Erased figures in Kagemni's tomb

The first case of politically motivated image manipulation?

Manipulation of images is a well-known technique in propaganda, and there are a lot of very famous examples of them.

The most well-known examples come from totalitarian states, especially Stalin's Sowjet Union. Here, during Stalin time is has been a systematical policy to modify photographies by removing former communist leaders who have been repressed as "enemies of the people", in particular Leo Trotzky and a former chief of the security police Yeshov.

Another manipulated image shows Hitler, with Goebbels erased. Here, the reason for erasing Goebbels remains unknown.

Instead, this reason is clear again in the famous handshake picture of the unification of communists and social democrats in Eastern Germany 1946 — this handshake has become part of the emblem of the emblem of the SED. Unfortunately, the second communist leader Kurt Müller was visible in the original background, but was repressed in 1950. So it was decided to erase him from the picture too.

Of course, that these examples made by enemies of the West have become the most famous ones is only a result of the power of the western propaganda. Western examples have simply become less famous.

But, for example, already around 1860 a very famous lithograph picture shows a combination of US-President Abraham Lincoln's head with the body of the Southern politician John Calhoun. And, at another picture, General Sherman is seen posing with his Generals. General Francis P. Blair (far right) was added to the original photograph. Thus, it seems quite obvious, that the manipulation of images of some political importance has always been part of politics.

The motivations may be quite different. In fact, it is hard to say what motivated the manipulations of the the two American examples. Instead, the examples from the communist dictatorships share a common motivation: to remove persons of honor, which have later fallen into disgrace, from pictures with other, more important and yet honourable persons.

The question appears what could be considered as the first example of such an established image manipulation.

The erased persons in the tomb of Kagemni in Saqqara

In the tomb of Kagemni, as well as in other tombs at that time, one can find places where the images of particular persons have been removed:

In the first picture, the first person in the lower queue is erased.

In the second picture, it is the first person in the upper queue and the second person in the lower queue which have been erased.

The erasure was clearly not part of an attempt of violent destruction of the whole picture. It was made very accurate, and following in all three cases exactly the same scheme: To erase only the person itself. Nor the offerings which these persons have hold in their hands, nor the writings near the persons have been modified. But the persons themself have been removed completely.

Given this clear directedness against particular persons on the reliefs, the most plausible explanation is that the destruction of the picture is a form of penalty against the real persons represented in these images.

When and why have they been penalized?

Kagemni was a visier during the rule of Teti. Given that not Kagemni himself, but only some sons or retainers, one can expect that the wrongdoing has happened after his death, thus, possibly during the end of the reign of Teti himself or his son Pepy I.

Kanawati has made an interesting investigation of the conspiracies which have happened at that time, as well as of various evidence for different forms of penalizations, in his book "Conspiracies in the Egyptian Palace" — a highly recommended book, which made me aware that even my own photos also contained part of the evidence for penalties. Here are some of his conclusions:

"From the end of Teti’s reign evidence shows that a large number of his palace guards were punished by removing their names, or by inflicting damage on certain parts of their figures such as the face or feet, as for instance in the case of Semdent and Mereri. The damage, which most probably was done at the beginning of Pepy I’s reign, is consistent and may reflect different punishments to suit the various levels of involvement, probably in the same crime. In addition to the guards, three men with neighbouring tombs received the harshest punishment of erasure of both their names and figures. These were the chief physician, Seankhuiptah, the overseer of weapons, Mereri, and the vizier, Hesi. The tombs of Mereri and Hesi were reallocated to other officials, that of Mereri being given to a female guard. Although the erasure of names and/or figures is found in individual tombs in other cemeteries, it is nowhere as common and systematic as it is in the Teti cemetery. This fact, together with the nature of the positions held by the tomb owners and the likely date of these tombs to the end of Teti’s reign, suggests that a drastic event took place at the end of the reign for which these individuals were punished. The historian Manetho wrote that Teti was assassinated by his bodyguards. Perhaps this statement should be taken more seriously." (Kanawati 2003, p. 184)

Even if successful in killing Teti, the conspiracy did not seem to have had a long term success. The successor Userkare ruled only a short time, at most a year, and was replaced then by Teti's son Pepy I. So, the conspirators are likely to have been punished by Pepy I.

But the killing of Teti by one of his bodyguards described by Manetho was not the only conspiracy which has been identified in Kanawati's investigation: "Pepy I’s reign was also troubled by one, or more likely two conspiracies of which we have some information. The first conspiracy, by his wife, is recorded in the well-known biography of Weni ..., who for some reason was the centre of Pepy I’s trust and who was repeatedly given responsibilities far ahead of his position and rank" (Kanawati 2003, p. 170f). "Later in Pepy I’s reign another conspiracy appears to have been organized against the king. This was led by the vizier Rawer, whose name has been chiselled out and parts of his figure, mainly the face, hands and feet, have been deliberately damaged in his tomb in the Teti cemetery" (Kanawati 2003, p. 177).

About the places in the queues

I could not resist to add some of my own thoughts about this story.

First of all, it teaches an interesting lesson to laymen. Images like these manipulated ones seem quite typical for Ancient Egypt: Long queues of people who look completely identical — if there is a difference, it is in which type of offerings they have. One could naively conclude that these people are only unimportant heavers, may be slaves, and all what matters are the offerings.

But this would be completely incompatible with what we have found here. In this case, it would be simply completely meaningless to erase the image of some particular person. What would be the point of erasing the second anonymous slave instead of, say, the first or the third one? The very fact that one particular person has been erased, and the other remained undamaged, shows that they there not equal in the eyes of those who have erased that person: They have known which of the seemingly identical images represents the particular person they wanted to punish for its wrongdoings.

So, these long queues of seemingly identical persons describe a well-known list of high-ranked persons. They are, obviously, of lower rank than the main, big person. But they are not simply of low rank, but the persons of highest rank among this group. And their place in the queue clearly denotes their rank, with the highest ranks naturally associated with the first places in the queues.

It was not an attempt to falsify history

I think that yet another point is worth to be made: Different from the images of our time, the purpose of the erasure was not a falsification of the original: Even for us, today, people far away from the culture of Ancient Egypt, the manipulation itself is obvious and easy to identify. So, of course, it was even more obvious for the people at that time.

Moreover, no real information has been destroyed: What has been erased – the image of the person itself – was very probable identical with the images of the other persons in the queue. Instead, the non-trivial information contained in the picture which was related with the person was not destroyed: The offerings hold by the erased person in the first picture are different from those behind him. Near the erased person in the top row of the second picture we can even see some hieroglyphs. Maybe the name? That means, even we, today, know with sufficiently high accuracy how the unmanipulated image looked like.

So, the consequence of the manipulation was not a destruction of information. Instead, new information was added: The status of this particular, at that time well-known person has changed, it became a non-person.

So, the aim was not the manipulation of other people, as in the propaganda pictures of the last century. The only reasonable remaining purpose was to penalize the erased person.

Given that the erasure of such a picture does not create any body harm to the person itself, it seems clear that the penalty has some religious aspect. It would be, say, quite natural that those who have given offerings also expect, in exchange, some support from the presentee in the kingdom of the dead when they die themself. The removal of the picture, then, plausibly corresponds to a removal of this support. The penalty is something similar to an excommunication in a church, and the removal of all pictures of that person is simply part of this procedure.


The fact of the intentional modification of the original images is obvious. The political purpose of this image manipulation is also clear: Penalization of the persons which have been erased. So, we have a clear pretender for a very early, if not the oldest established, case of image manipulation for political reasons.

On the other hand, the aim of the image manipulation was not desinformation of future observers, as in the cases of the last century mentioned above. Instead, the manipulated image gives the observer additional information, the information about the penalty against these persons, and has been in no way hidden. Thus, the image manipulation may have been part of the penalty in a completely reasonable and morally unproblematic system of religious-based justice.