“Life-sized painted bust of the queen, 47 cm high. With the flat-cut blue wig, which also has a ribbon wrapped around it halfway up. Colours as if paint was just applied. Work absolutely exceptional. Description is useless, must be seen. Counterpart to the bust of the king from p. 39. Only the ears a[nd] part of the r[ight] side of the wig damaged.”
This quote from the 1912 excavation diary is the first known description of the bust of Nefertiti. It was written by Ludwig Borchardt, who led the excavation at Tell el-Amarna, and has often been cited, above all because of the succinct passage: “Description is useless, must be seen”.
Although Borchardt rightly emphasised that the beauty of the bust can only be appreciated through first-hand observation, he himself undertook a description of it for the first detailed publication on the piece in 1923, 11 years after it was found. Even from our present perspective his words can still be considered authoritative. Borchardt first repeats the later famous entry in his diary, “description is useless, must be seen”, and then continues:
Today I would like to write the same again, as I am convinced that my words cannot portray the impression left by this work of art, and that even the colour reproduction […] does not clearly illustrate the vivacity and delicacy of the original, but only suggests them. […]
The preservation is astoundingly good. The erect portion of the cobra is broken off, as are two small pieces of the sharp upper edge of the wig on the right and left; on the left side a larger section of the plaster coating has flaked off; both ears are damaged, on the right some fragments have now been reattached. The inlay is missing from the left eye; since however no traces of a binding agent were detected in the eye socket, and the background is smooth and not in any way recessed so as to accommodate an inlay, it is certain that the left eye was never filled with an inlay. On the right shoulder as well a small piece chipped off; additionally, here and there scarcely noticeable scratches on the face, nose, etc. In several places traces of impure moisture, probably from rain water, which flowed contaminated through the already leaky roof and fell on the bust still standing on its shelf. […]
The muscles of the nape and sides of the neck are so delicately rendered that one imagines one sees them flexing under the delicate skin, which is rendered in a healthy hue.
Egyptian sculptors hardly ever attempted to express any emotion in the faces of their artworks [...], but this face is the embodiment of serenity and composure. Viewed from the front, it exhibits complete mirror symmetry, and yet it will be utterly clear to the viewer that he is not looking at some constructed ideal here, but instead at the stylised, though nonetheless thoroughly recognisable image of a specific person with a strongly striking appearance.
The subsequent descriptions of the details of the queen’s mouth, nose and eyes also reveal Borchardt’s enthusiasm for the beauty of the bust in vivid terms.
Even though Borchardt’s reconstruction of the model chamber and the purpose for which the busts were made are open to renewed debate from a contemporary perspective, his concluding commentary on the bust remains understandable to this day: “In any case, the finished and colourful portrait is the finest and most elaborate one I know.”
Nefertiti Bust, Egypt, Tell el-Amarna, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1351–1334 BC, height: 49 cm; width: 24.5 cm depth: 35 cm; material: limestone, painted stucco, quartz, wax; ref. no. ÄM 23100; find date: 06.12.1912; house P 47.2; room 19, donated by James Simon © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung / Sandra Steiß
The core of the bust consists of limestone, over which a layer of stucco of varying thickness was applied for the final modelling. The consistency of the limestone as well as the thickness and the layer-by-layer application of the stucco were documented in CT scans produced in 2006 in collaboration with the Imaging Science Institute Charité – Siemens. These new scans provided several details not seen in previous images generated in 1992 at the Charité’s Virchow-Klinikum.
What makes the effect of the bust so extraordinary, however, is above all its vibrant colours, which are unique in their state of preservation and which give the bust its extraordinarily lifelike quality. Without the painting and the inlaid eye the bust would still rank as a masterpiece of craftsmanship, but would have a completely different effect.
The paints used here are in keeping with the well-known spectrum of ancient Egyptian natural pigments, including red ochre, yellow orpiment, green frit and carbon black, as well as the artificially produced “Egyptian blue”, applied in a variety of shades, to create the queen’s skin tone, for example. The multi-layered application of the paint was documented with the highest level of accuracy in contact-free tests carried out by the Rathgen-Forschungslabor of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in 2009.
All these examinations underscore the absolute precision of the ancient Egyptian artists’ work, from the almost perfect symmetry of the facial structure to the extremely delicate individual hairs of the eyebrows, applied in cross-hatched lines. It is also notable, however, that the utmost attention was paid to attaining perfection in the face, while the collar was given a more superficial treatment.
The iris and pupil of the right eye were made of beeswax dyed black, covered with a thin piece of polished rock crystal as a cornea.
Nefertiti Bust (detail) © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung / Sandra Steiß
Immediately after the bust was found on 6 December 1912 Ludwig Borchardt ordered a search for the missing inlay from the left eye. In his initial publication of 1923 he notes:
[…] and in the left eye the inlay was missing. The debris, even that which had already been removed, was immediately searched, and some of it sifted. A few more fragments of the ears were found, but not the eye inlay. Only much later did I realise that it had never existed.
The definitiveness of this last remark in particular is the subject of critical discussion today. Nevertheless, we can safely assume that the eye inlay, if it ever existed, was not present at the time of discovery, any more than the gold leaf overlay from the bust of Akhenaten found in the same room, or the missing uraeus from the same sculpture.
The aforementioned examinations carried out by the Rathgen-Forschungslabor and the CT scans indicate that the bust is extremely fragile: there are air pockets between the limestone core and the applied stucco, which have been identified as highly vulnerable points. Portions of the painted decoration are also extremely fragile.
In addition, the rock crystal inlay must be considered highly sensitive. From a curatorial and conservational point of view the bust, like many other objects in the museum’s collection, has therefore now been classified as “non-transportable”.
While we often encounter busts as a genre of portraiture from classical antiquity through the early modern period, they were seldom found in ancient Egypt. One reason for this may be that a bust, as a three-dimensional portrait of an individual that usually ends at the middle of the torso, is a “cut-off” and therefore incomplete representation. In ancient Egypt, however, it was extremely important that images appear complete and intact.
Nonetheless, a small number of sculptures that can be called busts do exist, primarily from the realm of ancestor worship. Aside from a few examples from the Old Kingdom (ca. 2570–2400 BC), busts appear relatively frequently from the Amarna period until the end of the New Kingdom (ca. 1350–1100 BC). Most of these can be assigned to the realm of private ancestor worship in the domestic sphere or in the context of burials, and are therefore often reminiscent of Egyptian death masks or the upper portion of a human-shaped sarcophagi.
The few known royal examples include the bust of Nefertiti, which, as the excavator Ludwig Borchardt already quite rightly noted, is impossible to imagine without its counterpart, the bust of her husband. The bust of Akhenaten was found in the same room as that of the queen, but had been destroyed by iconoclasts.
Bust of Akhenaten, Egypt, Tell el-Amarna, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1351–1334 BC, ref. no. ÄM 21360, donated by James Simon © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung / Sandra Steiß
It was probably originally even more elaborate than that of Nefertiti: along with the painted decoration, evidence of gold leaf overlay has also been documented, and the inset head of the uraeus was made of precious materials. Both busts were certainly not intended for a funerary context, but instead probably served the veneration of the royal couple in a temple or palace.
Ludwig Borchardt’s interpretation of the bust of the queen as a “sculptor’s model” has predominated among Egyptologists since the 1923 publication, and has only rarely been questioned. Borchardt writes:
Regarding the bust’s purpose it is hardly necessary to say anything. […]. Its cut indicates that it was not meant to be a separately fashioned part of a larger statue. The left eye socket, for which the inlay never needed to be made because the work was superfluous, as it would have been the mirror image of that in the right eye, is left empty; in short, everything clearly shows that the piece is a model.
Aside from the fact that Borchardt was unable to conceive of the sculptural form of the bust as an independent work of art, he lists the unpainted sides of the shoulders as the most important indication that this piece was intended as a model. Whether his final argument, the missing eye, can be taken as convincing proof of this hypothesis, however, remains an open question. Recent investigations have failed to provide conclusive evidence.
Since use of the bust as an autonomous sculptural genre is documented in ancient Egypt, the mode of representation alone cannot be cited as an argument for the bust of Nefertiti having been created as a model. Comparison with other plaster casts found alongside the portraits of Nefertiti and Akhenaten in the double chamber R. 18/19 provides further evidence. These 23 portraits, nine of which depict royalty, were left unpainted except for minimal black and red contour lines, and are clearly identifiable as sculptor’s models. The two royal busts in question, by contrast, seem to have been almost completely finished.
In addition, for a master of that period, a perfect application of paint as seen on the bust of Nefertiti would probably not have been regarded as necessary for a model. The colour palette for crowns, collars, and skin tone followed standardised norms, meaning there was no need for a template. Thus neither of the possible interpretations clearly outweighs the other, and the mystery of whether the bust of Nefertiti was intended as a model or was an (almost) finished work of art remains unsolved.
Nefertiti Bust, Egypt, Tell el-Amarna, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1351–1334 BC, donated by James Simon © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung / Sandra Steiß