Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Egyptian Entourage: The 1912 Discovery of Nefertiti's Tomb

Above:  Bust of Nefertiti, the Great Royal Wife of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaten

Several of the millionaire victims on board RMS Titanic had recently been on a visit to Cairo, Egypt, and they were on their way to New York after a long time in Cairo.  There is strong evidence that they bought Egyptian artifacts and were bringing these antiquities back to the United States with them, either to keep them in private collections or to donate them to public museums (see the entry on Molly Brown's "ushabti" below).

Members of the Egyptian Entourage

John Jacob Astor IV and his wife Madeleine
Margaret Tobin Brown
William T. Stead?
Benjamin Guggenheim? and his mistress?
Henry Clay Frick and his wife Adelaide
J. Horace Harding and his wife

The Main Attraction in 1912:  The Tomb of 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti at Tell el-Amarna.

The digs at Amarna were the subject of endless fascination to Victorians and Edwardians thanks to the discovery of the Tell el-Amarna Tablets in 1887. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "they contain precious information concerning the history, geography, religion, and language of the predecessors of the Hebrews in Palestine, and, in many cases, illustrate and confirm what we already know from the Old Testament."

To British nationalist hellbent on proving that the English speaking races were one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel mentioned in the Bible, this was fascinating stuff. Many of the snobbier members of British and American aristocracy believed that the archaeologists digging in Egypt were on the verge of finding artifacts that would prove the theories of British Israelism

Plus, there was money to be made.  Museums were all the rage, and the archaeologists of the day had no scruples about robbing Egyptians tombs wholesale, crating up the artifacts, and carting them back to English and American museums, where they intended to charge public admission even whilst standing on a podium and pontificating on the historical value of their "finds."

On the menu for1912: The Tomb of Queen Nefertiti, mother of King Tuth'mosis (aka "Moses").

"The Nefertiti Bust is a 3300-year-old painted limestone bust of Nefertiti, the Great Royal Wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten and one of the most copied works of ancient Egypt. Due to the work, Nefertiti has become one of the most famous women from the ancient world and as an icon of feminine beauty. The work is believed to have been crafted in 1345 BC by the sculptor Thutmose." -- Wikipedia

Discovery of the bust shown above was announced by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt on 4 October 1912.  This discovery indicates a great deal of digging around the gravesite of Pharaoh Akhenaten must have been taking place during the Spring of 1912, right about the time that John Jacob Astor IV, his wife Madeleine, and their entourage of millionaire friends decided to pay a visit to Cairo.

Given the Astor family's long-standing interest in the Biblical story of Moses being discovered by a Pharaoh's daughter among the bulrushes (see William Waldor Astor's story "The Pharaoh's Daughter" in the Pall Mall Magazine, which was then edited by William T. Stead), it stands to reason that the Astors made a beeline to Tell el-Amarna to pay a visit to the dig, and stare through their opera glasses at what they believed to be the thrilling sight of their great-great-great-(whatever)-grand-mummy.

Indeed the Astors may have financed the dig, and visited the site to take home some goodies.

One must note that some modern-day experts have recently made the startling claim that the famous Nefertiti bust is a "fake" -- a copy made in 1912 to use for testing different kinds of Egyptian pigments. 

This raises the very interesting question of what happened to the original?


"Famed Nefertiti Bust 'a fake': expert," Agence France Presse (AFP), 5 May 2009

Wkipedia: "Nefertiti"
Wikipedia: "Nefertiti Bust"