In March of 2009, the National Geographic News published an article titled: “Nefertiti’s Real wrinkled Face”.
The bust of Nefertiti was unearthed in 1912, during an excavation of the studio of Egyptian royal sculptor Thutmose. Now there were many things unearthed by archaeologists at that site and at that time, but the one thing that they missed was an understanding of the sculptor’s method.
Researchers who scanned the sculpture with “advanced technology” ( a CT scan) determined in 2009 that the artist had originally recorded a more authentic and precise portrait of the wife of Akhenaten, one with hollows under the eyes and grooves around the mouth.
I’d suggest that in this case, the sculptor anticipated that his finished artwork required a careful modelling of a generous layer of stucco, and so he needed to make clear notches in the underlying limestone sculpture. These notches /markers acted as guidelines for the finished ‘skin’ of the sculpture.
So why did scientific publications like National Geographic and Scientific American interpret the CT scan as a kind of unmasking of the “real” and “wrinkled” Nefertiti?
Because like any celebrity female of the 21st century, Nefertiti needs to be brought down a peg by giving her the tabloid treatment. The interpretation of the scan has more to do with a contemporary attitude to the feminine than with the artistic process. The sculptor Thutmose did not cast the living Nefertiti in limestone, he interpreted as he carved a supporting structure in limestone. Then he modeled the stucco skin over the underlying structure. The limestone was a rough, supporting structure, and the wet stucco skin was meant to be the smooth, final surface of the finished portrait. We will never know the original Egyptian woman of 3,300 years ago. The bust is an artistic interpretation from beginning to end. Even if we unearth her mummy, a forensic artist will interpret Nefertiti’s remains and present us with an artist’s concept, which isn’t the same as a perfect genetic replica.
The National Geographic and Scientific American are supposedly objective publications– but not when it comes to women. This is how I would summarize their approach to the Nefertiti sculpture: the Eternal She is the fuckable nubile. Scratch her surface and you’ll find a deliberately concealed truth: a death’s head… Booga-booga-booga!!
The historic truth is more complicated: 3,300 years ago men and women died of opportunistic infections and diseases, so the so-called obscenity of wrinkled old-age was a rare occurrence. Clearly, headlines like “Nefertiti’s Real Wrinkled Face” are meant to be click-bait as well as projections from our current, age-phobic era. I bet that the real Nefertiti probably died care-worn and probably sickened, so the rest is just hype and a kind of cheap, horror-flick overlay.
There’s a fear at the core of the Russian doll that these scientific publications have made out of the Nefertiti. it’s the fear of their own mortality, which they’ve fobbed off on The Other – who in this case is a female regent whose decay they contend was deliberately concealed under a layer of stucco.
And that’s what I take away from the pedestrian sexism of this erstwhile scientific coverage: that the cultural context of a an ancient artifact doesn’t matter and that the lesson of our shared mortality doesn’t matter. All that matters is the shitty, death-denying vanity that we must at every turn attribute to women in the twenty-first century.