Egyptian Photoshop: Nefertiti’s Bust was Altered

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Now for something completely different… I’ve never blogged before about ancient Egypt, even though it has fascinated me since childhood. However, yesterday I came across an obscure, but earth shattering factoid about the world famous bust of Nefertiti. It turns out that a medical journal article concluded that this iconic statute representing ideal female beauty had a big touch up job from the royal sculptor Thutmose!

Bust of Nefertiti


The reason why we have such a perfectly preserved bust that still survives after thousands of years is actually more connected to why Howard Carter found King Tut’s tomb than anything else. You see Nefertiti is Tut’s step mother. Tut’s father and Nefertiti’s husband was Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, the biggest maverick of ancient Egypt. First, he changed his name to Akhenaten, then he pissed off an entire nation of very powerful priests by getting rid of the ancient religion by creating a new one that would only worship only the sun God. Finally, he really pissed off the administrators in the government by moving Egypt’s capital to a brand new city he had built in the desert called Amarna. This is where Nefertiti’s bust was discovered, buried in the dirt inside the abandoned workshop of the royal sculptor Thutmose. Why was such an important statute of a queen left in a royal sculptor’s workshop? For the same reason that Howard Carter found the fully intact tomb of Akhenaten’s son Tut. After ruling for 17 years, the priests and government officials found a way to get rid of the nutty Pharaoh Akhenaten. Amarna was quickly abandoned and anything associated with Akhenaten was destroyed. In fact, one of the best ways to disgrace a fallen ruler in ancient Egypt was to deface his statuary and monuments, because this was believed to negatively impact his afterlife. So Thutmose was probably supposed to destroy this statue, but either he or someone in his workshop just couldn’t bear to wreck it, so they left or buried it. What does this have to do with the discovery of Tut’s intact royal tomb? The priests and government officials made sure that the name of Akhenaten and his son Tut were eventually removed from almost all monuments, so the tomb robbers literally didn’t know he existed. Even more important was that the early European Egyptologists who could read hieroglyphs also had no hard evidence that Tut was real, only oblique references that the royal priests had missed. So Howard Carter was considered quite mad when he stuck around for several seasons looking for Tut’s tomb after his colleague’s had declared that all tombs in the valley of the Kings that could be discovered had been found!

Getting back to Nefertiti, a radiology journal in 2009 published a paper showing the results of 3D CT Scan reconstructions that were performed on her famous bust. Much to the surprise of everyone, there was a second inner statue underneath the one we see today! That original composition wasn’t quite the idealized beauty we’ve all come to marvel. In fact, there were originally wrinkles around the eyes and frown lines. In addition, there was a bump on the nose. In the later idealized statute, all of these imperfections had been corrected by the sculptor, sort of like ancient photoshopping!

The upshot? We all believe that what we see around us is new. The outcries over models being photoshopped and how this new technology twists the perception of the physical ideal isn’t new. Artists have been idealizing their subjects for a very long time and the public has believed that those perfect people were real for eons. So the next time you see the most famous Egyptian bust and marvel at the Queen’s beauty, just realize that a medical journal concluded that she had a significant makeover!

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Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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