Framing Cleopatra

The announcement in mid-October that Gal Gadot would play the last Cleopatra in a new film provoked responses of whitewashing and reports of a ‘backlash’ in both social and the mainstream media. There were those who commended the casting and those who found it inappropriate for two key reasons. The first objection related to Gadot’s nationality. Social media commentators felt that it was insensitive to cast as Israeli national as the ruler of an Arab nation (I will come back to this in due course). Second, was the question of Cleopatra’s racialized identity and the possibility that her mother and grandmother were indigenous Egyptians rather than Greeks. 

The issues with the casting therefore relate to Cleopatra’s ethnicized and racialized identities. I was interested to see if the responses (academic and general) could be categorised into frameworks in order to see which approach offered the most appropriate and inclusive response. 

Response categories 


The Classicist (used here to describe the adopted approach irrespective of training) responds by describing Cleopatra as a Macedonian Greek. This effectively restricts both identities to European and Hellenistic Greek. 


The Historian (used here to describe the adopted approach irrespective of training) uses texts to effectively remain impartial whilst acknowledging that there are questions relating to the identities of her mother/grandmother. The typical response is that we will likely never know what she looked like (or her racialised identity). This approach does not consider Cleopatra’s ethnicized identity. 


The Egyptologist (used here to describe the adopted approach irrespective of training) can situate the evidence of Egyptian material culture within a traditional framework. However, given the wider debate around the racialized identity of the people of ancient Kemet, the approach is largely concerned with Cleopatra’s ethicized identity. The Egyptological approach is essential because without understanding how Cleopatra was presented in her home country, it is impossible to fully understand her image overseas.   


The Archaeologist (used here to describe the adopted approach irrespective of training) has the ability to expand upon both identities through studying the material culture from Egypt and overseas. This approach can include the identification of human remains, which could answer the question of Cleopatra’s racialized identity. We do not know where the ruler was buried. However, the remains of (what is assumed to be) her sister in a tomb at Ephesus have supported that some members of the family were of mixed African and European ancestry. 

Model showing a hierarchy of approaches

Critical approaches

Two dominant critical approaches have also emerged from the recent responses to the announcement of the new film. The first seeks to decolonize more generally and it has been suggested that an actor of Arab descent should play the role of Cleopatra. A fundamental issue with this association of course is, as I have noted, that Cleopatra ruled in Egypt long before the Arab settlement in North Africa. If the maternal side of her family were indigenous women this should be reflected in any contemporary representations of Cleopatra. This brings me to the second approach, which is to consider the ethnicity of Cleopatra within an African centred context. The evidence from Egyptian archaeology and material culture supports this as a valid option; Cleopatra was only presented according to Egyptian (Kemite) traditions. This included her representation at the Temple of Isis in Alexandria (seen as a Hellenistic city), where she and her son are depicted in Egyptian-style statues.  

And the film?

Cleopatra (VII’s) father was referred to as nothos (illegitimate) and the identity of her mother has been questioned by historians. It has been suggested that both women may have been Egyptian and so African. With this in mind, at the very least, the film makers should have considered an actor of mixed ancestry to play the role of Cleopatra, and that this would have been a valid choice. Many institutions and industries are finally recognising the importance of correctly acknowledging the presence and achievements of people of African heritage. This would have been a perfect opportunity for the Film Industry to promote Cleopatra’s position as an African ruler of dual ancestry.  

African Queens: The famous portrait of Nefertiti


This image has to be one of the most iconic to have survived from Ancient Kemet.  Nefertiti was the Great Royal Wife of Akhenaten. The Ancient Kemites didn’t actually have a word for ‘queen’, instead royal women took titles that described their position in the royal house. Both principal members of this royal family changed their names. Akhenaten, who ruled from 1352-1334 BCE changed his name from Amenhotep in the fifth year of his reign. Nefertiti, which means the Beautiful One is Here adopted the name Nefernefruaten, which translates as: Perfect One of Aten’s Perfection. The Aten being the divine sun disk, which was worshipped through the royal couple. It can been seen on the relief below, with rays that terminate in hands cascading down on the royal family.

A relief showing Akhenaten and Nefertiti with their family. Egyptian Museum, Berlin.

Presenting Nefernefruaten Nefertiti

In her initial portraits Nefertiti adopted the same features as her husband, but can be distinguished from him by wearing two cobras on her brow (a double uranus) as opposed to one. This portrait type is best illustrated by the colossal statues from Karnak (see below). However, in time a new portrait type emerged.

One of the colossal statues from Karnak representing Akhenaten.

There are still many questions remaining with regard to how long Nefertiti ruled for and whether she was replaced by her daughter as the principal Royal Wife. As a consequence, where statues were uninscribed it can be difficult to say with any certainty which royal female they represent. This problem is compounded by new artistic developments in the production of stone sculptures, whereby artists began to produce composite pieces; carved out of different pieces of stone rather than a single block.  The identification of the statue below is questionable. It is clearly from the so-called Amarna period and it could represent Nefertiti. Or it may represent one of the other royal daughters.

Egyptian head of Nefertiti or a royal princess from a statue
Limestone statue representing the principal royal wife, Nefertiti, or a princess. Copyright: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

You will notice the elongated head, which was characteristic of the early royal representations during this period. A natural comparison with the practice of head binding amongst for example the Mangbetu people is often made. However, I would urge caution because we cannot show a direct continuum from one culture to the other. What we can deduce is that this feature was an important enough to include in the early representations of this Kemite royal family.

The portrait

Painted limestone bust representing the Royal Wife Nefertiti. Egyptian Museum, Berlin

The famous portrait of Nefertiti depicts a more mature woman, wearing an unusual crown that became synonymous with her and which is found on other representations of the royal wife. It was found in the workshop of an artist named Thutmose at the royal city of Akhetaten. This city was the capital of Kemet during the reign of Akhenaten, but was later abandoned by King Tutankhamen.

The sculpture is 48 cm high and is made from limestone covered in layers of plaster and was then painted. The sculpture was, however, unfinished. A striking feature of the piece is that only one inlay for the eye is present. No adhesive has been found in the second socket, suggesting that this is how the sculpture was left by the artist Thutmose. It has been suggested, therefore, that it was in fact a sculptor’s model rather than a representation that would be used as a finished piece.

We don’t have sculptors’ models for all periods of Kemet’s history; although this is possibly due to lack of survival of artist workshops. The two periods where we have examples of such models are during the reign of Akhenaten, and then much later during the reigns of the early Ptolemaic rulers in the third century BCE.

Another unfinished piece representing Nefertiti that was also found in Thutmose’s workshop shows the artist’s guidelines on the surface (below). The features on this particular piece are a cross between the Cambridge statue (above) and the famous bust.

An unfinished sculpture representing Nefertiti from the workshop of Thutmose

Such sculptures enable us to understand the complexities of defining and disseminating the royal image. They explain how, in such an expansive country, the King and his consort were able to control how they were represented. And they are also testimony to the skills of the artists of Kemet. As an archaeologist, I generally refrain from viewing material culture as ‘art’. However, there can be no doubt that not only is the famous portrait of Nefertiti part of an important artistic process, and the product of a master artist of the time, but it is also an artistic masterpiece that rivals anything that has since been produced.