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Highlights From the Neues: ‘King’ Nefertiti and the Controversial Amarna Stela

collection house altar
This beautiful stela from Amarna encapsulates the Amarna artistic style and the religion of the Aten in one place. It is not the only one of its kind, but it is one of exceptional workmanship and is in remarkable condition. Along with the bust of Nefertiti, it’s one of the highlights of the newly-opened Neues Museum in Berlin.

The stela, or house altar, shows a relief of the royal family, with Nefertiti on the right, sitting opposite and facing her husband Akhenaten, with their three eldest daughters, Meritaten, Meketaten and Ankhesenpaaten, upon their laps.

They are all seated beneath the Aten, or sun disc, whose rays end in little handsholding ankhs to the lips of the king and queen; presenting them with eternal life.

Although the religion of the Aten is often claimed to be monotheistic, it was in fact hedotheistic, where one god is worshipped whilst still recognising the existence of other gods. Nefertiti and Akhenaten themselves were often depicted as the traditional gods, Shu and Tefnut the deities of the air and moisture, forming a triad with the Aten, the sun. Wherever the image of the Aten is depicted it displays the ureaus representing the goddess Wadjet, who traditionally protects the king from her position upon their crown.

house altar details right 3

In this stela,the Atens rays are only reaching the mouths of the king and queen, which was a fundamental part of their religion. There is movement in the tails hanging from the crowns of the king and queen indicating they were seated outside, all the better for soaking up the rays of the sun, and indeed all of the worship of the Aten was performed outside.

Each ray ends in a small hand; some holding the ankh, the symbol of eternal life. This idea was fundamental to the religion of the Aten, as the sun beams were the source of all light and life, and it is no accident that the royal family were the sole beneficiaries of these gifts. The sun nurtured them and through the royal family, the population could obtain eternal life.

This intimacy is not repeated after the Amarna period

The royal family alone were allowed to worship the Aten. Everyone else worshipped the royal couple, who were seen as intermediaries between the Aten and the people. The Aten only spoke to Akhenaten, as an equal. Either Akhenaten had been raised to the position of god or the Aten had been demoted to the status of a king. The latter seems to be the case, as the Atens name is written in cartouches alongside that of the king, and the disc is adorned with the uraeus. In all images of the Aten it is in fact the royal family which dominate and not the god.

The image on this stela is also one of family intimacy with one of the children playing with her mothers earring, whilst another is commenting and pointing to her father as he embraces and kisses the third daughter. This intimacy is not repeated after the Amarna period.

The representation of the royal family has sparked debate for the last 80 years or so, and the grotesque distortion of each member of the family has been interpreted in many ways, with diseases being the most popular amongst lay-people as there seems to be a desire for these images to be true to life.

However it is likely thisstyle of representation is as stylistic as traditional art, just in a different way. The androgynous manner in which Akhenaten is portrayed, with pendulous breasts, a small waist and large thighs are a means of showing his divine nature; encapsulating both the male and female aspects of a god. Nefertiti and the girls are also depicted in this way for exactly the same reason; to emphasise their divinity.

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There are some unusual elements to this scene as the throne of Nefertiti is decorated with the sma tawy, or symbol of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt which is normally reserved for the king’s throne. Does this indicate perhaps the stela was not finished, or that there was a deeper message being portrayed here? The most fashionable idea at presentis that Nefertiti became co-regent with Akhenaten and changed her name to Smenkhkare, ruling alone after his death. Is the sma tawy on her throne proof of this?

This isjust one of many such reliefs showing such intimatefamily scenes,whichare beautiful and touching but are probably not meant to be viewed as snapshots of their intimate moments. Dominic Montserrat compared these images to the propagandistic images of Queen Victoria and her family group represented most royal families in Europe displaying a united front, or despotic leaders like Saddam Hussain or Stalin with their families and pets presenting an image to the world. Was Akhenaten any different? A deeply unpopular king presenting images of family unity; us against the world? One thing that is clear is that although beautifully carved and sensitively presented these are stylistic images which probably present Akhenatens world more realistically that any art in ancient Egypt.

Is this one of your favourite pieces in the new Neues Museum, Berlin? Check out our top 10, and let us know your top picks.

Framing the Archaeologist Exhibition at the Petrie Museum, UCL

Framing Archaeologists - Ali Excavating, 1899Amidst the charming Victorian cases of jewellery along the walls of the larger room in the Petrie Museum is the Framing the Archaeologist exhibition (follow their blog here); a series of framed photographs from 1880 1900 categorised into excavation sites of Petrie; Giza 1800-1883, Delta sites 1883-86, and Al Arabar Al Madfunda (Abydos) 1899-1900. Each framed image is accompanied by a quote from a contemporary report or letter, giving some insight into the people depicted and their activities. One of the first pictures in the exhibition is the fabulous image of a young Petrie leaning casually against the wall of his tomb with a view where he stayed whilst excavating at Giza. This has always been one of my favourite images of Petrie, bearing little resemblance to the formal portraits of a bearded gentleman we are all familiar with. A young archaeologist with his life ahead of him.

Following the images around we are introduced to Sheikh Seidi of the Giza area, which emphasises the importance of village elders when hiring workers for work. Their cooperation was essential. A hand-drawn map is on display, by Hilda Petrie, showing the villages where the workers lived in relation to the excavation site, showing workers were drafted from a wide area. The process of hiring workers and their weekly pay schedule is described through the next few photographs and captions. In his Methods and Aims, Petrie comments;

The best age for diggers is about 15 to 20 years. After that many turn stupid, and only a small proportion are worth having between 20 and 40. After 40 very few are of any use, though some robust men will continue to about 50

Aly Swefy is here, one of our best old hands. Being a fisherman, he has a little rough boat below here, and rushes off sometimes to catch a fish.

However, many of the workers on his sites were younger than 15. As the wages were well received by all, the young girls did not want to miss out, and some disguised themselves as boys in order to work. Petrie comments in his journal (22.2.1884);

Among the boys one girl came and gave name as Muhammed Hassan. So I asked Ali how it was a girl had such a name. Oh they think you not take a girl for work, so that call her fathers name; Did they think I could not see it was a girl I asked. Oh time Mariette work here, so many girl, they dress in white, and send work for boys. (mem. girls and women wear dark blue, and boys and men white & brown).

The hard work and abilities of the local workers were recognised, and once loyal, good members of staff had been found they were employed year after year. Petrie comments that the local Egyptians were far more valuable on excavation than a man fresh from England who is not acclimatised to the heat or the conditions. Margaret Drower reminisces about one Egyptian, Ali Sueif (Aly Swefy);

Petrie's sister-in-law purchasing antiquities from local children, 1899It will be a great pleasure to have him about me again; for I feel as if all must go well with such a faithful, quiet, unselfish right-hand to help. As far as character goes he is really more to me than almost any of my own race. Few men, I believe, have worked harder for me or trusted me more. Perhaps none are sorrier at parting, or gladder when we meet again. A curious link in life but a very real one, as character is at the bottom of it. Kipling’s East and West is the only expression of such a link that I know in black & white.

It is not really surprising the Englishmen found it difficult working in the heat of the Egyptian desert, when one looks at the clothes they were wearing; three piece linen suits, with shirts, ties and waistcoats for the men, and tight bodices and flowing skirts for the ladies, whereas the Egyptians are wearing the traditional galabeyas and turbans. With such traditional costumes and images of their activities you would think time had stood still. The beautiful photograph of the Nabira market (1885) in the Delta could have been taken last week, with the hustle and bustle of people, livestock and merchants. The image of the fishermen show they still fish in the same manner today as depicted in 1898, and Hilda Petrie comments on the importance of fishing to the lives of their workers;

Aly Swefy is here, one of our best old hands. Being a fisherman, he has a little rough boat below here, and rushes off sometimes to catch a fish.

 Ali Swefy fishing, 1899This presents a fabulous image of Aly dropping his trowel and bucket in order to pop off to catch fish for his supper.

One of the most charming aspects of this exhibition is that through such anecdotes we are able to identify these stories with images enabling us to identify Aly Swefy (Ali Suief), and his wife Sarah, putting a face to a name. It brings life to this period of starched collars, colonialism and treasure hunting.

Although the attitudes towards the native Egyptians was very much of their age, and not considered PC today, as well as such practices as purchasing antiquities from local children, as Amy, Petries sister-in-law was photographed doing, we have to acknowledge these attitudes existed and these things happened, and through such exhibitions Egyptologys heritage and indeed the origins of western views of modern Egypt can be identified.

All images supplied by Framing the Archaeologist.

Support the Lucy Gura Archive Fund

Amazing archives across Britain are in desperate need of funding, as organisations seek to preserve the history of Egypt’s era of discovery. Heritage Key is urging Egypt fans everywhere to donate to the Egypt Exploration Society‘s Lucy Gura Fund.

It’s a worthy cause, and one vital to the study and celebration of Egyptology. If we lose the EES’ archives, along with other prominent archives in Oxford, Geneva and further afield, we risk turning the light off on the Era of Discovery.If you wish to make a much-needed donation to the Lucy Gura archive, just visit the EES’ support page,