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A Nosey Affair?

We all are aware that the noses of most of the Egyptian statues, which have been discovered, are broken. It has become a common sight. No one raises the question as to why they are found broken? However, Edward Bleiberg, the former Curator of Egyptian Art at the Brooklyn Museum, is different from others, especially in this case. Bleiberg, who retired in 2020 after working as the curator for 22 years, has an inquisitive mind. He asked himself: “Why are the noses broken?” To have an answer to this simple question, he started visualising the statues’ missing features decades ago, and came out with various interesting facts! His observation and specialised education helped Bleiberg find the gaps left by the damage done to those antiquities.

In an article published in hyperallergic.com on October 11, 2020, Bleiberg wrote that he made an attempt to construct a method for reading the damage in a way so that he could reveal the long history of an Egyptian sculpture beyond its original creation and context, through changing cultures and beliefs. He claimed that the Ancient Egyptians were basically people from Africa, who had successfully created a distinctive, stable, and long-lasting civilisation in the Nile Valley in 4400 BCE. The Arab Republic of Egypt is a transcontinental country, spanning the northeast corner of Africa and southwest corner of Asia by a land bridge formed by the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt is a Mediterranean country bordered by the Gaza Strip (Palestine) and Israel to the northeast, the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea to the east, Sudan to the south, and Libya to the west. They used to believe that images or objects, representing the human form and rendered in stone, metal, wood, clay and wax, could be activated to host a Supernatural Power. This particular Power could be divine, or the soul of a deceased human being who had attained divinity at death. Hence, the occupied image was a meeting point between the Supernatural and the Terrestrial. In other words, supernatural forces could not intervene in events on Earth without an image or object. Furthermore, the powers of these images could be activated through rituals, and deactivated through deliberate damage. So, they used to destroy the source of an image or object’s Power by damaging them.

Edward Bleiberg

Earlier, noted Egyptologist Robert K Ritner claimed that an anxiety over threats to statues and sculpture had prompted the Egyptians to damage them. While documenting the continuous history of the ancient Egyptian concern that statues of individuals could be damaged, Ritner quoted various ancient Egyptian texts, stating that people harmed the statues, located in both temples and tombs, due to their uneasiness about them. As far as temples are concerned, a First Intermediate Period (2130-1980 BCE) Royal Decree, issued by the King, clearly stated that the person, who might do an injurious or evil thing to statues by offering slabs, chapels, woodwork, or monuments, would lose his own property and any inheritance he might have and would be barred from proper burial. This Decree helps one realise that the ancient Egyptian rulers were worried about this act.

Attacks against tombs were another concern. A person, named Wersu of Coptos, recorded a threat during the 18th Dynasty (1539-1295 BCE) against anyone who would damage his tomb statue. In a text, Wersu stated: “As for anyone who will attack my corpse in the necropolis, who will remove my statue from my tomb, Re (the Sun God) hates him. He shall have no water from the altar of Osiris (the Water God), he shall not transmit his property to his children forever.

Amunhotep, Son of Nebiry; New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Amunhotep II

Furthermore, people in Ancient Egypt used to damage statues as a strategy against their enemies. Egyptologist Betsy Bryan is of the opinion that damaging a mummy as a means of attacking a person is an old practice, as it started during the Pre-Dynastic Period (4000-3000 BCE). In the next 3,000 years, the practice of damaging images of the human form became a common phenomenon. In the Roman Period, Greek Historian Plutarch narrated the mutilation of the body of God Osiris by his brother Seth, stressing that it was the ultimate way to disempower an Egyptian God. Similar attacks took place on images in the Late Antique world of Christian Egypt. Hence, attacking a human image was a deeply entrenched ancient Egyptian method to deal with an enemy.

People in Ancient Egypt also had an idea about where to damage a statue! The Hebrew Psalms and the Book of Jeremiah about idols have mentioned some of the specifics of attacking various body parts of Egyptian statues. The Psalmists stated that the idols of the nations “have mouths, but they speak not, they have eyes, but they see not, they have ears, but they hear not, neither is there any breath in their mouths”. However, the Egyptians used to believe that their images or statues could speak, see, hear, and breathe. Prophet Jeremiah, who preached to the Jews living in the southern part of Egypt during the 7th Century BCE, made a catalogue of Egyptian beliefs in which he said: “Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.” As the Egyptians believed that a tree, shaped into an image by a craftsman, could speak and walk; the Egyptian statues were damaged mainly to take away their power to see, hear, breathe, speak and walk.

Superintendent of the Granary, Irukaptah; Old Kingdom, Dynasty 5, reign of Niuserre or later, (2455-2425 BCE)

Of course, some Politically and Religiously motivated damages took place during the Pharaonic Period. Two of the most notable Politically and Religiously motivated damages happened during the 18th Dynasty (1539-1295 BCE) and following the reigns of Hatshepsut (1478-1458 BCE) and Akhenaten (1352-1336 BCE). Currently, Hatshepsut is widely considered as the first woman who served Egypt as King. She got married with Thutmose II, whose early death led her to become the ruler jointly with her husband’s nine-year-old son, Thutmose III (born to a secondary wife). Monuments, made during her reign, show Hatshepsut as equally powerful like her husband . After Hatshepsut’s demise, Thutmose III wanted to designate his own son, Amunhotep II, to be his successor, although neither Thutmose III nor his son had a direct biological connection to Hatshepsut. Thutmose III, therefore, ordered the erasure of Hatshepsut’s name from her monuments and re-inscribed them with names from his male lineage through his father in order to present a legitimate male line of succession. He attacked her statues and changed the names on her buildings from Hatshepsut to Thutmose. One head of Hatshepsut has secured its place in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection. This Royal Head was part of a sphinx.

When Amunhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten (about 1352 BCE), he announced that the Aten was the sole God whom Egyptians should worship, thus establishing a kind of proto-monotheism. However, he admitted that other Gods still existed. He also suspended the worship of the former chief god of the pantheon, Amun, and removed his name from many monuments. After the demise of Akhenaten (about 1336 BCE), his son Tutankhamun ended the cult of the Aten and reinstated the worship of Amun. Monuments, naming Akhenaten and the God Aten, were then attacked and temples to the Aten were destroyed.

Stela of Penamun New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Tutankhamun to Horemheb (1332-1292 BCE); from Saqqara, Egypt

In Ancient Egypt, Royal symbols were used to identify the figure of a King and confer legitimacy. The statue of Ptolemy II preserves the base of the uraeus-cobra centered above the forehead, although the head of the cobra is missing. The striped nemes-headdress is complete, except for the edges of the nemes. Both of these still-evident features were ancient symbols of the legitimate king. Interestingly, all of the facial features are preserved in his bust. The intact bust of Ptolemy II stands in sharp contrast to the damaged head of Nectanebo I. It helps one understand what happened to it. In Nectanebo I, the uraeus’ head has been removed by multiple strikes of the chisel. One can trace the tail of the snake trail back along the centre of the head, but the protective value of the uraeus has been negated. Multiple blows with a chisel have also removed large sections of the nemes-headdress on both the right and left sides. The last royal symbol, the royal beard, has also been removed from the chin. The loss of these physical characteristics ultimately “killed” the image and prevented it from hearing prayers.

Hence, the broken noses of any particular Egyptian statue, relief or sarcophagus mainly depend on a couple of key factors: the condition of the inscription, and the original location and purpose of the statue. Additional damages to other parts of the body or to symbols is also informative. The destruction of Royal Imagery following the reign of Hatshepsut and during and after the reign of Akhenaten was primarily Political in motive. Damage to the name only suggests that the attack took place during the Pharaonic Period when hieroglyphic writing was still understood. The reasons for damage in that particular period are likely to have been personal animosity toward the one represented in the image or, when a criminal violates a tomb in an attempt to evade a deceased person’s revenge.

Head of a King or God; Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12, (1938-1759 BCE); from Egypt

Additional damage to other body parts, like the arms or feet, helps researchers reveal the date and motivation of what was done. While broken noses kill the statue, broken arms prevent it from giving or receiving an offering. If the name is intact on such a statue, there is a strong likelihood that the statue was damaged in the Late Antique Period at a time when Christians still knew how these statues were intended to function. Religious and Political conflicts were the main sources of damage to ancient Egyptian statues, paving the way to the daily practicalities of recycling existing stone for new construction. The importance of the Egyptian Art in society is revealed by the compulsion to destroy it in recognisable patterns.

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