Nefertiti mystery solved
Has the ancient Egyptian artist who created the famous bust of Nefertiti been identified? French Egyptologist Alain Zivie certainly thinks so. In a recent article in Arts & Cultures,1 the annual publication of the Musée Barbier-Müller, Zivie demonstrates that we have very good reasons to believe that a 14th-century B.C. Egyptian artist named Thutmose was the skilled artisan who memorialized Nefertiti’s visage in stone and plaster.
Nefertiti was the wife of Akhenaten, pharaoh of Egypt in the mid-14th century B.C. In the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten moved the capital from Memphis to Akhetaten (modern Tell el-Amarna), a new city he established on the east side of the Nile River. During Akhenaten’s reign, new styles of Egyptian art were adopted—with one of the most iconic pieces of art from this period being the bust of Nefertiti. It is debated whether the famous bust idealized the queen’s beauty.
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Two archaeological discoveries led to the identification of the creator of Nefertiti’s bust. The first was uncovered at Tell el-Amarna near the artists’ workshop where the bust was created. (The bust was unearthed in this workshop during excavations in December 1912.) Outside the workshop, the excavators discovered a horse’s blinker—used to prevent the horse from looking toward the rear and sometimes to the side—inscribed with the name Thutmose, who was identified by the following titles: “favored by the King,” “Chief of Works,” and “seânkh” (a designation that means “he who gives the final touch of life”2 and probably indicates a master-artist). The inscribed ivory blinker fragment caused some to immediately correlate Thutmose with the chief artist of the workshop—and creator of the bust of Nefertiti.
The second discovery was a tomb for an artist named Thutmose at Saqqara, the necropolis of Memphis. In his tomb, Thutmose is identified as “chief of the scribes of shape” and lauded as an artist. There are also inscriptions featuring Aten, the sun god, who was uniquely and exclusively worshiped during Akhenaten’s reign. Zivie connects this Thutmose buried at Saqqara with the Thutmose of the blinker—and identifies him as Akhenaten’s artist and chief of the artists’ workshop where the bust was created.
Thus the creator of Nefertiti’s bust is no longer anonymous. Thutmose can receive praise for his workmanship from a new generation of admirers.
Originally published as “Strata: Nefertiti Mystery Solved” in the May/June 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
1. Alain Zivie, “Thutmose: The Creator of the Polychrome Bust of Nefertiti,” Arts & Cultures: Antiquity, Africa, Oceania, Asia, Americas (2014), pp. 58–75.
2. Zivie, “Thutmose,” pp. 64–65.
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