Thursday, 12 February 2009

Nefertiti in the news again

The controversy about the famous bust of Nefertiti found in 1912 in the sculptor Djetmose's workshop at Tel el-Armana continues. The BBC now reports (following Spiegel) that newly published documents discovered recently in the archives of the German Oriental Institute (DOG) suggest that Ludwig Borchardt, German archaeologist and Director of the "Imperial German Institute for Egyptian Archaeology" perhaps had not been totally forthright with the representative of the Egyptian authorities to secure the fabulous sculpture of the Egyptian queen, Nefertiti for Germany during a division of finds. This has led to new calls to review the allocation of this find.

The excavations 1907-14 were carried out by the DOG - and for the period the standard of work was very high. Egypt and Germany had an agreement to split antiquities found by the German team "à moitié exacte" (or 50-50). The partage of the finds was agreed at a meeting on Jan. 20, 1913 between Borchardt and Gustave Lefebre (the Inspector for Middle Egypt from the Department of Antiquities).

The newly discovered document was written in 1924 by the secretary of the German Oriental Institute (DOG) and contains an account of what had happened at this meeting at which he had been present. Borchardt, the witness noted, "wanted to save the bust for us" and therefore had played down its significance.

The 1924 text apparently suggests that although Borchardt had listed the bust among his finds (in fact it was at the top of the list), in the inventory shown to the inspector, it was described as of gypsum (like other examples discovered in the same workshop). In addition, the photograph of her that Mr Borchardt showed the inspector was reportedly "deliberately unflattering." Furthermore the bust was "tightly wrapped, placed in a box in a poorly-lit chamber and kept hidden". It is unclear whether Lefebre went to the trouble of lifting the bust out of the box to examine it more carefully.

After looking over the excavated material, in accordance with the collecting policy of the institution he represented, Lefebre chose the half share of the excavated material that contained the inscriptions and stelae, and the other items were perfectly legally exported.

Already a year later a perfectly adequate photo was published of the bust, and Egyptologists knew what had made its way from Armarna to Germany, but it seems that at the time there was no reaction from the Egyptian authorities. It was only when ten years later the excavation permit holder transferred the finds to the Prussian State and the Nefertiti bust went on public display that the Egyptian authorities took a more serious interest in this sculpture and started regretting that Lefebre (who by then had advanced to curator in the Cairo Museum) had not taken a closer interest at the time.

The affair is discussed in some detail by Urice, S. K. (2006): The beautiful one has come - to stay pp. 135-192 [in:] J.H. Merryman (ed.) Imperialism, art and restitution, Cambridge.

The authorship of the 1924 document nor the context of (motivation for) its writing have not been reported yet.

photo: BBC



You readers may find it interesting to read NEFERTITI, IDIA AND OTHER AFRICAN ICONS IN EUROPEAN MUSEUMS: THE THIN EDGE OF EUROPEAN MORALITY where a similar view has been expressed.

Kwame Opoku.

Paul Barford said...

Thanks, it's nice to hear from you Dr Opoku. I really enjoy reading your thought-provoking texts.

Paul Barford said...

The (19 page) article referred to by Dr Opoku is here:

CuriosityCat said...

Thanks for the update. The saga continues, and will until the German government decides to set Nefertiti free and return her to her homeland.

Glenn & Loraine



Paul Barford said...

the blog is glorious stuff. Best of luck with the book.

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