Why Are So Many Ancient Egyptian Statues Missing Their Noses?
The missing noses on ancient Egyptian statues have been a topic of discussion and curiosity within art history circles for many years. It is a common question that many people ask: why are the noses missing from so many of these ancient artifacts? Some wonder if it is simply a coincidence or if there is a deeper, more sinister reason behind the phenomenon.
Some of the many Egyptian statues missing their Egyptian noses - Neferure and Senenmut (CC BY SA 3.0), Great Sphinx of Giza (Diego Delso / CC BY SA 3.0), 'Green Head' of a statue of a priest (Society for the Promotion of the Egyptian Museum Berlin), Head from a female sphinx (Brooklyn Museum), statue of a Man (Public domain), and Senusret III (Public domain).
Has Natural Erosion Played a Role in Creating Noseless Statues?
Several archaeologists have suggested erosion could be one of the main reasons for the missing Egyptian noses. Harsh winds, shifting mud and sand dunes, the flowing of water and thousands of years of feet and hands pitter-pattering over relatively delicate materials such as marble and stone will most likely have a pretty damaging effect.
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Many of these ancient Egyptian statues have been exposed to these elements for a very long time, while others have been buried under tons of mud and sand for centuries. In these cases, it's usually the extremities, such as arms, legs and noses that get damaged the most and eventually disappear. But, is this really the reason for why so many ancient Egyptian statues are missing their noses?
Busts of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, both displaying missing Egyptian noses. (kairoinfo4u / CC BY NC SA 2.0)
Human Intervention as a Major Factor Behind Missing Egyptian Noses
The frequent occurrence of missing noses on ancient Egyptian statues has also been attributed to vandalism. This phenomenon is not unique to Egypt and can be observed in other historical sites. For instance, the statue of the renowned philosopher Aristotle, situated at the entrance of the ancient Assos site in Turkey, was vandalized in 2015.
The statue, erected in 2009 by the Culture Ministry of Turkey, had its right arm removed, and severe distortion was evident on the face. Aristotle, who founded the first philosophy school in history, became a victim of deliberate destruction.
Notably, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many archaeologists lacked the advanced tools and techniques available today. These researchers, eager to make groundbreaking discoveries, sometimes caused extensive damage to classical sculptures. In their haste to be the first to uncover the "next big thing," they committed some of the most egregious acts of destruction in the field.
Religion has undoubtedly played a significant role in the de-nosing and dismembering of cultural and historical treasures. This has not just taken place thanks to the activities of extremist Muslims, as many may assume. Over the centuries, individuals of various religious beliefs, including Christians, Jews and others, have been responsible for acts of vandalism. These shameful acts have resulted in the destruction of countless valuable cultural and historical treasures.
Stories explaining the missing Egyptian nose of the Sphinx of Giza abound. (Vladislav Gajic / Adobe Stock)
Could Noseless Ancient Egyptian Statues Be the Product of Racism?
According to some scholars, there was a deliberate attempt by early Egyptologists to deny and hide that ancient Egypt was an African culture. According to the written account of Vivant Denon, a French artist, writer and archaeologist who etched the image of the Sphinx of Giza around 1798, the facial features of the famous monument appeared to be of African origin;
“…Though its proportions are colossal, the outline is pure and graceful; the expression of the head is mild, gracious, and tranquil; the character is African, but the mouth, and lips of which are thick, has a softness and delicacy of execution truly admirable; it seems real life and flesh. Art must have been at a high pitch when this monument was executed; for, if the head wants what is called style, that is the say, the straight and bold lines which give expression to the figures under which the Greeks have designated their deities, yet sufficient justice has been rendered to the fine simplicity and character of nature which is displayed in this figure.”
However, the theory that vandalism is the sole explanation for the missing noses on ancient Egyptian statues falls short when considering the prevalence of de-nosed and dismembered ancient Greek and Roman statues. The majority of stone sculptures from these civilizations also lack noses. While some may have been accidentally damaged, a significant number of them were undoubtedly targeted intentionally.
It is historically, archaeologically, and scientifically established that the ancient Greeks and Romans were of European (Caucasian) origin. Therefore, racism is an unlikely reason for the intentional de-nosing of those statues. So, what is the reason for the noseless statues left behind by these ancient cultures?
The deliberately destroyed face of Akhenaten from a relief depicting him and his daughter making an offering to Aten. (Neil R / CC BY-NC 2.0)
Deliberate Destruction of Egyptian Noses to Humiliate and Diminish Power
It has been recorded that later Egyptian dynasties would often deface statues of past monarchs in order to erase or diminish their legacy. In these cases, the removal of the nose would be accompanied by other, more extensive facial disfigurements, as well as the destruction of inscriptions and symbols of office.
In 2019, CNN reported on an exhibition, entitled Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt, which brought together a striking selection of ancient Egyptian masterpieces from the Brooklyn Museum chosen to highlight their deliberate destruction. From missing noses, to damaged heads and vandalized inscriptions, the exhibition was curated by Edward Bleiberg in an attempt to understand patterns within this wanton destruction.
Bleiberg has hypothesized that, in a culture that placed such a huge amount of importance on the creation of these artworks, this deliberate vandalism was a way to “deactivate an image’s strength.” This all makes sense within the ancient Egyptian world view whereby art was used to manifest reality through representation. In other words, images had the ability to contain a human’s or deity’s essence, or to provide protection and assistance in the afterlife.
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According to Bleiberg, new rulers or invading cultures trying to establish themselves wanted to disrupt this power by destroying its conduit: art. Artnet describes examples from the exhibit, including that of Thutmose III and his deliberate destruction of artworks representing his stepmother Hatshepsut.
In later years, Christians began to deface statues of ancient Egyptian deities to prevent them from being worshipped and destroy these remnants of their power. The nose was an obvious target for such campaigns of destruction, providing a clear and visible reflection of the supposed triumph of a new world order.
While legend has it that Napoleon had the Sphinx’s nose blown off with a cannonball, a more likely version of events is that the one-meter-wide nose was deliberately destroyed by a Sufi Muslim enraged by the affection showered on the massive statue in the hope of successful harvests. Originally built by Pharaoh Khafre around 2600 BC, studies conducted by Mark Lehner have concluded that the nose was intentionally eliminated.
Top image: The statue of pharaoh Senwosret III, who ruled from 1878 BC to 1839 BC, is another in a long line of missing Egyptian noses. Source: Public domain