Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Nefertiti Hack

Here’s the plan:  On your next trip to Total Wine, make your way over to the scotch section and locate the various varieties of Laphroaig.  These are easy to find, since they all come in tall cardboard tubes.  All you have to do is open one of tubes containing the ten-year scotch and replace the contents with a bottle of Laphroaig Lore.  Then take the tube up to the checkout counter and purchase your scotch.

If by some miracle you are not arrested—Laphroaig Lore sells for about two-and-a-half times the price of the ten-year variety—feel free to bring it by my house and we ‘ll test it for imperfections. 

Note:  Please DON’T do anything to Total Wine—I like that store, regardless of its malappropriate name.  I am mindful of the time I jokingly suggested that people visiting the grave of Victoriano Huerta in El Paso should take him a bottle of beer, but run it through their digestive systems before putting it on his grave.  Some students actually took my advice and were arrested.  Telling a judge that you are acting on the instructions of your favorite history professor has not yet been proven to be a viable legal defense.  (Neither has "Acting on instructions of your favorite blogger", so do not try this!)

The German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt pulled off a theft exactly like what I have described above, but did it with one of the most famous works of art in history:  the bust of Nefertiti.  When the bust was discovered in 1912, Borchardt presented a deliberately lousy photo of the find, along with an inaccurate description, to Egyptian officials, then shipped it to Germany in a "mislabeled" crate.  Egypt has been trying—unsuccessfully—to retrieve its property for a century. 

There is little doubt that Borchardt knew he was committing grand theft since he recorded in his diary, “Suddenly we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork. You cannot describe it with words. You must see it.”

Even after the bust arrived in Germany, at Borchardt’s insistence, Nefertiti was kept secret, and was hidden from the public for over a decade.  When she was finally publicly displayed, Egyptian officials immediately demanded her return. 

Nefertiti eventually went on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin, where she stayed until the start of WWII.  For safekeeping, the bust was then moved first to the cellar of a bank, then to a heavily fortified flak tower, and, finally, to a salt mine, where she remained until recovered by the US Army's “Monument Men” team.  (The photo below shows Sergeant Kenneth Lindsay with the famous bust.)  Recently, Nefertiti was returned to the rebuilt Neues Museum—the building had suffered major bombing damage during the war—where she remains despite the determined efforts of the Egyptian government.

The 3300 year-old bust is fascinating.  One of the amazing things about the bust is that it was never intended to be a great work of art. It was found in the ruins of the workshop of the artist, Thutmose, who probably created it to use as a model for other, larger pieces.  Thutmose never finished the piece (Nefertiti is usually seen from the right profile because her left eye socket is missing its quartz inlay). In addition, she was created from limestone, gypsum, and wax—hardly the materials the artist would have used for an important, permanent work.

It is interesting that one of the arguments used by the German government for retaining the bust is that, for the protection of the piece, it should not be returned to a country where political unrest might lead to possible damage to the artifact.  As far as I know, no museum in Egypt was bombed during WWII, while most of the locations where the bust was temporarily stored were completely destroyed by Allied bombing.  Even the salt mine near Merkers was ordered to be destroyed by Hitler late in the war—thankfully, an order that Albert Speer ignored.

And that would be the end of the story if not for a couple of German artists who were determined to return the Queen to Egypt.  In 2016, Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikola Nelles hid a high resolution scanner under a heavy coat before entering the Neues Museum.  In a scene highly reminiscent of Ocean’s Eight, in which Helena Bonham-Carter secretly scans the Cartier diamond necklace, the two artists were able to obtain a high definition 3-D scan of the Nefertiti bust.  (They did this without the museum’s permission, of course.  The museum officially prohibits all photography.)

Under a Creative Commons license, the data from the unlicensed scan, now labeled Nefertiti Hack, was published to the web for free download, making the image available for anyone interested in creating a holographic or physical copy.  If you have the interest and the necessary funds, Amazon will sell you a 3-D printer and you can make your own bust of Nefertiti.  (You can download the data here.) 

The two artists created an "exact" replica of the bust (in modern material) and exhibited the “new artifact” in a Cairo museum.  When the show was over, they buried Queen Nefertiti in the Saharan desert at an undisclosed location.  A couple of thousand years from now, future archaeologists will rediscover the queen, no doubt setting off a new cycle of debates.


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  2. I've often wondered what archaeologists would make of my neighborhood a thousand years from now were Mt. Ranier to get frisky and bury it in volcanic ash. You see most of the homes in our neighborhood have this common landscaping quirk. They place large stones (we're talking multi-ton stones), by their driveways near the road. I can imagine some things archaeologists would make of our neighborhoods. First off they wouldn't find a lot of pottery shards in the yards, so that would throw them off badly, because as any amateur archaeologist knows, you can't date crap without an accompanying pottery shard. Then, the stones themselves would be the subject of much speculation. My bet is that they would come to the conclusion that these served as altars upon which the local Homeowner's Association would require sacrifices (human or animal) to appease the gods and demi-gods who serve on the HOA board. The scarcity of trash piles around the homes would likely trouble them greatly unless, of course, they stumbled on the giant tell made out of trash that the city of Puyallup is building at the end of the runway of the Thun Regional Airport. Now they'd have a blast digging down through the layers of compressed and landscaped garbage that make up Mt. Refuse as we like to call it.

    Archaeologists amaze me. They claim they can look at a scrap of kiln-fired clay and tell you what the owner's age, sexual preference, and religion were and whether they were Democrats or Republicans.

    My theory is that archaeologists secretly wanted to be forensic detectives, but they couldn't handle fresh blood.