York History Weekend 2018: 5 minutes with Joyce Tyldesley

More than 3,000 years ago, an artist carved a limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti. Egypt has yielded many artistic masterpieces but no other sculpture has so successfully bridged the gap between the ancient and modern worlds. At our York History Weekend 2018, Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley will explore the bust's discovery, its display, and its dual role as a political pawn and artistic inspiration

Joyce Tyldesley.

We caught up with historian Joyce Tyldesley to find out what we can expect from her talk, Nefertiti’s Face: The Creation of an Icon, at our York History Weekend 2018…

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Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk?

A: The talk starts with the story of the manufacture, loss and re-discovery of the world-famous head of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, which is currently displayed in Berlin Museum. This is a vibrant tale of art, religious heresy and diplomatic intrigue that links the ancient world to, among others, Hitler and the singer Rihanna. I will then return to the ancient world to ask the question: “did Nefertiti ever rule Egypt?”

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York History Weekend 2017.

Q: Why are you so interested in this area of history?

A: Nefertiti lived during Egypt’s so-called ‘Amarna Age’ (c1352–1334 BC), a time when the royal family experimented with a new religion. During this period, a new art-style was promoted from a new royal city. The religion and the city were abandoned when the experiment failed, and the Amarna Age was officially forgotten. Today, more than 3000 years after its loss, historians are starting to piece together the evidence to make sense of this confusing time. I have always loved a good puzzle!

Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this period of history…

A: Although she is famous as an ancient world beauty, we have no idea what Queen Nefertiti actually looked like. Egypt’s artists did not set out to create portraits; they instead represented the essence of a person, then added a name or a crown to make the identity clear. So we cannot assume that Nefertiti looked like her Berlin head. 

Q: What is your favourite ‘little-known fact’ from history?

A: The ancient Egyptians worshipped at least 1500 gods – an astonishing number!

Q: Which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party and why?

A: I would love to re-unite Nefertiti with her stepson (or is he her son?) Tutankhamun, and introduce them both to the Egyptologist Howard Carter. Over a glass or two of wine we could untangle the complexities of the Amarna royal family, create an accurate list of Egypt’s kings and queens, and gain an understanding of the religious changes that dominated their lives. As a bonus, I would get to see whether Nefertiti did indeed look like her Berlin head. Tutankhamun could then discuss the discovery and excavation of his tomb with Howard Carter, while Nefertiti could let us know if she is, as some archaeologists have suggested, secretly buried within Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Q: If you had to live in any historical time period, which would you choose and why?

A: It probably comes as no surprise that I would have liked to have lived at the royal city of Amarna at the time when Nefertiti was Egypt’s queen. This was a time of experimentation; a time when the old certainties were being abandoned and new ideas were being explored, and it would have been fascinating to witness these changes as they occurred. However, I would definitely want to be a member of an elite family. While the Amarna elite lived in luxurious villas, dressed in white linen and dined off the finest foods and wines, the poorer residents of Amarna lived the harsh lives shared by all of Egypt’s peasants.

Q: Which history books would you recommend?

A: There are very many excellent books about ancient Egypt, and I would find it very difficult to recommend just one or two. So I am going to dodge the question slightly, and recommend the book which first got me thinking about life in Ancient Egypt: Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as the End (1988). Obviously, this book is historical fiction, but it is based on real letters written by the priest Heqanakhte, and it was written with advice from Egyptologist Stephen Glanville, so it is surprisingly accurate.

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Joyce Tyldesley will be speaking about Nefertiti at our York History Weekend on Saturday 20 October. To find out more about her talk and to book tickets, click here.