Nefertiti: recreating an icon

The painted limestone bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, recovered from the royal city of Amarna, is familiar across the world. This bust has inspired many copies – some very accurate, some far less so – so that many of us first ‘meet’ Nefertiti via one of these replicas. Recently, in an effort to understand the processes behind the creation of the original Nefertiti, Joyce Tyldesley commissioned her own replica.


Nefertiti was the chief wife of the ‘heretic pharaoh’ Akhenaten, who ruled Late Bronze Age Egypt towards the end of the 18th Dynasty (approximately 1352-1336 BC). Akhenaten was the head of Egypt’s many cults, yet he chose to dedicate his life to one god: an ancient solar deity known simply as the Disk, or the Aten. Inspired by the Aten, Akhenaten built a new city in Middle Egypt. Akhet-aten (‘Horizon of the Aten’) is today better known as Amarna. Taking its name from Akhenaten’s new city, the ‘Amarna Period’ is the modern term applied to the time when Egypt’s kings dedicated themselves to the Aten. This includes most of the reign of Akhenaten and the start of the reign of Tutankhamun.Although we are very familiar with her face, we know very little about Nefertiti herself. We do know that she was the mother of six princesses. It may be that she also had a son – she may even have been the mother of Tutankhamun – but here the archaeological record remains tantalisingly silent. Amarna art confirms that she played an important role in the cult of the Aten, but the extent of her political power is uncertain: while some experts argue that Nefertiti outlived her husband to become a ruling queen of Egypt, others maintain that she remained a queen consort. The date of Nefertiti’s death is unknown, and her mummy has never been recovered.

Creating Nefertiti

Almost 3,500 years ago, the ‘chief of works, the sculptor Thutmose’ lived in an extensive Amarna compound incorporating luxurious living quarters, a stable, and a sculptor’s workshop. Far from a lonely artist’s studio, his workshop was a large industrial unit engaged in the production of royal statues. Thutmose was an important link in a complex and expensive chain of transactions that started with stone blocks being cut in the quarry and ended with a completed statue being delivered to the king.

When Akhenaten died after 17 years on the throne, the new king, Tutankhamun, determined to reinstate the traditional gods, and to relocate the court to the ancient royal cities of Memphis and Thebes. Thutmose, being entirely dependent on royal patronage, had no choice but to follow his king. Packing his belongings and tools, and abandoning items that he no longer needed, he sailed away from Amarna.

Nefertiti variations: one is the replica Nefertiti bust displayed in the Manchester Museum (Right). It bears a close likeness to the original, which is now displayed in the Neues Museum, Berlin. The version of the Nefertiti bust sold in the Manchester Museum shop (left) is not a close likeness to the original (note the addition of the left eye), yet is still instantly recognisable as Nefertiti.

In Thutmose’s private villa, two small rooms had been converted into a storage area. There, on 6 and 7 December 1912, a German archaeological team led by Ludwig Borchardt discovered more than 50 artefacts made from limestone, quartzite, and gypsum plaster, including the bust of Nefertiti, a similarly styled but damaged bust of Akhenaten, a collection of plaster heads, and several unfinished sculptures.

Nefertiti’s bust was created from carved limestone coated with layers of gypsum plaster and painted with vibrant colours. Standing 48cm tall and weighing 20kg, the bust shows the upper part (head, neck and an area extending from the clavicle to just above the breasts) of a woman whose hairless head is topped by a crown, and whose long, slender neck is encircled by a floral collar. The woman has a narrow face with prominent brow ridges and cheekbones, a long nose, and full lips. Her eyes are almond-shaped, her brows well defined, and her chin firm. Her left eye is missing; experts are divided over this, with some arguing that the eye was lost during Borchardt’s excavation, others that it never existed. As the bust is uninscribed, its identification is based on our recognition of its tall, flat-topped crown as a headdress unique to Nefertiti.

Although we are certain that the bust is Nefertiti, we cannot be certain that this is what Nefertiti actually looked like. Egyptian art was not intended to be portraiture. The addition of a name or, as in this case, a distinctive crown was sufficient to identify the subject. Amarna has yielded many images of Nefertiti, in both 2D and 3D, allowing us to see that her image changed as the Amarna Period progressed. However, it may be that this is the official version of Nefertiti: the version that served as a model for all subsequent Nefertitis produced by Thutmose’s workshop.

The remains of a mud-brick building at Armana, the new city founded by Akhenaten in Middle Egypt. IMAGE: Ancient World Image Bank/Kyera Giannini [CC by 2.0].

The first replicas

At the end of the 1912/1913 excavation season, the artefacts were divided between the German archaeologists and the Egyptian authorities. The Nefertiti bust was transported to Berlin. It entered the private collection of James Simon who, as Borchardt’s financial backer, held the official Amarna excavation concession.

Simon commissioned two replicas from the young sculptor Tina Haim (later Tina Haim-Wentscher; subsequently Tina Haim-Wentcher). Haim already had experience of replicating ancient sculptures in the Berlin Museum. Her replica Nefertitis were not exact copies: they were made from artificial stone and they had been ‘tidied up’, with the uraeus, damaged ears, and missing left eye restored. In October 1913, Simon presented Kaiser Wilhelm II with one of the replicas. The Kaiser was delighted with his gift. His version of the Nefertiti bust would eventually accompany him into exile at Huis Doorn in the Netherlands, where it remains today. Simon donated the original bust to the Museum, but kept the second replica for himself, displaying it in his living room underneath portraits of his parents.

Official replicas

In the early 1920s, Heinrich Schäfer, Director of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, commissioned Haim to make a third, very accurate replica Nefertiti. This she did working alongside the original, using callipers to take multiple measurements. For many years Haim’s interpretation of the Nefertiti bust served as the ‘model’ for all the plaster replicas sold by the Gipsformerei, or replica workshop, of the Berlin Museum. Many of the high-quality Nefertitis displayed in museums worldwide today are plaster casts of Haim’s sculpture; their paintwork replicates the paintwork on Haim’s bust rather than the original.

Other official replicas, ever so slightly different in appearance, particularly in regard to their treatment of the eyes, are based on later models created either freehand or, more recently, from laser scans that allow the manufacture of non-contact models using a 3D printer. In 2015, an official replica Nefertiti was created using scanning technologies that allowed an accuracy of a tenth of a millimetre. This model was painted using original pigments and traditional painting techniques, and a rock crystal was used to create the right eye.

The replica Nefertitis spread out from Berlin, and were displayed in many museum galleries alongside genuine ancient Egyptian artefacts. Visitors were then drawn to Berlin Museum, intent on seeing the original of a piece of art that was already very familiar to them. The presence of so many Nefertitis in so many museums caused confusion. As a child, I believed that the Haim replica displayed in my local museum was a genuine antiquity. As a one-time museum professional, I know that many museum visitors make the same mistake. The label may make it clear that the bust is a replica, but surprisingly few visitors read museum labels carefully. The replica looks old and slightly battered, and its presence within the museum – seen by many as an academically sacred space dedicated to truth – is confusing: we tend to assume that the things that we are shown in museums are ‘real’.

A modern replica

Just how long would it have taken to create Nefertiti? In order to help me to gain a better understanding of the manufacturing process, my brother, Frank Tyldesley, offered to carve a replica Nefertiti. He would not create an exact copy – that would have been impossible, as he could not work alongside the original bust – but it would be of equal size and a close likeness. The replica, based on measurements taken from a model obtained via a 3D photocopy scanned from one of the official replicas cast from the Haim bust, would allow me to see Nefertiti emerge from a stone block.

How to make your own Nefertiti bust. Joyce’s brother Frank is an amateur sculptor and rose to the challenge. Starting with a 195kg block of Portland limestone (above), he proceeded to cut it back to guidelines drawn onto the block (below), just as Thutmose would have done in Armana.

Frank is not a professional sculptor but an experienced amateur; this meant that the hours available to work on his Nefertiti would be limited. And his access to authentic tools would be limited too. Although he worked by hand, Frank used modern, tungsten-tipped tools, primarily the chisel and the rasp. Thutmose’s workmen would have used stone, wooden, copper, and bronze tools, and would not have had access to iron. The comparatively soft local limestone of the Berlin bust would, however, have been easier to work than Frank’s Portland limestone.

Frank soon regretted his decision to use Portland stone for his Nefertiti bust. This is the best carving limestone available in the UK, but it is not easy to work. Starting with a 195kg block, it took Frank two months to chip the excess stone away, and it was three months before the block could be lifted onto his workbench. His experience makes it very clear why, as the archaeology of Thutmose’s compound confirms, the original sculptor would have started his work in an open courtyard, close to the compound gate. No one wants to move a heavy stone block more often than necessary, and even a relatively small block of stone is very heavy.

Nefertiti’s features begin to emerge from the stone. The measurements were taken from a 3D scan of one of the official replicas of the original sculpture.

Having chipped away at least 150kg, and generated a significant pile of debris, Frank was left with a block measuring 35cm × 27cm × 59cm, including 10cm of base that will eventually be removed. In ancient Egypt, too, all statues started life as a stone block cut slightly larger than the end product. The extraction of a soft stone (limestone or sandstone) block from the quarry was a relatively simple procedure, as the stone could be cut using copper tools. Hard stone blocks were an entirely different matter, as they could not be cut using saws and chisels. Evidence preserved in the Aswan granite quarries indicates that these blocks were separated from the mother-rock by teams of men rhythmically bouncing hammer-stone balls of dolerite (an even harder rock) against the surface to wear it away.

For all sculptors, modern and ancient, planning is the key to success. Frank planned his work by drawing all four sides of the head onto a graticule, and using this as the basis for all measurements. Guidelines were transferred to the block, which was worked evenly all round, leaving the face until last. Thutmose’s sculptor, too, would have covered his blocks with a network of accurately measured guidelines; these would ensure that the statue did not distort or twist during cutting. He would then have sketched the image – front, back, profile, and top – onto the stone in black ink. Several unfinished pieces recovered from Thutmose’s workshop show these black guidelines.

A modern British shed is the venue for an attempt to recreate a sculpture originally executed in the heat of Armana.

With the outline in place, the stone could be cut away from all surfaces, with the guidelines being reapplied at frequent intervals to keep the statue true. Again, this would be a relatively quick and easy process when working with soft stone, and a time-consuming and difficult process when working with hard stone, which could only be cut using hammer-stones and drills employing a sand abrasive. Whatever the stone, Egyptian statues were rarely cut entirely free of their original block: arms tended to remain close to the body; stone was left in place between the legs and between the arms and the body; and most stone statues were supported by an integral plinth and back pillar.

It took a year of Frank’s life (working 30 minutes a day) to work the bust into this shape (right), and there is plenty of work still to do.

Nefertiti has taken a year of Frank’s life so far, working an average of half an hour per day, and he still has many hours to go. But he estimates that in a professional workshop, with experienced craftsmen, sharp tools, and the appropriate quality of limestone, the stone head could have been created in approximately six weeks. One limiting factor would have been the need to constantly sharpen the tools: this would have had to be done on a daily basis. The plaster and paint would then be relatively quick additions. The most surprising thing to come out of Frank’s work so far is the fact that, when struck with a hammer, his Nefertiti bust rings with the sound of a slightly muffled bell. It is a sound that Thutmose, working almost 3,500 years ago, may well have recognised.