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Portrait head of Queen Tiye with a crown of two feathers

A conversation between Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker in front of Portrait Head of Queen Tiye with a Crown of Two Feathers, c. 1355 B.C.E., Amarna Period, Dynasty 18, New Kingdom, Egypt, yew wood, lapis lazuli, silver, gold, faience, 22.5 cm high (Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection at the Neues Museum, Berlin). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: One of the most interesting women in all of Egyptian history began her life as the daughter of a bureaucrat but would marry the pharaoh of Egypt. She would then be demoted upon his death and would simply be the queen mother. But her son would then elevate her status substantially, making her divine, making her a goddess. DR. BETH HARRIS: So much of that history can be seen in this tiny sculpture of Queen Tiye. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: There's a clear sense of her nobility. Even though she began in a relatively modest way as a commoner, although with fairly high status, she looks out and past us here, and there's no doubt she's a queen. She's completely unapproachable. DR. BETH HARRIS: And we may also be getting a sense here of what she looked like. There seem to be some individual characteristics. She seems to be a little bit older, we can see lines extending below her nose on either side of her cheeks. And there are some distinctive facial characteristics. So perhaps we have a little bit of a window into what she really looked like. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: The face and neck are made out of yew wood, this beautiful dark wood. The eyes are made out of ebony and alabaster. And then there's some other materials as well, gold and some of the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli, is visible just under that headdress that seems to have been chipped away. DR. BETH HARRIS: That's right. What we're seeing are in fact evidence of these changes in Tiye's life. Underneath the headdress that we see her in now would have been a gold headdress that signified her status as the queen, as the wife of the pharaoh. And we can also see that in the two gold clips that we see on the forehead, that are evidence of where that crown would have been worn. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: There would have been a cobra placed there, the insignia of royalty. That was presumably removed when her husband died, and she actually fell in status to that of queen mother. DR. BETH HARRIS: But she was so important and so smart, and her son depended on her so much that in order to have her be able to actively participate in politics, in the affairs of the royal court, he elevated her status to one of a goddess. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And that's when this headdress would've been added. This would have been spectacular when it was first made. Now it simply looks a little bulbous, but if you look a little bit to the back right of the skull, you can just make out some brilliant blue faience beads that catch the light and really shimmer. That would've covered the entire headdress. And so she would have looked regal and almost celestial, appropriate to a goddess. DR. BETH HARRIS: Her headdress extends upward where we see horns, a solar disk, and two feathers. Now that solar disk may refer to the religion founded by her son, Akhenaten. Akhenaten got rid of Egypt's traditional polytheistic religion and established a monotheistic religion centered around Aten, who is symbolized by the sun. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This sculpture really does give us a sense of her importance, her power, her son's respect for her, and gives us just a little glimpse into the complexity of Egyptian life at this high station. [MUSIC PLAYING]