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Queen Nefertiti white? The world begs to differ

There has been widespread reaction to the European features in a reconstruction of a mummy believed to be the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, the biological mother of King Tutankhamun. The question that is being asked is whether this is another case of historical ‘whitewashing.’

Three-dimensional imaging and forensic reconstruction, the process of capturing the shape and appearance of real objects either by active or passive methods, is being used in many areas. This includes archaeologists, who use it to make visual representations of their discoveries. Recently, such imaging was used to reconstruct a model of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. The result has been a depiction that has left the world dumbfounded. The 3D model shows Queen Nefertiti with very Eurocentric features, despite her origins.

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The model was reconstructed from a mummy whose identity has never been confirmed. Known for years only as the ‘Younger Lady,’ it was found in 1898 and is about 3 400 years old. Paleonartis Elisabeth Daynes worked for 500 hours to reconstruct the face of the “Younger Lady” and Travel Channel host Joshua Gates has said that he was confident that the mummy was Nefertiti.

Many have called Joshua Gates’s revelation of the bust on America’s Today Show “whitewashing” and yet another example of white people attempting to erase Africa’s contribution to historic events, especially of an era so widely documented as having occurred on the African continent. The Egyptians can claim so many accomplishments – the world’s first nation state, advances in early medicine and the engineering triumphs of the pyramids – which makes the opportunity to claim descent from the kings and queens of this time a matter of pride.

Raymond Johnson, director of the Epigraphic Survey project and Research Associate and Associate Professor at the University of Chicago in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department, weighed in in great detail on the recent discovery and what it may mean to our understanding of King Tut’s family:

“Regarding the forensic facial reconstruction of the mummy of the ‘Younger Lady’ announced this week, there are several issues worth discussing. The head in question is a beautiful job of forensic reconstruction by Elisabeth Daynes, and the artist has done science a great service…”

“Numerous sculptures and reliefs survive of Nefertiti, who ruled as queen and then as king with her husband, including many portraits from the end of the Amarna Period, when the art style of the day favoured a naturalism that borders on true portraiture. There are elements common to all of these later representations of Nefertiti: a straight nose, heavily lidded eyes, a long and graceful neck, and a strong, square jaw. The forensically reconstructed face, with its narrow skull, deep-set eyes and triangular jaw is beautiful but in no way resembles the portraits that survive of Nefertiti. That said, they could be relatives….”

“Finally there is the issue of race and skin tone of the reconstructed princess. From the beginning of human history, Egypt was the gateway out of the African continent, but it was also the main route back in. The population of Egypt was always a mix of European and African races, and the Egyptian court – and royal harem – reflected this.”

Speaking of the ‘Younger Lady” specifically, he ended by saying, “We can never know for sure what the skin colour of this princess might have been, but as the child of Amenhotep III and Tiye, she was undoubtedly not pure Caucasian. A brown skin colour would probably have been more true to the individual represented and to her times.”

Over time and through the commercialization of this part of history, Nefertiti has become a global icon of feminine beauty and power. However, every so often questions resurface about her look and aesthetics because so many are always scrambling to claim her as their own.

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