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.