Nefertiti's Face: Joyce Tyldesley
Joyce Tyldesley’s new book, Nefertiti’s Face: the creation of an icon, has taken prime position in my (small but developing) library. I picked it up at the Queensland Museum's exhibition: Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Egyptian lives. The book is a detailed analysis of the famous bust currently housed in Berlin. Tyldesley takes the reader on an amazing tour of the creative workshops in Amarna. She introduces us to Thutmose, the master craftsman and she reveals the complex life that Nefertiti must have lived as the wife and companion of the ‘heretic’ king, Akhenaten. Tyldesley, Egyptologist at Manchester University, reveals her long held fascination for the enigmatic bust that she first saw as a child, at the Bolton Museum. Although a replica, the fascination resulted in this book, a career as an academic and researcher and the title as one of the world’s leading experts regarding Egypt and Egyptian queens.
After establishing the facts behind the rise of Akhenaten and an outline of the complicated but absorbing Egyptian religion, the reader’s journey starts in the workshops of the master craftsman, ‘…the praised one of the Perfect God, the chief of works, the sculptor Thutmose.’ Here begins a detailed account of the city of Amarna, where the workshops were located and how the chief of works may have lived and worked. Extensive excavations in the area have revealed many tools, broken sculpted pieces, chips of plaster, gold and stone. Each of these fragments have been used to build a detailed picture of the artisan at work. Tyldesley draws upon an huge range of primary sources to outline how art at Amarna was created - the painting techniques, the tools, the finishes and the hierarchy withing the artisan community itself. She makes links between the art and and the new monotheistic religion promoted by Akhenaten: ‘Quartzite and red granite…had strong solar connections; this may explain why Akhenaten favoured yellow-red and purple quartzite for his Amarna statues.’
But this is a book about the face of a woman. So what does this face reveal to us about the actual woman? There has long been controversy about what Nefertiti may have looked like. A recent facial reconstruction experiment drew condemnations from eminent Egyptologists as Nefertiti was ‘too white’ for a women born in a near-eastern African country. Tyldesley indicated that a discussion about race would have been lost on ancient Egyptians - you were either Egyptian or not Egyptian. The colour of your skin was not a factor in the classification - ‘behaviour was what mattered.’
The second half of Tyldesley’s book looks at the history of the excavation, the politics of the 1920-1930s dig sites in Egypt and the issue of ownership. The Nefertiti bust is one of many antiquities that the Egyptian Government wants returned. A newspaper article as far back as 1928 reveals that the legal battles between Egypt and Germany have a long and protracted history of their own! In 2011, Hermann Parzinger, eminent German archaeologist, commented: “She is, and remains, the ambassador of Egypt in Berlin.” ! (my own punctuation!) To end, Tyldesely analyses the multitude of replicas made of the bust, many of which were displayed in reputable museums around the world. The 20th C backlash against this practice saw many of them removed and replica workshops closed.
Tyldesley’s book is brilliant. As a classroom teacher, I have already marked a number of pages that I can use in my teaching. I thoroughly recommend getting a copy for your own library or your school library.