Written by Ramez Naam, CNN
In classical Roman mythology, Nefertiti was famously found in a heap of bones. But there she sat in life, a dazzlingly beautiful young woman, surrounded by the ruffles and capes, jewels and garlands of coronation that are familiar to today’s savvy traveler.
Photos from these days show an altogether different Nefertiti. The model was found in a plastic tub in 2006, and is now celebrated at museums and archeological sites all over the world.
This throwback to the Roman world also transforms modern discovery into both artistic and educational opportunities.
In Egypt, Nefertiti has been one of the country’s most famous ancient landmarks. She served as queen of Egypt for a single decade, between 1279 and 1269 BC, and was the last to marry an Egyptian ruler.
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The discovery of the model sparked a flurry of archaeological projects, and exploded the country’s UNESCO Category 1 World Heritage List status.
One of the most challenging jobs was capturing the largest portrait Nefertiti ever offered the world. It’s 20 feet by 60 feet (6.6 meters by 20 meters) and features the model’s melted torso filled with gold and pearls, large crescent moon over her head and elegant headdress.
But the model has faced a variety of challenges too, including genitalia gaps and face and body deformities.
A model for the largest Nefertiti is even larger than the one scientists discovered in 2006. Credit: Mohammed Elshahed/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
“You never know how to walk or not — which part is right and left, like the neck and the shoulder or something like that,” says sculptor at Egypt’s Central Institute of Egyptology Ahmed El-Shaer. “It requires a lot of practice.”
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Egypt’s tourism industry was devastated by militant attacks and political instability in recent years, and has been slowly recovering. This has led to more interest in finding Nefertiti.
Egypt’s National Museum in Cairo will soon re-open following the discovery of another large portrait of Nefertiti.
The other portrait, found at Saqqara, is 11 feet by 13 feet (3.35 meters by 4.98 meters).
Nefertiti is believed to have lived during Egypt’s Golden Age, between 1256 and 1237 BC. Credit: Ramez Naam
El-Shaer says the figures would have been commissioned for hundreds of thousands of pounds (dollars), and decided upon by a line of blue-blooded pharaohs.
“It was a great part of art history, a great part of Egyptology,” he says. “Of course, it was also the last Egyptian monarch to be crowned. It is the grandest royal portrait of the ancient world.”
Suspended from the ceiling of one of Saqqara’s tombs are several sections of Nefertiti’s portrait. Credit: Ramez Naam/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
In this respect, Nefertiti stands apart from other Egyptian heroines: the ancient monuments of Karnak and Giza, as well as the Egyptian Presidential Palace, offer visitors a rare opportunity to see all three along with a number of other ancient monuments.
“Egypt is rich in so many cultures and so many civilizations, so it’s splendid to show the glorious diversity,” says Bilal Dhamouh, a researcher at the Department of Archaeology at Egypt’s Central Institute of Egyptology.
He explains that this “escapes the gaze of people who live in other countries” and “may not get enough historical knowledge.”
He says the museum has experienced strong growth in visitation in recent years, which he attributes to the project to restore the towering, hidden Karnak — once known as the Royal City — as part of Egypt’s UNESCO World Heritage listing.
“Karnak was like an empty city,” he says. “It’s been restored with a combination of an extensive national archaeological excavation and extensive restoration.”
This restoration makes Karnak available to Egypt’s foreign visitors, highlighting the city’s new usefulness.
“It’s for Egypt that is world famous,” says Dhamouh. “It shows how far we have come.”