“The consistency of the patterns where damage is found in sculpture suggests that it’s purposeful,” Bleiberg said, citing myriad political, religious, personal, and criminal motivations for acts of vandalism. Discerning the difference between accidental damage and deliberate vandalism came down to recognizing such patterns. A protruding nose on a three-dimensional statue is easily broken, he conceded, but the plot thickens when flat reliefs also sport smashed noses.
The ancient Egyptians, it’s important to note, ascribed important powers to images of the human form. They believed that the essence of a deity could inhabit an image of that deity, or, in the case of mere mortals, part of that deceased human being’s soul could inhabit a statue inscribed for that particular person. These campaigns of vandalism were therefore intended to “deactivate an image’s strength,” as Bleiberg put it.
Tombs and temples were the repositories for most sculptures and reliefs that had a ritual purpose. “All of them have to do with the economy of offerings to the supernatural,” Bleiberg said. In a tomb, they served to “feed” the deceased person in the next world with gifts of food from this one. In temples, representations of gods are shown receiving offerings from representations of kings, or other elites able to commission a statue.