The ancient Egyptians were artistic champions, carving countless statues that showcased the society’s pharaohs, religious figures, and wealthy citizens. But although these statues depicted different people or beings, many of them share a commonality: broken noses. This broken nose epidemic is so pervasive it makes you wonder whether it was all the result of accidents or if something more sinister was happening.
It turns out the answer is, in most cases, the latter. These statues have broken noses because many ancient Egyptians believed that statues had a life force. And if an opposing power came across a statue wanted to disable, the best way to do that was to break off the statue’s nose, according to Adela Oppenheim, a curator in the department of Egyptian Art at The MetropolitanMuseumof Art in NewYork City. It was common to perform ceremonies on statues, including the ‘opening of the mouth ritual’, in which the statue was anointed with oils and had different objects held up to it, which were believed to enliven it. “This ritual gave the statue a kind of life and power,” Oppenheim said.
The belief that statues had a life force was so widespread that it spurred antagonists to extinguish that force when the need arose. For example, people taking apart, repurposing, robbing or desecrating temples, tombs, and another sacred site would have likely believed that statues had life forces that could in some way harm intruders. People would even believe this about hieroglyphs or other images of animals or people. “You basically have to kill it,” and one way to do that was to cut off the nose so that it couldn’t breathe, Oppenheimexplained.
However, sometimes adversaries didn’t stop at just the nose. Some also smashed or damaged the face, arms and legs to deactivate the life force. There are likely some instances in which statues naturally tipped over, and a protruding nose broke as a result. Erosion from the elements, such as wind, and rain, also likely wore down some statues’ noses. But you can usually tell if a nose was destroyed intentionally by looking at cutmarks on the statue, Oppenheimdivulged.