Why do so many Ancient Egyptian statues have broken noses?

11 March, 2019 by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Scribe Statue of Amunhotep, Son of Nebiry (left) and Statue of a Family Group (right) Both statues have their noses missing. 📷 Brooklyn Museum

For years, archaeologists had assumed it was a result of normal wear and tear, but as it turns out the real reason why so many statues have broken noses is way more interesting: it was done on purpose!

Like many archaeologists and museum curators, Edward Bleiberg, who looks after the Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Near Eastern collections at the Brooklyn Museum, had assumed that so many ancient Egyptian statues had their noses broken because they were, well, ancient.

But when he realised that this was one of the most frequent questions his museum visitors asked, he decided to take a closer look at the matter. Yes, it seems logical that the protruding nose on a three-dimensional statue could easily be knocked off, but the plot very quickly thickens when you notice that loads of flat reliefs have broken noses too, and that could not easily happen by accident. Someone must be doing it on purpose, and the question is why?

According to Bleiberg, who is helping to curate an exhibition on the subject, the answer lies in the fact that these statues were intentionally damaged in organised acts of iconoclasm. When you follow the clues, as he explains in Artsy, what you find is a widespread pattern of deliberate destruction, all pointing back to the political ambitions of the region’s ancient rulers.

Egyptian state religion was understood as an arrangement where kings provide for a deity who in return takes care of Egypt. Sculptures and reliefs often show gods receiving offerings from the elites and, since ancient Egyptians believed that the images of gods and people had power (or that the essence or soul of a god or person could inhabit a statue that was dedicated to them), sculptures had an active role in performing rituals, ‘feeding’ the gods, and in maintaining power. And acts of iconoclasm could disrupt that power.

The pattern of destruction quickly reveals that the targets were specifically chosen to ‘deactivate an image’s strength’. Smashing a nose would prevent a statue-spirit from breathing. Hammering off the ears would make it unable to hear a prayer. Removing divine emblems could neutralise their powers. Chopping off the right hand would prevent them from receiving offerings. And in statues that show humans making offerings to gods, axing the left arm would prevent those offerings from being made.

Upper Part of a False Door of Sethew, c. 2500–2350. This flat relief also shows intentional damage to the nose 📷 Brooklyn Museum

Statues aren’t the only clues that broken noses are part of a systematic campaign of iconoclasm either: there are texts that refer to people’s anxiety about having their statues damaged, decrees from rulers threatening anyone who tried, instructions on how to take down your enemy by creating an effigy and then destroying it, and attempts to keep statues safe by placing them in nooks, on ledges, or keeping them surrounded on all three sides.

While some were destroyed by robbers not wanting to risk reprisal from any statue-spirits, like iconoclasm everywhere, defacing statues was also done to aid ambitious rulers (and would-be rulers) by rewriting history to their advantage, erasing the memory of those they wanted to replace.

Over the centuries, this erasure often occurred along gendered lines. The legacies of two of Egypt’s most famous queens – Hatshepsut and Nefertiti—were almost completely erased from visual culture, and provide a perfect example of how images that were created to legitimise the power of the figure they represent could later be damaged in ways specifically intended to undermine that power.

Following the early death of her husband, Thutmose II, Hatshepsut reigned jointly as pharaoh with her stepson, Thutmose III. When Hatshepsut died, Thutmose III wanted to transfer the line of succession to his own bloodline rather than that of his stepmother, and to make his son Amenhotep II the next pharaoh. So he launched a campaign to erase the memory of Hatshepsut as pharaoh, which was pursued through a variety of acts of destruction.

For example, the uraeus, a sacred cobra that was an emblem of divine power and was once affixed to Hatshepsut’s headdress, was damaged in order to disable its protective power. Hatshepsut’s beard, a symbol of royal legitimacy, was removed to invalidate her rule, and her nose was damaged to prevent her spirit, believed to live within the sculpture, from breathing. Finally, the head was severed from the body, effectively de-activating any power inherent to the sculpture.

What’s more, Bleiberg believes that the ‘defacers’ were highly skilled people hired especially for the job. To access and and remove specific bits of sculpture was no small feat; it took knowledge and as we’ve learned, was most certainly not accidental.

Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt is opening at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St Louis, on 22nd March 2019. It’s the first exhibition to explore the history of iconoclasm in relation to ancient Egyptian art, and displays nearly 40 examples from the renowned collection of the Brooklyn Museum to examine widespread campaigns of targeted destruction driven by political and religious motivations. We only wish we could hop over to Missouri to see it!

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Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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