EGYPT, el-Amarna<br/>
<em>Head of Queen Nefertiti, from sculpture flanking Boundary Stela Q</em> 1353 BCE-1337 BCE <!-- (full view) --><br />

limestone<br />
34.3 x 21.0 x 20.5 cm (approx.)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Presented by N. de Garis Davies, 1907<br />
616-D2<br />


Sun queen


Sitting quietly on display in the Ancient Worlds Gallery on Level 2 is an exceptionally rare sculpture of the famous ancient Egyptian queen, Queen Nefertiti, principal wife of King Akhenaten. This year marks the centenary of the Egyptologist Howard Carter’s discovery of Nefertiti’s stepson (and son-in-law) Tutankhamun‘s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, inspiring us to revisit this very special piece from the NGV Collection.  

Despite its damaged state, the Head of Nefertiti is unmistakably recognisable with her high cheek bones and the tall, flat-topped crown that she wears. The NGV’s head is one of a very small number of sculptures that survive of Nefertiti, the most famous being the painted limestone bust in the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyryssammlung, Berlin. 

Queen Nefertiti lived during the fourteenth century BCE at a period now known as the Eighteenth dynasty. Very little is known of her parentage although it’s possible her family may have come from the region of Akhmim in Middle Egypt. She entered the historical record following her marriage to King Amenhotep IV, but whether they married before he became king is unknown. It’s likely that the couple were teenagers when they married, Egyptian royalty generally marrying very young. Amenhotep IV is thought to have been only sixteen or eighteen when he ascended the throne and Nefertiti aged between twelve and sixteen when she married him. They probably lived at Memphis, just south of modern-day Cairo, with Thebes, modern-day Luxor, being the religious centre for rulers of the Eighteenth dynasty who were then buried in the Valley of the Kings. In the first few years of their marriage, Nefertiti bore three daughters: Meritaten, Meketaten and Ankhesenpaaten, who later became the wife of Tutankhamun. 

In year four of his reign, Amenhotep IV embarked upon the building of a new capital city at modern-day Tell el-Amarna, in Middle Egypt, calling it Akhetaten, or ‘the horizon of the Aten’. In year seven, the family moved to the new city and Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten, meaning ‘the one who is effective for the Aten’. Here, he sought to establish a new system of religious beliefs based around the cult of one god, the Aten, represented by the solar disc. As such, Akhenaten has often been described as monotheistic and heretical, and he is still regarded as one of the most controversial kings of ancient Egypt. Following the royal family’s move to the new city, Nefertiti, known as ‘Great Royal Wife’, bore three more daughters: Neferneferuaten Tasherit, Neferneferure and Setepenre. While the details of her life at Tell el-Amarna are largely unknown Nefertiti appears to have held a status equal, if not higher in some circumstances, to Akhenaten. This is best attested in early reliefs from the Temple of Karnak at Thebes, where Nefertiti appears alone with the Aten in some scenes. In other representations of the royal family on stelae (carved stone tablets) found at Tell el-Amarna, Nefertiti is depicted at a similar scale as Akhenaten, something highly unusual. Her royal cartouche names are also given equal status alongside Akhenaten and the Aten gods’ cartouches. Akhenaten died in year seventeen of his reign and the city was abandoned soon after. It is now thought likely that Nefertiti survived her husband and may have even ruled in her own right for a short period. Nevertheless, when Nefertiti died, where she was buried and what role she played following Akhenaten’s death are still uncertain. Some scholars believe that Nefertiti is in fact Smenkhkare, the shadowy successor to Akhenaten, who reigned for a couple of years before Tutankhamun came to the throne, but there is no proof of this. 

The site of Tell el-Amarna is located on the desert plain on the east bank of the Nile River, just beyond the cultivation. It is surrounded by a bay of cliffs stretching around 10 kilometres from the northern headland to the south. The city was built in great haste and, at its height, probably housed a population of around 30,000 people. The main temples were constructed of limestone, but otherwise it was a city built largely of mudbrick. High up in the cliffs surrounding the site Akhenaten cut sixteen enormous stelae (carved stone tablets), known as the boundary stelae. Many of the stelae were several metres high and each was inscribed with hieroglyphic texts that delineated the boundaries of the city and dedicated the site to the god Aten. All of them were cut between years four and eight of Akhenaten’s reign, and each is identified by an alphabetical letter that was first ascribed to them in the late nineteenth century by the archaeologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (grandson of the explorer Captain Matthew Flinders who circumnavigated Australia). A number of the stelae were flanked with near life-size standing sculptures of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and some of their daughters. The Gallery’s Head of Nefertiti comes from one of the sculpture groups flanking boundary stela Q. It was gifted to the Gallery in 1907 by the British archaeologist Norman de Garis Davies, who began his career in Egypt with Flinders Petrie in 1898. Prior to this, de Garis Davies had worked in Melbourne as a Unitarian Minister and it is this connection that no doubt prompted him to gift the Head of Nefertiti, along with several other works, de Garis Davies having worked at Amarna from 1901 to 1907. 

Boundary stela U, Tell el-Amarna. Image: Barry Kemp, courtesy of the Amarna Project<br/>

The Amarna plain, looking south from the northern headland. Image: Anna Stevens, courtesy of the Amarna Project<br/>

The head was initially thought to have represented Akhenaten but its distinctive features clearly identify it as Nefertiti. The sculpture’s state of preservation is a result of natural weathering but it is also due to the deliberate destruction of the site that occurred following the city’s abandonment. As part of a large-scale, state-run program of destruction, representations of Akhenaten and Nefertiti were deliberately defaced in order to erase the memory of them, as well as Akhenaten’s controversial religious beliefs. It is perhaps ironic that Akhenaten and Nefertiti have now become two of the most well-known rulers from ancient Egyptian history.  

Amanda Dunsmore is NGV Senior Curator, International Decorative Arts and Antiquities. 

This essay was commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine, Issue 37 Nov–Dec 2022.