust appeared, below it the back of the queen’s wig. It took some time, however, before the piece was completely freed from the rubble, because first a portrait head of the king, found directly north of it, had to be carefully retrieved. Only after that was the colourful bust lifted out and we had the most lifelike Egyptian work of art in our hands.
Along with Borchardt’s notes, the day of the find is also documented in photographs which Prince Johann Georg of Saxony, an enthusiastic amateur photographer, took during his visit to the excavations. The negatives from the Prince’s estate are now housed in the collection of the archives of the University of Freiburg. Three of these photographs show the newly found bust of Nefertiti in the arms of the foreman Mohammed es-Senussi.
Prince Johann Georg of Saxony, presentation of the Nefertiti Bust at the find site, 1912, left to right: excavation supervisors Herrmann Ranke, Paul Hollander, Mohammed es-Senussi © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum
The first official photographs of the by then carefully cleaned bust were taken on 23 December 1912 by the photographer Paul Hollander in the excavation house. Given the circumstances under which they were created, these seven glass plate photographs are of very high quality. Prints of them on 18 x 24 cm sheets of paper were also present at the partage on 20 January 1913.
As was typical of all foreign excavations, toward the end of the excavation campaign the obligatory partage took place in keeping with the legal statutes set forth by the Council of Antiquities. The Egyptologist and responsible excavation inspector Gustave Lefèbvre oversaw the partage, with the find divided up into equal parts, “à moitié exacte”, such that each party was allotted seven groups of finds of comparable significance.
The document of what was called the “Procés-Verbal du partage” (verbal proceedings of the division) was recorded by hand on 20 January 1913 by Gustave Lefebvre, and countersigned by Ludwig Borchardt. In his excavation diary Borchardt writes that on the morning of the partage photographs of all the finds were presented, and an exact inspection of the finds carried out.
Mr Lefebvre comes around at 10 for the division. He greets us by saying that he has already heard about our lovely finds from Herr v. Bissing, who wrote to him about them. […] After Lefebvre has first taken some refreshment, the photographs of all the finds are presented to him, then he looks at the finds in the registrar’s office, where the find journals are also made available to him. He examines objects of hard stone particularly thoroughly: stele (p. 199), the colourful queen, the statues and heads of the princesses, the queen, and the king, etc. Samples of the smaller finds are also examined.
For the Egyptian side an altarpiece now known as the “Stele of Akhenaten and his family” was placed at the top of the list; on the German side the bust of Nefertiti was listed in this position as an object of equal value.
The official partage marked the end of the excavation campaign of 1912–1913, which was followed by one last campaign shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. By contract all the finds allotted to the party from Berlin became the property of James Simon, who, in an extraordinarily generous gesture, bequeathed all the finds from Amarna, including the bust of Nefertiti, to the Berlin museum in 1920.
Film “The Find Site of Nefertiti” © Sammler und Jäger Filmproduktion GmbH, 2012