Collage of the Amarna period head at Museum August Kestner that is identified as Akhenaten when it is more likely to depict a woman, possibly Meritaten.


By Anand Balaji

Dubbed “The Most Expensive Head of Hanover”, this painted crystalline limestone bust is stored behind bulletproof glass in the Museum August Kestner. The highly-prized Amarna artifact that hadn’t been on display for the past 15 years briefly saw the light of day in 2016 when it was subjected to a series of examinations that included 3D imaging. However, despite the aura surrounding the object, it appears to have been misidentified as a portrait of a young “Echnaton” (Akhenaten).

With red color still visible on the lips that identification is a stretch; the physiognomy, therefore, clearly represents a young female ruler wearing the khepresh crown. Prof Earl Ertman states that if there are traces of red color on the lips of a statue (particularly from this period), then, the image is definitely of a woman. Barring rare instances, statues of ancient Egyptian men were generally not colored on the lips. Who then might this royal lady wearing the kingly crown have been?

Inlay Profile Head Acc No: 33.685 Discovered at Tell el-Amarna, this inlay profile head of red quartzite represents Nefertiti.
[Brooklyn Museum, New York]

Nefertiti was certainly middle-aged by the time she reigned as Pharaoh, having adopted the name Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten Smenkhkare-Djeser-Kheperu; so could she have been portrayed as a younger person? The naturalistic and rather bizarre art form that Akhenaten introduced had run its course a few years before he died. Court sculptors knew this all too well and had had enough time to adjust to the new reality.

In fact, a statuette of Nefertiti wearing the cap crown (Neues Museum, Berlin) produced in the latter-half of the Amarna era provides evidence that she was portrayed warts and all; not as the everlasting beauty we know her as from the iconic bust. Every pharaoh was distinctly represented in royal iconography—except for a short time when one couldn’t distinguish between images of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, for they both were modeled after the former; as indeed the entire family was subsequently.


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So, if this object doesn’t represent Nefertiti, who could it depict? In all probability this head shows Meritaten who followed her as king—a natural elevation from the ritualistic Great Royal Wife of her mother. The portrait certainly appears to be a mix of both parents – the thick lips of Akhenaten, overall facial features of Nefertiti, and of course, the distinct nose of Meritaten herself. What makes this piece almost unique is the fact that it is not a work-in-progress as so many other similar statuettes and busts.

Line drawing of two figures from the tomb of Meryre II, Tell el-Amarna. Lepsius’ drawing of the now missing cartouches identify the figures as Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare Djser Kheperu and his/her wife Meritaten. (Public Domain)

The life-size yellow quartzite head at the Neues Museum in Berlin, though a work-in-progress, has traditionally been identified as Nefertiti; but, did the court artists make a mistake in rendering the great queen’s portrait with thick lips in comparison to the opposite portrayal of this facial feature in her famous bust? Highly unlikely. It’s time many mislabeled Amarna Period royal heads are re-evaluated.

A sandstone head of King Akhenaten found in Tell el-Amarna at the sculptors’ workshops during the Petrie/Carter excavations, 1891–92. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.



Independent Researcher.

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