Her name is synonymous with beauty; and unlike history's other renowned women, such as Helen of Troy, we don't have to take the classical historians' word for it. Nefertiti's reputation rests on hard evidence – an exquisite bust of the ancient Egyptian queen that survived for more than 3,000 years.
Now researchers have discovered that the bust, one of the world's most famous objects, which is housed in the Neues Museum in Berlin, was given the ancient equivalent of a Photoshop airbrushing.
The television historian Bettany Hughes told The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival yesterday that last week she was part of a team that carried out a CT scan on the bust – one of ancient Egypt's best-known objects after the death mask of Tutenkhamen, who some believe to be her son.
Inside the statue they discovered a second limestone likeness of the queen, who died around 1330BC aged between 29 and 38.
"That statue is still very beautiful," she said, "but not as beautiful. It showed her nose was bent, and that she had wrinkles around her eyes. It's a real portrait of a real woman. We're now going to a tomb in the Valley of the Kings where we think Nefertiti's sister is to see if the dynasty has the same features."
Ms Hughes, who flew out to Egypt immediately after yesterday's event, said the Nefertiti scan was likely to reveal much more about the dynasty, of whom Tutenkhamen is the most famous member.
Nefertiti – her name means "the beautiful one has come" – is renowned among Egyptian scholars as the Great Royal Wife of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. Together the couple, who ruled more than 3,000 years ago, revolutionised the ancient Egyptian world by turning their backs on the traditional gods and worshipping only the sun. She is believed to have had equal status to the pharaoh, and may have even reigned after his death.
Her tomb has never been discovered, but the new revelations of how she really looked raise the possibility that she could now be identified among several unknown mummies.
Much of the ancient queen's modern-day fame rests on the discovery of the bust by a German archaeological team in 1912 in the workshop of the ancient master Thutmose. The image is one of the most copied in the world. Ms Hughes revealed the research while speaking about her biography of the Greek philosopher Socrates – whom she described as a hippy who would have opposed the recent war in Iraq.
She also made an impassioned plea for classical history to be taught in schools. "All of life is in classical antiquity and articulated in the most beautiful, evocative and sensual way," she said. "We are denuding society if we don't allow young people to revel in that beautiful world."
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