This week: Nefertiti

Relief depicting Akhenaton and Nefertiti with three of their daughters, under the rays of the sun god Aton. Image: Egyptian Museum, Berlin/Wikimedia Commons.

On 6 December 1912, a German-led archaeological team working on the banks of the Nile made a discovery that would change our view both of past and present. At the site of the ancient city of Amarna, they unearthed a 3,300-year-old painted limestone bust – identified as depicting Queen Nefertiti, Great Wife of the ‘heretic’ Pharaoh Akhenaten – which was to have a dramatic effect, not only on our ideas about this largely-forgotten ruler, but also on modern perceptions of female beauty.

With her high cheekbones and long neck, Nefertiti has been described as the ‘world’s first supermodel’. When her portrait bust finally went on display in 1923, she was hailed as an icon of timeless femininity. Since then, she has been admired by everyone from Hitler (who called her a ‘wonder’) to Beyoncé (who has namechecked her in song lyrics), and has provided inspiration to artists and writers around the world. Her image has appeared on stamps, T-shirts, postcards, and mugs – and of course, her bust remains the star attraction of Berlin’s lavishly restored Neues Museum, despite longstanding calls for it to be returned to Egypt.

Beyond all the adulation, however, what do we really know about this mysterious woman whose face has become so ubiquitous? This week on The Past, we separate fact from fiction to discover the real Queen Nefertiti. In the latest issue of Minerva magazine, Aidan Dodson charts her remarkable rise and fall, culminating in the dramatic changes to Egyptian society implemented by her husband and their turbulent – and possibly murderous – aftermath.

Also this week, we are delving into the archives to bring you a deeper understanding of Nefertiti’s story: in Current World Archaeology, we looked into claims that her missing coffin might actually be hidden behind the tomb of her stepson, the boy king Tutankhamun; and we even commissioned our own replica of her famous bust, to understand the processes by which the original was made. Meanwhile in Minerva, we travelled to the Valley of the Queens to investigate the spectacular tomb of another great queen – Nefertari, the wife of Ramesses II.

And finally, we continue the regal theme with our latest quiz, which this week is also designed to test your knowledge of history’s queens, from Cleopatra to Victoria. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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