Once or twice and you can chalk it up to an unfortunate accident, but when the majority of ancient statues have had their noses removed, something fishy is going on. Clearly, they have been targeted – but why?
Edward Bleiberg, a curator for Brooklyn Museum’s Egyptian art galleries, admits it was something he took for granted until he started to notice the number of visitors questioning the nose-lessness of many of the museum's statues. Assuming it was accidental, he decided to delve into the matter more deeply. The result, built on previous research about defacement and the afterlife, is now being presented in an exhibit called "Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt".
"The consistency of the patterns where damage is found in sculpture suggests that it’s purposeful," Bleiberg told Artzy. It wasn't just the statues that had been attacked either, even 2D reliefs show evidence of deliberate defacement.
Bleiberg argues it stems from the fact that the ancient Egyptians genuinely believed icons contained the souls of the deceased or the essence of the diety. Consequently, statues, reliefs, and other images stood as a kind of portal between the world of the living and the supernatural world of the gods and the dead – a ritual would activate the statue so that it became possessed by the spirit of its likeness.
The majority of the images were kept in the civilization's tombs and temples. In the first, descendants of the deceased could feed their ancestor in the afterlife with gifts (sometimes, literally food). In the latter, mortals could send the gods offerings in return for their guardianship of Egypt. This belief gave these idols power – and the only way to take away that power was through acts of vandalism.
"The damaged part of the body is no longer able to do its job," Bleiberg explained.
And so, without ears, it cannot hear your prayers. Without arms, it cannot accept offerings. And without a nose, it cannot breathe. This effectively "kills" the icon-spirit. A petty tomb robber, Bleiberg says, might cut off the nose of their prize to prevent the person from taking revenge.
Ancient Egypt had a long history of damaging human imagery, he continues. In prehistory, for example, mummies were deliberately damaged. Hieroglyphics offer instructions that include the burning of wax effigies to warriors setting off to fight and pharoahs disseminated decrees threatening to punish those who would go so far as to destroy their likeness. Later, when Christianity arrived, sculptures, reliefs, and other icons of ancient Egyptian deities were vandalized to prevent "pagan" demons from resurrecting.
"Imagery in public space is a reflection of who has the power to tell the story of what happened and what should be remembered," Bleiberg added.
But the practice of de-nosing icons is not limited to Egypt. There are similar acts of vandalism displayed on portraits dating back to Greece, Rome, and the Persian Empire. According to Mark Bradley at the University of Nottingham, UK, it may be symbolic of "nose-docking" – a real-life punishment doled out in the classical world, ancient Egypt, pre-Colombian America, Medieval Europe, early India, and the Arab World.
Byzantine Emperor, Justinian II, had his nose chopped off when dethroned so that he didn't attempt to take it again. (He did anyway.) While Hercules earned himself the moniker "Nose Docker" after his penchant for cutting off the noses of heralds who didn't say what he wanted to hear.
"It has been a powerfully symbolic gesture associated with disempowerment, humiliation, visibility, exclusion, lost identity and pain," he writes. While the erasure of powerful men and women in history via the destruction of their image is a well-versed practice dating evident across many different countries and time periods – indeed, we still see it today.
And so the precise motives of these vandals may remain unknown, but we can be fairly certain it's no accident.