Social media reaction to what many describe as European features on a reconstruction of a mummy believed to be Egyptian Queen Nefertiti has led to accusations of historical “white washing.”
The face of Nefertiti, who may have been the biological mother of King Tutankhamun, is the latest to have been recreated thanks to 3-D imaging technology.
So is this the face of Queen Nefertiti?
Remarkable advancements in forensic imaging suggests it may be.
The mummy, known for years as the “Younger Lady,” was found in 1898 and is about 3,400-years-old. But her identity has never been confirmed.
As technology has grown over the centuries since her discovery, so has interest in what Egypt’s ancient royalty looked like.
Paleonartis Elisabeth Daynes worked for 500 hours reconstructing the face of the “Younger Lady,” and Travel Channel host Josh Gates says he’s confident she’s Nefertiti.
But all experts aren’t sold.
The University of Chicago is home to The Oriental Institute, a world-renowned showcase for the history, art, and archaeology of the ancient Near East. The museum displays objects recovered by Oriental Institute excavations in permanent galleries devoted to ancient Egypt, Nubia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia — and the ancient site of Megiddo, as well as rotating special exhibits.
Raymond Johnson, director of the Epigraphic Survey project and Research Associate and Associate Professor at the University of Chicago in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department, weighed in with great detail about the recent discovery and what they may mean to our understanding of King Tut’s family:
“Regarding the forensic facial reconstruction of the mummy of the ‘younger lady’ announced this week, there are several issues worth discussion. The head in question is a beautiful job of forensic reconstruction by Elisabeth Daynes, and the artist has done science a great service. The mummy of ‘the younger lady’ has evoked a lot of speculation since it was found in 1898 in a side chamber of Amenhotep II’s royal tomb (KV 35) in the Valley of the Kings with two other despoiled mummies, and a cachette of nine reburied kings in the main burial chamber (Thutmosis IV, Amenhotep III, Merenptah, Sety II, Siptah, Sethnakht, and Ramesses IV, V, and VI). The second female mummy found in the side chamber, referred to as ‘the elder lady,’ has been identified as the mummy of Queen Tiye, great royal wife of Amenhotep III, based on a matching lock of her hair found in Tutankhamun’s tomb and recent DNA analysis. A third mummy found in the chamber, of a young prince with a sidelock, might be Akhenaten’s older brother Thutmosis, who predeceased Akhenaten. The ‘younger lady’ is the mummy that Joanne Fletcher years ago identified as Nefertiti, an idea that Zahi Hawass vigorously refuted. Zahi’s DNA testing of the royal mummies a few years ago, including the ‘younger’ and ‘older’ ladies, indicated that the mummy of the ‘younger lady’ was Tutankhamun’s mother, and – to everyone’s surprise – that she is also a daughter of Amenhotep III and Tiye.
If one accepts that the mummy of the ‘younger lady’ is the mother of Tutankhamun, then she cannot be Nefertiti. In no text is Nefertiti ever identified as a royal daughter. If she had been a daughter of Amenhotep III and Tiye, it would have been clearly stated in her inscriptions, and there are hundreds of texts that survive mentioning Nefertiti with no mention of her parents. It has been suggested that she was a daughter of Ay, one of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun’s high court officials, a military man who took the crown after Tutankhamun’s early death. Ay’s title, ‘God’s Father,’ could refer to his relationship to Nefertiti, who as queen could never claim a non-royal as her father. If the genetic analysis is correct and the mummy of the ‘younger lady’ is the mother of Tutankhamun and a daughter of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, then this mummy cannot be Nefertiti.
Numerous sculptures and reliefs survive of Nefertiti, who ruled as queen and then as king with her husband, including many portraits from the end of the Amarna Period when the art style favoured a naturalism that borders on true portraiture. There are elements common to all of these later representations of Nefertiti: a straight nose, heavy-lidded eyes, long graceful neck, and a strong square jaw. The forensically reconstructed face with its narrow skull, deep-set eyes, and triangular jaw is beautiful but in no way resembles the portraits that survive of Nefertiti. That said, they could be relatives. One must remember that Queen Tiye and Ay were siblings; if Nefertiti’s father was indeed Ay, she and the younger lady would have been cousins.
Finally there is the issue of race and skin tone of the reconstructed princess. From the beginning of human history Egypt was the gateway out of the African continent, but was also the main route back in. The population of Egypt was always a mix of European and African races, and the Egyptian court – and royal harem – reflected this. Amenhotep III’s many wives included foreign wives from countries all around Egypt and the Mediterranean, including Caucasians, but he was certainly of mixed blood, as was Queen Tiye. We can never know for sure what the skin color of this princess might have been, but as the child of Amenhotep III and Tiye, she was undoubtedly not pure Caucasian. A brown skin color would have probably been more true to the individual represented, and to her times.
That said, it is moving to see the features of this remarkable woman whose identity has been debated ever since her discovery in 1898. Whoever she was, and in my opinion her name is still in question, she was a major player in the Amarna Period. As Tutankhamun scholar Marianne Eaton-Krauss has noted, Tutankhamun never mentioned his mother in any inscription because she was deceased before he took the throne. We know the names of Amenhotep III’s chief daughters: Sitamun, Nebetah, Isis, Hennutaneb, Baketaten, and we know that there were many more. Perhaps in time we will be able to restore one of those name to this body, whose face has been so vividly and beautifully recreated here.”
Many social media users weren’t buying the 3-D image either, and shared their thoughts over Twitter:
Tonight, the Travel Channel’s “Expedition Unknown” will tell the story behind the 3-D presentation Queen Nefertiti.