I would like to have met Thutmose, the sculptor. Without him we would never have known of Nefertiti, nor known what a beautiful woman she really was. His real genius would not be realized for 4,000 years, but like Michelangelo, even during his own lifetime he was recognized as a great artist, entrusted with the public image of the two most important politicians in his world, the Pharaoh Akhenaten and his Great Royal Wife. But more than that, like Leonardo da Vinci he was also an intimate witness to a major revolution in technology that literally built the world we live in.
With few hardwood trees, what humans in the Nile Delta first used to build shelters with was mud, malleable mud, sometimes formed into bricks, dried solid by the sun. But each adobe brick swelled and contracted separately with the daily temperature swings, and thus larger structures tended to separate and crack. Stone, the other building material available in Egypt, would last forever, but was hard to work with and if the joints where one stone met another were not a perfect fit, the entire structure was unstable. And the fit was never perfect. The solution was a combination of the two materials; a malleable stone. In the building trade this is called mortar.
In the Old Kingdom, a thousand years before the birth of Nefertiti, mortar was not used to bind stones together, but merely provided a level surface for their meeting. The fingerprints of ancient Egyptians were recorded as they pushed mud into nooks and crannies, leveling the joints between the great sandstone blocks of the Pyramids of Giza. But over the next centuries mortar became the subject of a great deal of study, which is when the ancient Egyptians discovered Gypsum.
It was lying about all over Egypt. Its what you get when you dry up an ocean, and other then the bleaching skeletons of ancient whales, large deposits of gypsum are the strongest evidence that the Sahara desert was once an ocean basin. To a modern chemist it is calcium sulfate, and is the primary ingredient in dry wall. Deposits of gypsum so aided the creation of the city of Paris, that the formula used there gave rise to the ubiquitous phrase “Plaster of Paris”, and it can even be used as a fertilizer.
The ancient Egyptians were unaware of any of this, but they did know the material was soft, gritty and eager to dissolve in water. And when blended with limestone or chalk (calcium carbonate) in water it produced the sought after malleable stone. During the middle of the 18th dynasty (1400 – 1300 B.C.E.) the use of gypsum mortars became standard throughout Egypt. Now houses and smaller temples could be built of standardized mud blocks, joined by and coated with a binding agent of similar properties, so the entire structure expanded and contracted as one. It made the construction of Aketaten much quicker and cheaper. And with a few modifications to the formula, it made Thutmose a better artist.
Perhaps someday a new generation of Egyptoligist will open a tomb and find the name Thutmose on a painted mural, with his mummy resting securely beneath. But I doubt it. I fear it far more likely that we will only know him by the few examples of his works that survived in his workshop on the southeast corner of a slum lined street in the southern section of Aketaten. What if the only evidence we had of Leonardo Di Vinci was the Mona Lisa and his crumbling masterpiece, “The Last Supper”? What would we think of him if we did not have his notebooks on anatomy, or his drawings of a flying machine? That is where we are in our appreciation of the world's first identifiable great artistic genius.
He must have begun with a plaster mask, poured directly on the subject's face. This is an indignity suffered by Hollywood actors today, and was possible here only because the Pharaoh Akhenaten (above) had endorsed Thutmose's “naturalistic” artistic revolution. Once the plaster cast had been created, it was used as a guide for carving limestone busts. Nefertiti's bust was 19 inches tall and weighed 44 pounds, or probably almost half of what the Queen weighed in life. Several busts of members of the court have survived, and provide an opportunity for living humans to look half way back to the invention of agriculture, directly into the real face of our ancestors. What returns your gaze is a human, very much like people you know.
The limestone busts were a major technical achievement, but it was now that Thutmose the artist stepped up, as he “worked from life”, applying plaster to the bust, to perfectly match the person sitting before him. In the case of Queen Nefertiti, Thutmose captured “laugh lines” around the corners of her mouth and cheeks, a bump on her nose, bags under her eyes and wrinkles beginning on her neck. He even flattened her cheek bones a little, indicating perhaps a slight change in weight between the casting, and the carving of the stone. This was a great beauty in her middle age, the mother of six girls, with gravity taking its toll, as it does to all of us. And when the plaster additions satisfied the artist, Thutmose then added yet another layer of stucco, smoothing the lines, straightening the nose, perhaps to please his model. She was, after all, the Queen, and vanity is a very human trait.
And then he painted the face to life, using black quartz held in place with beeswax for the iris of her eyes. For the blue of her jewels he used ground glass with copper oxide. For the yellow bands in her crown he used arsenic sulfide (the mineral orpiment), and for the green crown of Egypt, powdered glass and cooper and iron oxide. The black eyeliner was coal and beeswax, with red chalk for the lips. Her rich skin tone was recreated by adding red chalk to lime spar, AKA our old friend mortar.
The assumption is that the bust which survives today in a Berlin museum, was created as a guide for apprentice artists to produce the many copies that would have sat in the offices of bureaucrats and in temples from the Nile Delta to the southern reaches of Kush, beyond the cataracts of the Nile. This was not the image of a queen on a coin, but the real face of a real woman, who you would recognize if you saw her on the street or sat she sat next to you in a restaurant. And this is the first time in human history that such a face was created and survived for 4,300 years, half way back to the birth of agriculture.
Gaze into her face. This was the woman whom the Pharaoh declared to be his co-ruler in the 12th year of his reign, equal in power with himself. No King had ever named his wife as co-ruler. Now her word was law, just as his was. A hundred years previously the widow Hatsheput had successfully ruled for 22 years as Pharaoh, establishing the wealth that ensured the survival of the 18th dynasty. But she had first been regent for her young nephew, before taking power herself. Nefertiti had no such justification. Why would Akhenaten promote her to power? He must have trusted her with his life, and more, with his revolution.
By 1338 B.C.E, it must have been clear to Akhentaten that his revolution had failed. The new faith had not spread beyond his new capital. Worse, his orders were being ignored, within and without the empire. His border with the Hittite empire, centered in modern day Turkey, was crumbling. What could have cause him to let go of his power at such a crucial moment? There are hints and rumors that the King, beloved of Aten, the Sun God, had gone blind.
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