Unfinished Quartzite Head of Nefertiti

By Courtney Marx, The American Research Center in Egypt.

Date: New Kingdom, Eighteenth Dynasty, Reign of Akhenaten (c. 1353 BC–1336 BC)

Provenance: Sculptor's Workshop, Tell el-Amarna (Akhetaten), Middle Egypt

Material: Quartzite, pigment

Current Location: Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt. INV. No. JE 59286

The statues of Nefertiti are well-known for depicting the ancient queen as a paradigm of female beauty; the most famous example being her painted bust located at the Neues Museum in Berlin. Nefertiti’s images almost always show the queen with graceful features; high cheekbones, slanting eyes, arched brows, a full mouth, and a slender neck. These elements seem to transcend changing cultural trends and beauty ideals as they are still considered by many to be aesthetically pleasing to this day. It is important to remember that art in ancient Egypt was conceptual, it was meant to convey an idea rather than physical reality. Therefore, Nefertiti may have looked quite different from her depictions in real life. The queen’s images present her as an idealized royal figure. Kings and queens of Egypt utilized artistic representations to present themselves as strong, youthful, near-perfect individuals as a way of legitimizing their reigns and displaying their superior status. In the case of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, their imagery may have represented their association with the Aten, the supreme deity worshipped during the reign of Akhenaten. 

Nefertiti’s husband, king Akhenaten, brought about major changes to Egyptian art that coincided with his intense religious reforms. Akhenaten shunned the majority of the Egyptian pantheon in favor of a single solar deity, called the Aten. The capital was moved from Thebes, modern day Luxor, to an area now known as el-Amarna, a then uninhabited location north of Thebes. In the new capital, artistic output was high, and there is a large quantity of images that show the king and queen that survived to the modern era. One of these surviving artworks is a quartzite statue head of Nefertiti.

The discovery of the head occurred during the 1933 excavation of Amarna by John Devitt Stringfellow Pendlebury and James Hilary Sheffield Waddington. It was in fact the wife of Hilary Waddington, Ruth Elizabeth Florence Waddington, who stumbled across a brick and a potsherd on accident. The team decided to excavate the area further because of Ruth’s finds, and uncovered a few small structures that were part of a sculptor’s workshop. It appears that the workshop produced composite sculpture pieces, as determined by the discovery of other statue parts along with the head. Sculptors carved each part of a composite statue as individual pieces that were fitted together once finished to form a complete statue. The quartzite head of Nefertiti was intended to be mounted on a composite statue, as evident by the notched area at the top of the head, which would have been fitted with a crown or wig headpiece. The sculptors would have carved the crown or wig from a different type of material than the head, perhaps out of stone or a precious metal. The headpiece would be made to attach to the section at the top of the quartzite head.

The head is unfinished, which is clear by the rough quality of the back of the head, and by the black guidelines running through the center of the face, around the hairline, along the philtrum, around the nostrils, encircling the eyes, and marking out the brows. These marked areas would have been carved out further by the sculptor to provide detail. One odd feature to note is that the lips appear to have been painted a shade of red before the statue head was complete. The statue head embodies the distinct style of Amarna art. The previously mentioned classic elements of Nefertiti’s facial features are still visible despite the unfinished state of the piece; high cheekbones, slanting eyes, arched brows, a full mouth and a slender neck.

The statue was discovered with other composite statue pieces, small statues, and plaster casts. As the head is unfinished, it is unknown what the final statue would have looked like when assembled in its entirety, and in what context it was meant to be placed. However, it is clear that the quartzite head was made to be part of a composite statue and fitted with a headpiece, either a crown or a wig. The statue parts found in the workshop were in various stages of completion, and therefore provide modern scholars with an idea of the process of sculpting these works and how the sculptors would have assembled them.

Further Reading

Bednarski, Andrew. “Life After Amarna: The Post-excavation History of JE 59286.” In Beyond the Horizon: Studies in Egyptian Art, Archaeology and History in Honour of Barry J. Kemp, vol. 1, edited by Salima Ikram and Aidan Dodson, 1-8. Cairo: Supreme Council of Antiquities, 2009.

Model courtesy of David Anderson, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (www.sketchfab.com/danderson4 and www.uwlax.edu/archaeology)