Defiance with a Purpose: Two Determined Artists Scan a 3,300 Year-Old Nefertiti Bust & Share 3D Files with the World

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nefertiti_3Dprint_00-719x1024Truly understanding ancient Egypt is a never-ending source of challenge and fascination, not only for archaeologists, but for people around the world. And while names such as Tut and Cleopatra tend to take the top spots for fame, Nefertiti has always held her own in terms of glamor and mystery. It has always been hinted at that perhaps Cleopatra wasn’t really even that beautiful, but Nefertiti’s reputation has held fairly strong in that department, as she was known to have all the qualities of a typical supermodel today—tall, thin, and lovely. Even her name, translated as ‘a beautiful woman has come,’ emphasizes her famed attractiveness.

With all of that intrigue attached to the woman who ruled Egypt with her husband Pharoah Akhenaten in the 14th century BC, a challenge of another archiving sort beckoned to two artists, not to be stopped by a strict rule prohibiting photography of their prized bust of Nefertiti, owned by the Neues Museum in Berlin where she is on display. Photos and flashes are not allowed, as they attempt to preserve the statue.


Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles

Pulling off quite the digital heist, the two artists, German-Iraqi artist Nora Al-Badri and German artist Jan Nikolai Nelles, view this as a project and have named it ‘The Other Nefertiti’ – and indeed, she is causing quite a stir! Using a Kinect 360, they somehow scanned Nefertiti in secret, and made a very impressive 3D print of the bust for its ‘first return to Cairo in 100 years’ – where it was originally excavated and then stolen–and whisked away to Germany.

After several months, the artists released the files as a torrent so that anyone can now make their own 3D print of the bust, which they 3D printed using a resin-based printer, claiming it is indeed the most precise replica ever made.

The bust has been part of an ongoing dispute for quite some time now between Germany and Egypt, as—predictably—the Egyptians want their bust of Nefertiti back. While they argue it out regarding the original, the 3D printed version is now on display in the American University of Cairo. The original is actually 3,300 years old and was removed upon discovery by German archaeologists, thus the controversy between the two countries and museum entities.

“Al-Badri and Nelles scanned the head of Nefertiti clandestinely in the Neues Museum Berlin without permission of the Museum and they hereby announce the release of the 3D data of Nefertitis head under a Creative Commons License,” states the Nefertiti Hack website. ”The artists 3D print exhibited in Cairo is the most precise scan ever made public of the original head of Nefertiti. With regard to the notion of belonging and possession of objects of other cultures, the artists’ intention is to make cultural objects publicly accessible.”

The artists speculate—probably quite correctly on a couple of items—one, that the museum knows of what they did but is just choosing not to respond; and two, they believe that the museum also has made scans of the bust and refuses to share them with the public—one of their main bones of contention. As this particular subject is one of the most copied in history, they have pulled off quite a feat in replicating this original, allowing them to be quite exact.

UntitledFurther in their defiance, they leaked everything to the annual Chaos Communication Congress, with at least 1,000 people already downloading the torrent from the ‘original seed.’ They have received a lot of positive input and requests as well, with universities and businesses wanting to make replicas and souvenirs.

“We appeal to [the Neues Museum] and those in charge behind it to rethink their attitude,” Al-Badri told Hyperallergic in a recent interview. “It is very simple to achieve a great outreach by opening their archives to the public domain, where cultural heritage is really accessible for everybody and can’t be possessed.”

“The head of Nefertiti represents all the other millions of stolen and looted artifacts all over the world currently happening, for example, in Syria, Iraq, and in Egypt,” Al-Badri said. “Archaeological artifacts as a cultural memory originate for the most part from the Global South; however, a vast number of important objects can be found in Western museums and private collections. We should face the fact that the colonial structures continue to exist today and still produce their inherent symbolic struggles.”

It makes perfect sense that they would like to see the argument over the statue end, and it also makes perfect sense that many believe the Nefertiti bust does not belong in Germany.

The project is meant to put pressure on museums all over the world which they see as holding onto statues and artwork that does not really belong to them, and they are also pressing for museums to use digital replicas as they then agree to ‘repatriate’ important works back to their home countries.

 “Luckily there are ways where we don’t even need any topdown effort from institutions or museums,” Al-Badri said, “but where the people can reclaim the museums as their public space through alternative virtual realities, fiction, or captivating the objects like we did.”

The topic has been discussed on social media with varying opinions. While many on sites such as Reddit see this as a great idea and would love to make their own replicas, others believe they should have left the bust alone as the museum asks, leaving it pristine and without any harm from light. What are your thoughts on this controversial 3D scan and print? Discuss in the 3D Printed Nefertiti forum over at


A photo from Reddit where user points out their handheld scanner [Photo by user Escheron]

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