Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 August - 3 September 2003
Issue No. 653
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Spinning Nefertiti

A British Egyptologist who claims to have identified the mummy of the legendary Queen Nefertiti is accused of breaking the Supreme Council of Antiquities' protocol. Nevine El-Aref reports

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A fake portrait?
The beautiful 18th dynasty Queen Nefertiti, wife of monotheist King Akhenaten, is again grabbing headlines. This time it is not for her painted limestone bust, now on display at the Berlin Museum, sitting atop a nude female statue. Currently Nefertiti has been in the news for embroiling British Egyptologist Dr Joan Fletcher in a controversy that threatens her career. To be fair to the old queen, it may be Fletcher who is embroiling herself in controversy by claiming to have identified Nefertiti's mummy. Fletcher stands accused of breaking the Supreme Council of Antiquities' (SCA) protocol on reporting discoveries. The member of York University's expedition currently working in Amenhotep II's tomb may be banned from further excavations in Egypt.

The SCA's code of ethics for foreign missions in Egypt stipulates that any discovery or conservation works should first be reported to the SCA before being published. The report must be written and submitted to the SCA by the expedition's head and not to be published by a member of the team.

The whole fracas started about two months ago when Fletcher announced her identification of mummified Nefertiti among three mummies discovered in Amenhotep II's tomb by the French Egyptologist Victor Loret in 1898. A subsequent Discovery Channel programme saw Fletcher explaining how she came to the conclusion that the mummy is indeed Nefertiti through identification of common physical characteristics between the mummy and the limestone bust. A double-pierced ear lobe, which she claims was a rare fashion statement in the Amarna era, the shaved head, and the visible impression of a tight-fitting brow-band worn by royalty were also cited to support her conclusion.

Egyptologists are divided into camps on Fletcher's identification. Some, like Cambridge-trained Susan James, are sceptical of the scientificity of her claims. James, a specialist on Loret's mummies, believes that without any comparative DNA studies on the mummy that Fletcher identifies as Nefertiti, statements of certainty are dubious. However, her findings indicate that the mummy in question does belong to a young female of the late 18th dynasty, very probably a member of the royal family -- circumstantial evidence supporting Fletcher's theory that cannot substantiate the identity of the mummy in absolute terms.

Meanwhile, the SCA's Secretary-General Zahi Hawass called Fletcher's theory "pure fiction". He asserted that Fletcher's claims are not based on facts or solid evidence, "only on facial resemblance between the mummy and Nefertiti's bust and on artistic representations of the Amarna period in which the queen lived".

Elaborating on his scepticism, Hawass told the Weekly that X-ray analysis carried out by himself and American University in Cairo Egyptologist Kent Weeks on the mummy prior to Fletcher's publicised claims indicated a 16-year-old girl, whereas Nefertiti is thought to have died in her 30s.

The dispute recently reached its peek after a 17 August Discovery Channel broadcast of another two-hour programme on Fletcher's theory, this one entitled "Nefertiti Resurrected". With the aid of a computer-generated recreation of the mummy's face, Fletcher asserted the plausibility of her claim while Hawass and Weeks appeared in adversarial roles.

Hawass accused Fletcher of cheating the whole world by circulating false historical information that contradicts the report sent by her supervisor and Head of the York University Mission Professor Don Brothwell, as well as broadcasting a questionable drawing purported to represent Nefertiti.

Al-Ahram Weekly obtained a copy of Brothwell's report to the SCA, which did not even unequivocally identify the gender of the mummy. The general shape of the mummy indicates that it could be a male. However, due to its deflated breasts, the wide space of its sciatic notch, and the absence of a penis, the report concludes that it probably belongs to a female with an estimated age between 18 to 25 years. On the other hand, Samia El-Marsani, head of the SCA's anthropology lab, who also accompanied the expedition, revealed in her report that during the studying and excavation work carried out, no Nubian-style wig, known to be worn by royal women during Akhenaten's reign, was found near the mummies.

She also cited two reasons why Fletcher's mummy was not Nefertiti. First, the estimated age of the mummy is not consistent with Egyptological consensus on Nefertiti's age at the time of death; and, two, the shape of the mummy is not the shape of a woman who was married for at least 12 years and delivered six children.

British and American Egyptologists have also pointed out that the double piercing of the mummy's left ear are not exclusively the style of Amarna but are also apparent in the mummies of New Kingdom youth. These specialists also criticise Fletcher for breaking professional protocol by broadcasting the finding to corporate media rather than first writing about it in an academic journal.

In response to Fletcher's alleged violations of SCA rules, Hawass has written a letter of complaint to both Brothwell and the Discovery Channel, also accusing Fletcher of circulating spurious evidence. "I am sorry to see a scholar who has earned a PhD deceive the world in this way, and flout the rules of a country that has respected scholars and opened the archaeological sites of Egypt to more than 300 foreign missions," said Hawass in his letter to Brothwell.

Before taking the allegations against Fletcher to the permanent committee, which, according to the SCA's code of ethics, would deprive the expedition or Fletcher from carrying out further research in Egypt, Hawass is waiting for Brothwell's response to his request for an urgent and complete justification of what happened and why the York expedition did not follow the rules.

Meanwhile, on 22 August The Times of London on-line published the opinion that "Fletcher was a victim of a collusion between international politics and the world of archaeology, glamorized in Hollywood films such as Indiana Jones."

It also stated that "the dispute has thrown British Egyptology into turmoil with British archaeologists accusing the Egyptian government of taking revenge on Britain for occupying Egypt in the 19th century, for invading Iraq and for refusing to give back the Rosetta Stone. They also say that the rise of Islamism and nationalism in Egypt is leading to a pool of resentment against the British."

The Times also accused Hawass of ruining British Egyptology and of being willing to use his status as Egypt's most powerful archaeologist to "break the careers of any Egyptologist".

"All these [accusations] are a pack of lies," Hawass told the Weekly. "We have put restrictions on future work in Egypt not only for foreign missions but for Egyptians as well, in order to pay attention more to conservation, preservation and documentation work in sites threatened by modern development."

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