Face and Shoulder from an Anthropoid Sarcophagus; Ptolemaic Period, (332–30 BCE); from Egypt; Greywacke, 18½ × 20½ × 5 inches (47 × 52.1 × 12.7 cm) Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1516E

Edward Bleiberg’s essay first appeared in the catalogue for the exhibition Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt at the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri. The exhibition is based on objects from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

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“Why are the noses broken?” This exhibition and essay grew out of my search for an answer to this simple question, which is one of the most common inquiries I receive from museum visitors about the Brooklyn Museum’s extensive Egyptian collection.

The question surprised me at first because I had taken it for granted that Egyptian sculptures were damaged. In fact, a large part of my training in Egyptology was devoted to learning how to imagine what is missing from a statue, trying to see it as if it were still intact. These years spent visualizing the statue’s missing features nearly blinded me to the reality of just why most of the works of art in my care came to be damaged. Moreover, the question reminded me that museum visitors, unburdened by the blinders I had acquired through my specialized education, see only what actually remains, and are keenly aware of the gaps left by the damage done to these antiquities.

This essay is therefore an account of truly learning to see what is and is not present in these objects. Its goal is to construct a method for reading the damage in a way that reveals the long history of an Egyptian sculpture beyond its original creation and context, through changing cultures and beliefs. There are, in fact, discoverable patterns to the damage inflicted on images in antiquity, and these reflect specific political, religious, personal, and even criminal motivations. These patterns help us establish the date when the damage occurred and the identities of the perpetrators. Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt examines the mutilation of statues in two periods: the ancient world of the pharaohs; and the Late Antique world that emerged after Egyptians started converting to Christianity, which archaeological evidence indicates first took place as early as the mid-first century CE.


Ancient Egyptians were an African people who created a distinctive, stable, and long-lasting civilization in the Nile Valley by at least 4400 BCE. They believed that images — objects representing the human form, rendered in stone, metal, wood, clay, or even wax—could be activated to host a supernatural power. This power could be either divine or the soul of a deceased human who had become divine at death. The occupied image was a meeting point between the supernatural and the terrestrial. It was also a physical body enabling such powers to act in our material world. Without an image, supernatural forces could not intervene in events on earth.

The powers of these images could be activated through rituals, and power could also be deactivated through deliberate damage. Since the activated image was conceived as an earthly body for a supernatural being, the power invested in it could be impaired by striking and damaging specific body parts. Also frequently targeted were royal or divine symbols: harming the inscription and symbols that identified the deity or the individual cut off the source of the image’s power by disassociating it from that specific deity or person. We refer to this type of intentional damage as iconoclasm.


In the ancient Egyptian language, the words for “sculpture” and “sculptor” emphasize that images are alive. They come to life through ritual: the word for “sculpture” means literally, “a thing that is caused to live,” while a sculptor is “one who brings (it) to life.”

In the Ptolemaic period (323–31 BCE), a group of inscriptions carved on the walls of temples describes the way Egyptian gods can occupy an image and thus make it live. At the Dendera Temple, for example, an inscription states that the goddess Hathor “… flies down from the sky/to enter the Horizon of her Soul [i.e., her temple] on earth,/she flies down into her body, she joins with her form.”2 This text describes Hathor’s essence joining with a three-dimensional representation of herself. Further statements carved on the walls at the Dendera Temple refer to the god Osiris merging with a relief representation of himself: “Osiris … comes as a spirit … He sees his mysterious form depicted in its place,/his figured engraved on the wall;/he enters into his mysterious form,/alights on his image.” Images in both two and three dimensions can thus act as resting places for divinities and therefore become the site where humans can encounter the deity. The ancient Egyptians believed that this was the original intention of the god Ptah when he created bodies/sculptures of the other gods: according to a Twenty-Fifth Dynasty document (ca. 746–653 BCE), which may be a copy of an earlier text, the god “Ptah … gave birth to the gods. He made their bodies according to their wishes. Thus the gods entered into their bodies, of every kind of wood, every kind of stone, and every kind of clay.”4 In that text, a god’s “body” is virtually synonymous with an image carved in wood or stone or modeled in clay. There is scarcely any difference in the ancient mind, in this context, between images created by sculptors and the living bodies of the gods.

Once the deity has occupied it, the sculpture or relief containing the god becomes a piece of equipment for conducting the essential rituals of offering and worship. The rituals performed with images center specifically on offering and receiving food, drink, clothing, and other necessities. Deceased kings and deceased humans were able to make such offerings to the gods in the afterlife by means of images placed in temples for that purpose. When a statue or image is disabled, it is sometimes clear that it is this particular purpose of the image that has been attacked. For example, statues whose role is to embody the act of making offerings are often damaged on the left hand and arm, because Egyptian custom was to offer with the left hand. Statues that, in contrast, receive offerings are damaged on the right arm and hand, since customarily the right hand was used to receive an offering: a damaged right arm and hand make it impossible to take the food from a represented offering table. Sometimes a very zealous perpetrator might damage both sides of the statue. But when damage is limited to only one side, the pattern of right versus left holds true, making the purpose of the damage apparent.

Stela of Penamun New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Tutankhamun to Horemheb (ca. 1332–1292 BCE); from Saqqara, Egypt; Limestone, 2515/16 × 181/16 × 31/8 inches (65.9 × 45.9 × 7.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1486E; Osiris is represented here as the second figure from the left in the upper register.


The Egyptologist Robert K. Ritner has documented the continuous history of the ancient Egyptian concern that statues of individuals could be damaged. He quotes numerous ancient Egyptian texts expressing this uneasiness about statues located in both temples and tombs.

Regarding temples, for example, a First Intermediate Period (ca. 2130–1980 BCE) royal decree that the king made on behalf of his vizier expresses his anxiety about possible damage to statues placed by individuals in a temple:

As for anyone in this entire land who may do an injurious or evil thing to your statues, offering slabs, chapels, woodwork, or monuments which are in any temple precincts or in any temples, My Majesty does not permit that their property nor that of their fathers remain with them, nor that they join the spirits in the necropolis, nor that they remain among the living …

In this decree, anyone who damages statues placed in the temple by the king’s vizier will lose his own property and any inheritance he might have and is barred from proper burial, and thus continued life, after his execution. The severity of the punishment dictated by the king suggests that alarm at the possibility of damage to images reached to the highest level of society.

Attacks against tombs were equally serious and feared. A man named Wersu of Coptos, who lived during the Eighteenth Dynasty (ca. 1539–1295 BCE), recorded a threat against anyone who would damage his tomb statue with the following text:

As for anyone who will attack my corpse in the necropolis, who will remove my statue from my tomb, [the sun-god] Re hates him. He shall have no water from the altar of [the god] Osiris, he shall not transmit his property to his children forever.

An attack on a tomb was just as serious as an attack on statues in a temple, and the punishments were as harsh. Here Wersu curses the perpetrator with the impending hatred of the sun-god. Moreover, the guilty one will be deprived of life-sustaining water if he arrives in the kingdom of Osiris, the land of the dead. Finally, his children will be cut off from inheriting his property. Anyone who damages a statue is cursed in both this world and the next.

Stela of Setju; Old Kingdom, Dynasty 5, (ca. 2500–2350 BCE); from the tomb of Setju (G4710), Giza, Egypt, limestone, pigment, 221/16 × 20½ × 415/16 inches (56 × 52.1 × 12.5 cm); Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.34E


Egyptologist Betsy Bryan has established that damaging a mummy as a means of attacking a person in the next world started in Egypt at the very beginning of its history, during the Pre-Dynastic period (ca. 4000–3000 BCE). This action was in fact analogous to the attacks on statues and reliefs that would occur in the historical period of Egyptian history, once this sculptural type of ritual equipment was invented in the subsequent Early Dynastic period (ca. 3000–2675 BCE).

In every era of the following three thousand years of ancient Egyptian history, there is good evidence that the practice of damaging images of the human form — as either protection from, or an attack on, perceived enemies — remained common. As late as the Roman period, the Greek historian Plutarch could describe the mutilation of the body of the god Osiris by his brother Seth as the ultimate way to disempower an Egyptian god. Similar attacks on images continued into the Late Antique world of Christian Egypt, sometimes even imitating Seth’s attack on Osiris. Attacking a human image was a deeply entrenched ancient Egyptian method for dealing with an enemy.

Head of a King or God; Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12, (ca. 1938–1759 BCE); from Egypt; Granodiorite with feldspar phenocrystals, 6½ × 55/16 × 23/8 inches (16.5 × 13.5 × 6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, gift of David Curzon, 2018.4


The details of how such attacks were made are revealed in a Pharaonic text called the Amduat, which includes the ritual for actions against enemies during the sun-god Re’s night journey through the sky of the netherworld. As Ritner relates, during this ritual, images of the enemy were first created and then burned, decapitated, dismembered, inverted (with the base above the head), and buried. There is a clear reflection of this ritual in the actions that obviously befell tomb and temple statues both when they were perceived as an enemy during the Pharaonic period and when all religious equipment used in the indigenous polytheistic religion of Egypt had come to be considered demonic.

The specifics of attacking various body parts are to some extent revealed in the remarks made in the Hebrew Psalms and the Book of Jeremiah about “idols.” The Psalmist’s denials of the powers of the idol amount to a partial catalogue of what the Egyptians believed their ritual images could actually do. The Psalmist states that the idols of the nations “have mouths, but they speak not, eyes have they, but they see not, they have ears, but they hear not, neither is there any breath in their mouths.”13 The Egyptians did in fact believe that their images could speak, see, hear, and breathe.

The prophet Jeremiah, who preached to the Jews living in southern Egypt during the seventh century BCE, expanded the catalogue of Egyptian beliefs:

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.

The Egyptians did indeed believe that a tree shaped into an image by a craftsman could speak and walk. The damage done to Egyptian statues is precisely meant to take away their power to see, hear, breathe, speak, and walk.

Shabty of the Scribe Amunemhat; New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Thutmose IV to reign of Akhenaten, (ca. 1400–1336 BCE); From Theban Tomb 82?, Thebes, Egypt. Wood, pigment, 89/16 × 29/16 × 17/8 inches (21.8 × 6.5 × 4.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 50.129


Some politically and religiously motivated damage clearly befell statues during the Pharaonic period. Two of the most notable examples occurred during the Eighteenth Dynasty (ca. 1539–1295 BCE) and following the reigns of Hatshepsut (1478–1458 BCE); and Akhenaten (1352–1336 BCE).

In the present day, Hatshepsut is regarded as the first woman who served Egypt as king. She married Thutmose II, whose early death led her to ascend to the throne jointly with her husband’s nine-year-old son, Thutmose III (who had been born to a “secondary wife”). They ruled together while he was a minor, and monuments made at this time show them as either equal in power or with Hatshepsut as the senior partner. After Hatshepsut’s death, however, Thutmose III wanted to designate his own son, Amunhotep II, to be his successor as king, though 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, to present a legitimate male line of succession. He attacked her statues and changed the names on her buildings from Hatshepsut to Thutmose.

The results can be seen in one head of Hatshepsut in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection. This royal head was part of a sphinx. Thutmose’s men followed a common pattern of mutilating her image by concentrating on royal symbols and significant body parts: the damage to the uraeus-cobra on the king’s forehead, which previously had protected her from her enemies, has removed that safeguard; the destruction of part of the striped nemes-headdress and the removal of the royal beard at the chin eliminated symbols of royal legitimacy; the damage to the nose prevented the king’s spirit within from breathing; and, finally, the head has been severed from the body, also an effective way of deactivating the statue.

The mid-fourteenth century BCE was a time of multiple iconoclasms. Perhaps the most remarkable was that surrounding the Amarna period and the rule of Akhenaten, with its religious upheaval. When Amunhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten (about 1352 BCE) he proclaimed that the Aten was the sole god whom Egyptians should worship, establishing a kind of proto-monotheism while still believing that other gods existed. Worship of the former chief god of the pantheon, Amun, was suspended, and his name was removed from many monuments. But after Akhenaten died (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.

During Akhenaten’s reign, his men removed the name of Amun from many monuments. A fragment of a stela for a man named Amunemhet may have been damaged because of the name of the owner, which means “Amun is the foremost.” It had been made about 70 to 130 years before Akhenaten banned the worship of Amun. The stela bears a representation of an offering table laid with offerings, male and female figures who make the offerings—and above them, five columns where a hieroglyphic text has been purposely removed. Enough hieroglyphic traces remain to suggest that it contained the names and titles of officials of the temple of Amun.

The end of the Amarna Period is poorly documented, precisely because of the extensive iconoclasm that occurred after Tutankhamun restored the cult of Amun and, moreover, abandoned Akhenaten’s capital at Tell el-Amarna for the traditional capitals at Thebes and Memphis. The extensive harm to monuments of Akhenaten’s reign obscures the exact relationships among Akhenaten’s successors: his queen, Nefertiti; his daughter, Meritaten; his immediate successor, Neferneferuaten; the subsequent king, Smenkare; and, finally, Tutankhamun. The relationships among these individuals, as well as their true identities, remain the subject of scholarly debate. Nevertheless, it now seems clear that Akhenaten’s biological son, Tutankhamun, changed his name from Tutankhaten, at the age of nine; seemingly simultaneously, he returned the country to traditional Egyptian religion. It was Tutankhamun’s successors, however, including Ay (1322–1319 BCE) and especially Horemheb (1319–1292 BCE), who seem to be responsible for the attempt to completely eliminate the memory of Akhenaten and his sole god, the Aten.

Shabty of Akhenaten; New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, Amarna Period, reign of Akhenaten, (ca. 1353–1336 BCE); from the tomb of Akhenaten, Tell el-Amarna, Egypt; pink granite, 611/16 × 215/16 × 23/16 inches (17 × 7.5 × 5.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 35.1871

Akhenaten’s tomb in Tell-el Amarna was largely destroyed, along with almost everything it contained. He had commissioned hundreds of shabties for his tomb. These figurines were included in a burial in order to do work for the deceased in the next world. Akhenaten’s surviving shabties show that they were taken apart, removing heads from bodies and bodies from feet. The individual inscriptions that identify the king were also partially damaged.

Horemheb was probably responsible for the initial demolition of Akhenaten’s temples to the Aten. Many of the blocks from the Aten temples discovered in modern times had been used as fill inside the pylons (the monumental gateways of temples), that Horemheb constructed in Karnak. Another Aten temple, located at Hermopolis Magna, not far from Amarna, was destroyed, and its blocks were found in the foundation of a temple built by Ramesses II.

One finely carved relief from this group depicts Akhenaten and his daughter offering a bouquet to the god Aten. It also reveals the range of strategies available to those who wanted to disable this image’s power and thus restore the primacy of the god Amun: the king’s bouquet was damaged, and the Aten was removed, to prevent the god from receiving an offering; the king’s face and crown were destroyed, as were the individual cartouches on his body that contained his name, depriving him of royal legitimacy (fig. 12); and the hieroglyphs behind the king’s head that described this scene were removed. At the same time, though, the minor figure here, the princess, was left intact. All this demonstrates a common pattern in damaged royal scenes, wherein minor figures remained untouched while the king’s figure was disabled. The detailed attention to removing so many instances of the Aten’s name suggests that the god’s power had to be reduced before Horemheb’s men were willing to dismantle the temple building itself.

In addition to this practice, figures other than the king and the Aten were damaged when they constituted independent works. A red quartzite head in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection displays the downturned mouth of Queen Tiye, Akhenaten’s mother. The eyes of Queen Tiye were originally inlaid in another type of stone or in a precious metal that has now disappeared; the nose was purposely damaged, and there is chipping on the cheeks and the back of the head. Images of the queen were made to receive offerings: thus, the specific damage to this head of Queen Tiye rendered her unable to either recognize offerings by sight or to breathe, and thus stay alive.

Akhenaten and His Daughter Offering to the Aten; New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, Amarna Period, reign of Akhenaten, (ca. 1353–1336 BCE); made for a temple in Hermopolis Magna, Egypt; limestone, pigment, 815/16 × 205/16 × 1¼ inches (22.7 × 51.6 × 3.2 cm) Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 60.197.6

This sculpted head also demonstrates a particular kind of material vulnerability. It was part of a composite statue made of a number of other stone pieces, both for the body and the crown. Composite statues like this one were especially prone to damage because they were held together with dowels and could be easily disassembled.


Royal symbols identified the figure of a king and conferred legitimacy. They remain clear in Ptolemy II, a relatively intact work. It preserves the base of the uraeus-cobra centered above the forehead, though the head of the cobra is missing; and the striped nemes-headdress is complete except for the edges of the nemes. Both of these still-evident features were already ancient symbols of the legitimate king, and in most periods of Egyptian history could be worn only by kings. Moreover, in this bust all of the facial features are preserved.

This intact bust of a king stands in sharp contrast to the damaged head of Nectanebo I and helps us to understand what happened to it. In Nectanebo I, the uraeus’s head has been removed by multiple strikes of the chisel; traces of the tail of the snake trail back along the center 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. And the last of the royal symbols, the royal beard, has been removed from the chin. Elements of the king’s head and face were also strategically removed: damage to sections of the head, on both right and left, eradicated the ears and nemes, and the nose was also carefully removed. The loss of these physical characteristics essentially “killed” the image and prevented it from hearing prayers.


Much can be learned by comparing how two similar statues have been differently damaged. Amunhotep (Son of Nebiry) and Djehuti are represented as literate noblemen; each holds a papyrus scroll in his lap as he sits on the ground. On each statue, incised lines on the abdomen represent rolls of fat that are emblematic of well-fed wealth. Both statues were made in the earlier part of the Eighteenth Dynasty and were probably quite similar when they first were complete.

Yet a closer examination of the differences in their damage reveals the choices iconoclasts made. Amunhotep’s head is intact, but his nose has been removed. In addition, his left shoulder, the front and back of the inner side of his arm, and the area under his forearm were damaged in antiquity (and restored in modern times). Djehuti, in contrast, no longer has a head at all. His left wrist and thumb were broken into six pieces in antiquity (and are now restored for exhibition). But most of his arm is intact.

Amunhotep, Son of Nebiry; New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Amunhotep II, (ca. 1426–1400 BCE) from Thebes, Egypt; limestone, pigment, 253/8 × 145/16 × 143/8 inches (64.5 × 36.3 × 36.5 cm); Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.29E

Somewhat surprisingly, the difference between keeping or losing a head and/or a left arm might be explained by the difference in hairstyle between the two statues. Amunhotep’s long, thick hair, enveloping his neck and extending over the upper part of his shoulders, reinforced his neck and made it more difficult to remove his head. Djehuti’s short hair did not extend around his neck and down his back; iconoclasts therefore had much less work to do to when they removed Djehuti’s head. Because Amunhotep kept his head, his left arm was more thoroughly attacked than was Djehuti’s left arm.


A sarcophagus protects the mummy in the tomb, while the mummy itself acts as a resting place for the ba and the ka, two elements of the ancient Egyptian soul. Thus a sarcophagus, like a statue, is a place where the supernatural inhabits a man-made creation and manifests itself on earth.

A close examination of the Sarcophagus Lid for Pa-di-Inpu reveals a discoloration on the mostly intact nose. The discoloration is perhaps a remnant of rituals that treated the nose as essential in recreating life after death: incense placed at the nose allowed the breath of life to enter the soul of the deceased. Therefore, when tomb robbers destroyed a tomb and the sarcophagus contained within it, damaging the nose was a particularly important means of evading punishment. As we see in Face and Shoulder from an Anthropoid Sarcophagus, for example, robbers feared the revenge of the deceased as much as they feared the law on earth, and these criminals protected themselves by disabling the sarcophagus that housed the soul of the wronged tomb owner. In this damaged fragment of a sarcophagus, even a piece of the face has been attacked to make the nose ineffective.

The reasons for breaking the nose become even clearer in a consideration of statues with multiple subsidiary figures. In such cases, only the main figure is attacked, while offering bearers or priests are left intact. Superintendent of the Granary, Irukaptah portrays the deceased sitting on his block-like chair. The entire figure is notably intact except for the careful chiseling away of the nose. On his chair are represented a total of four offering bearers, with two females on the back of the block and two males at his right side; there are also two soul-priests, who would perform the ritual for Irukaptah, represented on his left side of the chair. All six figures are intact; there is no damage to them at all. The tomb robbers feared only the revenge of the tomb owner himself, not the subsidiary figures.

Superintendent of the Granary, Irukaptah; Old Kingdom, Dynasty 5, reign of Niuserre or later, (ca. 2455–2425 BCE) from the tomb of Irukaptah, Saqqara, Egypt. Limestone, 29½ × 11½ × 17 inches (74.9 × 29.2 × 43.2 cm); Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.20E

There is a second statue of Irukaptah in the exhibition. Its identifying inscription was never added, but early 19th-century documentation suggests that it, too, came from the tomb of Irukaptah. This time he stands, in the traditional pose, with left foot forward and hands at his sides. In this second statue he is again accompanied by subsidiary figures. Here he is presented as the head of a household, with his wife and his son, who are shown at a reduced scale, which is typical of such family portraits. The statue would have represented the entire family buried in the tomb.

Irukaptah’s nose has been removed with a chisel, and overall his figure is somewhat battered and pitted. Yet his wife and son are completely intact. Here again, the main figure is deactivated while the subsidiary figures remain. The intention in such an instance was to prevent only the tomb owner from acting in this world.

Irukaptah and His Family; Old Kingdom, Dynasty 5, reign of Niuserre or later, (ca. 2455–2425 BCE); From the tomb of Irukaptah, Saqqara, Egypt; limestone, 29 × 10 × 9½ inches (73.7 × 25.4 × 24.1 cm) Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.17E

The particular historical motivations for damaging the sarcophagus and these two statues remain unclear, because we lack the important evidence of inscriptions. The sarcophagus is too fragmentary to reveal its inscription, while neither statue is inscribed; the name of the statues is known only from the tomb where they were discovered. Without inscriptions, we cannot evaluate possible motives, or even date the damage to either the Pharaonic or Late Antique era. These noses could have been broken to prevent the tomb owner’s revenge against personal enemies in his own era, or against criminal tomb robbers, then or later on; or broken by Christian monks, to disable pre-Christian supernatural forces from acting in the tomb.


The green siltstone or greywacke Overseer of Weavers, Min is a typical temple statue type and is largely intact. Donors placed block statues in temple courtyards to allow a part of the soul called the ba to have a resting place during rituals. Individuals could then continue to participate in worshipping the god even after death. This mostly complete block statue helps a viewer envision what is missing from Minmose.

Pawerem, Priest of Bastet; Late Period, late Dynasty 26 to early Dynasty 27, (ca. 570–510 BCE) from Bubastis, Egypt; Basalt, 181/8 × 7½ × 11¼ inches (46 × 19.1 × 28.6 cm); Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.36E

Block statues represent the donor crouching on the ground with a cloak entirely enveloping the body. Only the hands emerge from the sleeves of the garment. In Min’s case, a single column of inscription runs down the front, recording his name and the title “Overseer of Weavers.” There is minor damage to his nose, and part of the front section of the base is broken, rendering one-half of the line of inscription unreadable. Yet Min’s name is repeated, undamaged, on the front of the base, though there is damage to the other side where his titles would have been written.

Minmose sits on an oblong base and against an inscribed back pillar. He holds an image of the goddess Hathor. The divine image likely supported a sistrum, a musical instrument that is a common offering to this goddess. Inscriptions on the back pillar, around the entire body, and on the shoulders are all intact, preserving his name in several places. Yet, Minmose’s head, arms, and one knee are missing.

The preservation of the hieroglyphic writing of the names suggests that Min and Minmose — as identifiable individuals — were not the targets of the attacks made on these statues. Damage to the nose in one, and the missing arm and head of the other, both suggest actions by Christian monks, who were more interested in deactivating statues in general, to prevent the perceived demonic forces of polytheism from being active in the world.

Other evidence of a specific interest in removing the arms that offer to an Egyptian god is found in the sculptures of Sety, Pawerem, and Khaemhat. All three of these individuals are represented kneeling. In Egyptian art, those who kneel are understood to be making an offering or praying to a deity. Pawerem holds an image of the goddess Bastet, suggesting that he kneels before her and offers an image to her. Sety raises his hands with the palms oriented toward the god, in a gesture of prayer; the inscription on his kilt explains that he is praying to the sun-god. Khaemhat kneels holding a stela that also contains a prayer to the sun-god.

All three statues have been disabled, but through different means, perhaps as a by-product of the way each type of stone influences the appearance of a damaged statue. Pawerem was carved from a hard, fine-grained stone, made of basalt, which is sedimentary. The blow that removed the head was made to his left side at the base of the neck. It sheared off the stone from left to right and removed his right shoulder, the top of his right arm, and the top of the back pillar. The blow left a relatively smooth surface on the hard stone. Though the top of the back pillar was damaged, there was no interference with the hieroglyphs themselves, and thus the name is still legible.

The image of Sety is carved in limestone, which is relatively soft. There is minor chipping on the nose, right eye, and brow, with less significant damage to his left and to the right corners of the base. His left arm has been removed with a chisel, leaving a series of marks on the soft stone that appear uneven in the break, especially compared to the breaks at Pawerem’s arms. Because his left arm is removed, Sety’s prayer cannot reach the god.

Khaemhat’s statue was carved from grey tonalite, a hard, igneous stone. His head and neck and the front of the plinth are missing. Part of the base has broken off and is now a separate fragment. There are small chips and, more significantly, large cracks throughout the figure. Scientific analysis concludes that cracks result from the natural degradation due to water circulation during burial. Iron compounds, which are a natural part of this stone, once wet, have expanded, causing the cracks. This suggests that the statue was perhaps the victim of drowning, which was undertaken in order to disable it.

By now it should be clear that sculptures from temples were regularly disabled in a consistent pattern of damage to the head, nose, or arm. When a statue exhibits this type of damage but the name of the individual is preserved, two conclusions can be made about the motives and identities of those who committed these acts of iconoclasm. First, the preservation of the individual’s name shows that the damage was not directed at the human individual. The reason behind the damage was thus not private animosity or the tomb robber’s fear of the tomb owner’s revenge. Second, the destruction was likely perpetrated during a time that hieroglyphic writing was no longer understood. Thus it is likely that the violence committed against a statue was anti-polytheistic in motivation and also intended to benefit early Christians.


Christians of the Late Antique period felt themselves to be standing at the border between the ancient polytheistic world and their new Christian world. But even committed Christians feared the old gods. As late as the eighth century CE, a guidebook to the ancient monuments of Constantinople warned, “take care when you look at old statues, especially pagan ones.”

As Troels Myrup Kristensen has argued, early Christian texts that describe iconoclasm are designed to demonstrate the helplessness of the polytheistic gods in the face of Christian monks, who were determined to end non-Christian power on earth. In these texts, damage to statues is a show of force performed for an audience of polytheists. Once the polytheists witnessed the demonstration of Christian power, they might convert to Christianity, establish a church on the spot, or exorcise a demon, or commit to martyrdom in the Christian cause. This attitude is well summarized in a chant of Coptic pilgrims: “And those shameful things,/demons and idols/and defiled things made with hands/in the land of the Egyptians,/our good Savior trampled down/altogether/and set up in their place/a holy pillar.”

Yet total destruction of a statue was regarded as less efficacious than partial damage, as many examples cited here show. In his late fourth- and early fifth-century CE preaching, Saint Augustine recommended partial breakage of polytheistic statues, saying, “Brethren, I deem it more shameful for Hercules to have his beard shaved than to have his head taken off.”18 In this case, shaving Hercules’s beard was thought to show that his statue was powerless in the face of Christianity. The presence of damaged statues of Greek or Egyptian gods was understood to definitively demonstrate the power of Christianity and the helplessness of the gods of earlier polytheistic religions. Thus, Christian monks in Egypt damaged the working parts of temple and tomb statues but left them in a place, where former polytheists could be continually reminded that their old religion was now defunct. Christianity had triumphed.


Arab Muslims conquered Egypt in the seventh century. Though it would take more than a thousand years to achieve a Muslim majority in Egypt, Muslim control was well established by 642 CE. The Muslims who settled in Egypt and the descendants of the ancient Egyptians still living there displayed a different attitude toward the polytheistic past than that expressed by Christians.

First, Muslim philosophers and historians admired the accomplishments of the ancients (though they saw the ruined state of pharaonic monuments as a testament to human frailty without the “true” god).

Second, Muslim inhabitants of Egypt showed less concern with the original purpose of Egyptian statues than had Christians. As a result, damage committed to ancient statues during the era of Muslim occupation can be distinguished from that perpetrated in earlier periods. The Muslim inhabitants of Egypt were interested in using for new construction the abundance of already quarried stone available in the form of Egyptian statues. Sculptures were reduced to cubic building blocks, as was the case with the Crown Prince Khaemwaset. The figure above the waist was removed, reducing the whole to a rectangular block with intentionally made chisel marks visible on the waist. The edges are worn and abraded, and the surface is chipped and pitted. The inscription shows no sign that particular words or the prince’s name were attacked. Given the rectangular shape of what remains, scholars have suggested that the intention here was to reuse the granite, rather than an attempt to control the image’s power.

During the medieval period in Egypt, many antiquities were reused in building projects. At this time, ancient statues were regarded as a valuable piece of stone.


Answering the question of why the nose is broken on any particular Egyptian statue, relief, or sarcophagus mostly depends on two key factors: the condition of the inscription, and the original location and purpose of the statue. Additional breakage to other parts of the body or to symbols is also informative.

Iconoclasm on a grand scale — such as the destruction of royal imagery following the reign of Hatshepsut and during and after the reign of Akhenaten — was primarily political in motive. Hatshepsut’s reign presented a problem for the legitimacy of Thutmose III’s chosen successor; and Thutmose solved this problem by eliminating a significant portion of the imagistic and inscribed memory of Hatshepsut. Akhenaten’s religious revolution presented a large-scale problem for his successors, who restored the worship of the god Amun; the destruction of Akhenaten’s monuments was therefore thorough and effective.

The condition of an inscription is revealing when it is clear whether the name itself was the primary target of the destruction. Damage to the name strongly suggests that the attack took place during the Pharaonic period when hieroglyphic writing was still understood. The reasons for damage in that period are likely to have been personal animosity toward the one represented in the image or, when a criminal violates a tomb, a desire to evade a deceased person’s revenge.

Crown Prince Khaemwaset; New Kingdom, Ramesside Period, reign of Ramesses II, (ca. 1279–1213 BCE); from Karnak Temple, Egypt; Granodiorite, 25½ × 15 × 35 inches (64.8 × 38.1 × 88.9 cm) Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.615

Additional damage to other body parts, especially the arms or feet, when combined with knowledge of the image’s original location and purpose, also can reveal the date and motivation of what was done. Broken noses “kill” the statue, while 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. Since early Christians regarded polytheistic religion as demonic and wanted to prevent its practice, the mutilation of statues was a part of an attempt to destroy the previous religion and advance the new Christian faith.

Those actions can be distinguished from the reduction of statues, which were likely intended to be reused as building blocks. With the passage of time, the original purposes of the statues and the way they functioned was less clearly understood. After the seventh century CE, ancient statues became, to some extent, a source of high-quality stone that could be put to other purposes. Ultimately, religious and political conflict as a source of damage to ancient statues gave way to the everyday practicalities of recycling existing stone for new construction.

Nevertheless, the study of ancient Egyptian iconoclasm reveals long-lasting attitudes toward the nature of the art the Egyptians made. The idea of human images as resting places for supernatural beings was essential to ancient Egyptian cultural understanding and survived in altered form into the Christian era. Egyptian art’s importance in society is revealed by the compulsion to destroy it in recognizable patterns.

Edward Bleiberg was curator of Egyptian Art at the Brooklyn Museum for 22 years. He retired in 2020.

4 replies on “Why Are the Noses Broken on Egyptian Statues?”

  1. A compelling story and looks like an interesting exhibition drawn from Brooklyn’s great collections. Is the exhibition coming to the Brooklyn Museum? If not, why not?

  2. An interesting, thoughtful, and useful essay that respects art and the reader – however did it get into HYPERALLERGIC?

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