Nefertiti as Divine Protector of Akhenaten’s Sarcophagus

The pharaoh Akhenaten’s sarcophagus informs the modern viewer of the atypical role his wife, queen Nefertiti, played in his controversial regime. Nefertiti’s regality and presumed divinity is invoked through the decorative and symbolic imagery applied to the container. The manner in which the queen is portrayed is indicative of the power she enjoyed as well as her spiritual and political responsibilities.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their children blessed by the Aten (Solar Disk), relief from Akhetaten (Tell el-Amarna)

Akhenaten’s rule in the Eighteenth Dynasty marked a period of scorned political, religious, and artistic change (Reeves, 18). Akhenaten was intensely devoted to Aten, a mythological sun disk originally associated to the sun god, Re-Horakhty (Reeves, 18). Aten was viewed by Akhenaten as a god in its own right, leading the pharaoh to denounce the popular worship of any other Egyptian gods (Reeves, 18). The pharaoh’s religious preferences spurred the break of many ancient Egyptian conventions, including the costly destruction of evidence of past polytheistic traditions (Reeves, 18). Akhenaten’s reign was also associated with a new, stylized and somewhat strange, artistic style. The royal family was frequently depicted engaging in scenes of relaxed domesticity, a genre previously unassociated with ancient Egyptian royals.  The manner in which royal individuals were rendered was also unusual, with figures sporting potbellies, wide hips, and exaggerated, elongated, facial features. The roles assigned to Akhenaten’s wife were also unorthodox, as demonstrated by the pharaoh’s sarcophagus.

Fragment from Akhenaten’s sarcophagus depicting Nefertiti
“The Royal Women of Amarna: Images of Beauty from Ancient Egypt”, 94

Imagery related to funerary practice supports evidence of Nefertiti’s unconventional role in her husband’s regime. The ornamentation of her husband’s Aswan red granite sarcophagus from the Royal Tomb at Amarna indicates that the queen enjoyed political privilege and divine status (Arnold, 94). At each of the four corners of the intricately ornamented sarcophagus, female figures were carved in high relief. The figures were positioned with arms outstretched, enveloping the container. By encircling the container with their bodies, the figures appear to protect the contents of the sarcophagus, acting as safeguards for the king and his remains in his afterlife (Arnold, 94).

Such imagery first appeared on an object associated with an earlier 18th Dynasty ruler, Amenhotep II (Reeves, 105). Like Akhenaten’s sarcophagus, Amenhotep’s canopic box, a container designed to hold the pharaoh’s embalmed remains, was adorned with female figures at each of the box’s four corners (Reeves, 105). These forms have been identified as renderings of the tutelary deities Isis, Nephthys, Selkis, and Neith (Reeves, 105). The application of the goddesses to the container suggests that the remains of the pharaoh’s organs necessitated divine protection. In the case of Akhenaten’s sarcophagus, however, depictions of the four deities are replaced by repetitions of Nefertiti’s portrait positioned at each of the container’s four corners (Arnold, 95). The queen, identified by inscribed text on fragments related to the sarcophagus, appears wearing traditional robes and an elaborate headpiece, which incorporates sun disk imagery (Arnold, 95). Nefertiti’s appearance lacks some of the physical attributes typically correlated with the queen; here, her forehead and nose are clearly defined and her neck does not protrude forward. Art historians have also identified inconsistencies in eye shape between Nefertiti’s semblance on her husband’s sarcophagus and other renderings of the queen (Arnold, 95).

Although Arnold suggests that the queen’s appearance results from stylistic hallmarks of the workshop that produced the sarcophagus, perhaps Nefertiti’s distinct artistic representation on Akhenaten’s sarcophagus was employed to differentiate her divine, protective duties from her domestic or regal responsibilities (Arnold, 95). Through the application of Nefertiti’s portrait to her husband’s sarcophagus, the queen was assigned a tutelary role; she was to be viewed as a protector of her husband’s body and legacy after his death. Moreover, the queen’s appearance in the place of Isis, Nephthys, Selkis, and Neith likened Nefertiti to the divine, a somewhat abstract concept in ancient Egyptian culture (Arnold, 96). She was to be viewed as a manifestation of god, an attribute typically associated with those figures (Arnold, 96). Nefertiti’s status as both goddess and queen, cultivated by imagery presented by Akenaten’s sarcophagus, mirrors her husband’s self-prescribed role as dual god and king (Samson, 88).

Samson asserts that the prevalence of regal imagery of the queen suggests that Nefertiti was expected to assume the throne for a period after her husband’s death (Samson, 88). Much of the imagery that relates Nefertiti to her political responsibilities does not correspond to a funerary context, but Nefertiti’s appearance on Akhenaten’s sarcophagus directly links the queen’s political power to her husband’s death. Akhenaten’s view of Nefertiti as protector of his body suggests that the pharaoh was confident that his wife could honor his legacy through assuming his political role after his death in the absence of an immediate successor. This sentiment relates to a functionalist theory referenced by Pearson in The Archaeology of Death and Burial. Anthropologists Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown and Evans-Pritchard state that, “the ceremonial of death, which ties the survivors to the body and rivets them to the place of death…counteracts the centrifugal forces of fear, dismay, demoralization, and provides the most powerful means of reintegration of the group’s shaken solidarity and of the re-establishment of its morale” (Pearson, 23). The integration of Nefertiti’s imagery into an object associated with funerary ritual served to promote the notion of divine protection of the deceased pharaoh’s body and defense of political stability while offsetting some of the uncertainty associated with the death of a controversial leader.

While the tradition of incorporating protective female figures into the designs of sarcophagi continued after the reign of Akhenaten, his sarcophagus was the only burial container to include imagery of Nefertiti; the sarcophagi of later rulers such as Tutankhamen, Haremhab, and Ay returned to the original model of channeling divine protection through the depiction of Isis, Nephthys, Selkis, and Neith, identified through textual inscriptions (Aldred, 32). The sarcophagus of Ramesses III only utilizes renderings of two of the goddesses, Isis and Nephthys (Barbotin).

Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus
“The Royal Women of Amarna: Images of Beauty from Ancient Egypt”, 95.

The manner in which Nefertiti’s portrait is incorporated into the design of her husband’s sarcophagus is indicative of several noteworthy aspects of her duty as wife and queen during Akhenaten’s reign. Her representation as protector of her husband’s remains and her assumption of the role of goddess in the container’s composition demonstrate the queen’s divine status and her assumed capacity to promote Akhenaten’s legacy after his death.


Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten: Pharaoh of Egypt – a New Study. London: Thames & Hudson, 1968.

Arnold, Dorothea. The Royal Women of Amarna: Images of Beauty from Ancient Egypt. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996.

Barbotin, Christophe. “Sarcophagus Box of Ramesses III.” Musée du Louvre.

Kozloff, Arielle P. “Nefertiti, Beloved of the Living Disk.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 64, no. 9 (Nov., 1977): 287-298.

Reeves, Nicholas. The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, The Tomb, The Royal Treasure. London: Thames & Hudson, 1990.

Samson, Julia. ” Nefertiti’s Regality.” Egypt Exploration Society 32, no. 1/2 (Jan.-Apr., 1973): 235-241.