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Questioning our Obsession with Nefertiti

  • Dr Joyce Tyldesley Old Girl Nefertiti lecture
  • Dr Joyce Tyldesley Old Girl Nefertiti lecture (2)
  • Dr Joyce Tyldesley Old Girl Nefertiti lecture (1)

Old Girl Dr Joyce Tyldesley returned to Bolton School to give a fascinating talk based on her latest book, Nefertiti’s Face: The Creation of an Icon, as part of the Girls’ Division’s series of Evening Enrichment Lectures. Dr Tyldesley attended Bolton School from 1964 to 1978 and went on to study archaeology. She is now an Egyptologist teaching at the University of Manchester.

During her talk, Dr Tyldesley discussed how familiar Nefertiti’s face has become thanks to the famous bust that was discovered in 1912. She delved into how the obsession with Nefertiti began, why she represents Egyptology for so many people and how we see her as a result.

She began by talking about the small amount of information we have about Nefertiti herself. There is lots of archaeological evidence of Nefertiti, but very little written history. The images we have of her seem to depict her as a woman of power and influence, but Dr Tyldesley noted that this was no different from other queens of the period. In fact, prior to the bust’s discovery, it was her mother-in-law Queen Tiy who was considered important, not Nefertiti.

She went on to discuss the circumstances of the bust’s discovery in a sculptor’s workshop and how, from there, it went on to be displayed in Berlin in 1923. Almost immediately, the museum began to make plaster replicas. Nefertiti’s popularity was likely due to a surge of interest in Ancient Egypt, as Tutankhamun had just been discovered but was being excavated slowly, and the Art Deco movement, as the bust both fits into and probably influenced this style. Dr Tyldesley went on to discuss how the bust has since become a cultural icon, inspiring the Bride of Frankenstein with her iconic hair in the shape of Nefertiti’s crown and Rhianna’s Vogue cover.

Asking why Nefertiti has become so influential, she showed that her face is very symmetrical, making her classically beautiful and alluring to many. However, Dr Tyldesley argued that the bust of Nefertiti does not necessarily look like the woman herself: Egyptian sculpture and art is not portraiture, but rather is symbolic of whatever the subject wanted to portray. She showed several other images of Nefertiti which don’t look like her bust, but in which she can be identified by her crown. She also pointed out that the bust is part of a pair, but Akhenaten’s bust is badly damaged and they are not displayed together.

Dr Tyldesley ended her talk by saying that we do not know what happened to Nefertiti as she disappears from records, but people cling to the idea of her. This has sparked many “fake news” stories that last even after they have been disproved, from the claim that Nefertiti ruled as a female king to her mummy being discovered to unlikely allegations that the bust is a fake. Finally, she said that it is no bad thing for Nefertiti to be put back where she should be, rather than being the person we make her into.

There was time for some questions at the end, and Dr Tyldesley was asked how she felt about Nefertiti having written a book about her. She admitted that she was originally a fan of Queen Tiy, who was regarded as a powerful, influential woman but then was pushed into the background by Nefertiti simply because of the bust, as were Nefertiti’s daughters who were important in their own right. She also gave advice on what to see on a trip to Egypt.


Find out about forthcoming Enrichment Lectures here.

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