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Losing the past or changing the future? Archaeologists and modern monuments

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | August 16, 2017

As images of white supremacists rallying to protest the planned removal of monuments to the confederate past filled the news, some people on social media began to argue that archaeology– my discipline, my profession— should oppose the destruction of these things.

The argument goes that archaeologists have a responsibility to oppose any destruction of potential “historical information” in material form. At least, some people argued, we should be fully documenting these statues with the kind of 3-D scanning technology that has become so much a part of the popular imagination of our discipline.

Others argued that the loss of these things would lend itself to forgetting the horrific history of which they are a part, a position ridiculed by journalist Radley Balko in a Twitter post:

The “erasing history” people have a point. They took down the Nazi statues too, and today no one knows what a Nazi is.


I watched this conversation unfold for a while before I decided to intervene. I kept waiting for someone to point out the multiple problems with this politically naive and historically uninformed proposal. When I did respond, I tried to make three points:

  • archaeologists have a long and painful modern history that taught us that demanding to use materials for our purposes can run rough-shod over often more compelling interests of other people, including the people to whose histories we would like to contribute


  • our discipline is about producing knowledge, not about the automatic preservation of things, and these things are well documented already


  • these monuments are not about “the past”. They are politically potent in the present– otherwise we would not see rallies of white supremacists chanting “we will not be replaced” in their defense. We should not lend our support to that political position.

While a fair number of archaeologists agreed with me, a number continue to argue that “a real archaeologist” will work to preserve these things, because they are supposedly irreplaceable historical resources.

Leave aside that we actually know quite a bit about these particular statues, including their manufacture (the only thing I can think of that we might learn from keeping the objects themselves). They are part of history, the claim goes, and archaeologists should preserve “history”.

Among those respondents, the conversation continued about how best to accomplish this aim: create a museum where they can be brought together, use scanning technology, find existing historical museums that will take them, or simply add a lot of modern interpretive text where they are displayed to “explain” their troubled history.

People who think and write about cultural heritage accept that not all materials made in the past should be preserved, or if preserved, interpreted for the public. As Paul M. M. Cooper put it at the beginning of a Twitter thread reviewing how similar legacies have been treated in Europe,

People working in heritage are constantly trying to strike this balance between removing hated monuments and preserving some trace of them.


That balance is part of what is at issue in archaeology today. Contemporary archaeologists have been steadily moving to a position of engaged scholarship in which they define the questions to be raised and the material remains to be investigated with communities most affected by potential research, giving up control and accepting limitations.

In the wake of a disciplinary transformation in the US ushered in by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) archaeologists working in the US accept that some materials will be reburied without any research at all. Many archaeologists have developed new collaborations with Native American groups that are built on acknowledging control of research by the tribes. This is part of a larger move among museums and cultural heritage participants internationally to recognize that the source materials for understanding culture don’t belong to the research community.

The lack of control over research materials has long been acknowledged in Cultural Resources Management, the largest arena of archaeological practice in the United States. In CRM, archaeologists work for clients who determine how much research will be done. Sites in the way of development are normally only partly explored before their destruction.

Exceptions come when there is a public outcry based on deep contemporary interests, as happened in the case of the African Burial Ground in New York City. Not all urban discoveries during construction lead to full exploration, even when the local community might have interests, as the case of a cemetery of Gold Rush date in San Francisco strikingly illustrates.

Broader social interests already do, and should, have a greater role in determining what gets preserved than narrow interests archaeologists might have in studying specific objects. The social interests that are at play matter more in the current situation than an outdated claim by archaeologists that our own interests somehow override serious concerns by other stakeholders.

And those concerns are deadly serious, as events in Charlottesville tragically illustrated. Current campaigns seek to remove statues whose histories we know, that were erected as part of post-Civil War attempts to reassert the power of a white population across the south that saw its former privileges diminished by civil rights for free African-Americans.

These statues are not neutral markers of events, not simply historical documents– no monument is.

They are machines to create popular imagery and to circulate myths.

The myths these particular statues promote deny the reality of a war motivated to maintain one segment of the human population in a condition of slavery to preserve the economic wealth of another segment. To the extent that white people are taught through these statues that this is a history about which they should be proud, they are being told that fighting against the freedom of the ancestors of their black neighbors was also something about which to be proud.

There is no archaeological interest that can over-rule the intentions of people today to contest that narrative, to recall the real violence of that past and its continued legacy in violence in the present. The elected representatives of the people of Charlottesville, like those of so many other places with such disturbing monuments, made the decision to remove this legacy of a history they do not want to celebrate. No one from outside has a right to prevent that, or place conditions on it.

Archaeology has a checkered history of exploitation by totalitarian regimes.  Treating the question of what materials from the past should be preserved, studied, and thus valorized, as politically neutral is part of the reason for that history.

Philosopher Alison Wylie, who studied archaeology’s history in shaping and reshaping codes of ethics, pointed to the ambiguity of a concept of “stewardship” in our disciplinary debates. Archaeologists have been encouraged to think of themselves as stewards of the past, on behalf of broader society. If we take that concept to mean we are better situated to make decisions for others, then we claim power that can lead us to ignore the wishes and needs of others.

If instead, we take our role as stewards as one of service, then we need to listen to others and understand that we do not have a right to dictate preservation, interpretation, or scholarly access to any materials.

The challenge is put to us by Paul M. M. Cooper:

When you remove these statues to men who fought for slavery, you’re not destroying history – you’re making it.

Do we want to be part of making history? Do we want to change the future? Or do we want to turn our backs on this historic moment in pursuit of a claim to control that we have never really had, twisting stewardship from its proper understanding as service to others and making it service to ourselves?

Comments to “Losing the past or changing the future? Archaeologists and modern monuments

  1. This site was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally, I have found something that helped me. Cheers!

  2. The Nazis were not chanting ” we will not be replaced.” They were chanting “Jews will not replace us.” To write an entire essay about the threat that Nazis pose, and not to mention their particular threats made to Jews is an egregious omission. What could you have been thinking? Yes, people of color are under threat from the far right, but so are Jews. It’s about time this was recognized by the progressive Left, of which I am a part.

  3. Let me try this again. For some reason, my other comment did not go through. I think you are relying on a reductionist argument, i.e. because the South was racist so too are its monuments. From there, you conclude that since these monuments are inherently racist, they must be removed or even destroyed.

    I disagree strongly for the following reasons.

    1. The monuments (or at least most of them) are not inherently racist– Your thesis does not account for the fact that similar monuments were being erected around the same time in the North to honor the Union military. Moreover, the iconography of monuments in both the North and South are similarly military in content, and most were constructed at a time when the politically powerful Civil War generation was leaving the scene. Thus, it appears it probable that the primary intent of the monuments, like their Northern comparators, was to commemorate those who served and died. Presumably, a review of newspaper articles written at the time these monuments were created could shed further light on this issue.

    2. We should Learn from Our History, Not Erase it– ISIS recently destroyed monuments in Iraq and Syria as idolatrous or because they were important to religious and ethnic minorities. We should not do the same here in the name of the secular religion of political correctness. While removing the statues is a better course, by doing so we lose the opportunity to view them in context and as a tangible expression of where our country has been and how far it still needs to go. In any event, this should be a decision for localities and States rather than outsiders.

    • We actually know the history behind the erection of the monuments in question quite well, as sources I linked to in my blog post explain. They were created long after the Civil War ended, in periods when there were intensive political and social movements seeking to push back against the political and civil rights won by African Americans in the communities where they were placed. They were motivated by the desire to reshape the story of what was at issue in the Civil War: an effort that has been all too successful. That war was started to maintain an institution, slavery, that was founded on the principle that human beings could be owned as property because of their racial difference. The use of public monuments to celebrate people like Robert E. Lee, who led a violent rebellion against the United States of America to defend slavery, was linked to other efforts to portray the war as motivated by other reasons.

      Beyond their histories, which are well known, these statues in communities that today are grappling with complicated histories have become rallying points of new white supremacism. This is another indication that they are not simply neutral markers of past events. Their current audiences see them as precisely what they were intended to be: celebrations of an idealized white heritage that has been and continues to be used as a bedrock of arguments that other racialized groups do not truly form part of the cultural identity of this country.

      The comparison to the destruction of classical antiquities by Daesh is not on point. The places destroyed in these acts of terror were once occupied cities and temples used by people whose history has become an object of modern interest. They were not created in the recent past to intimidate a group of the local population and to foster a historical narrative erasing a recent history to replace it with one that justified continued domination of one group over another. The destruction of parts of a cultural landscape as a tactic of terrorism designed to impose oppressive rule over the people actually has more in common with the original motivations for erecting these monuments. More apt comparisons exist to the history of reconsideration of monuments of the Nazi regime in Germany, and of communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

      We could use new monuments in this country that actually grapple with the history of struggles against racism. Leaving in place statues that were designed to celebrate, and present heroically, people whose actual actions were destructive and have left us a lasting legacy of racial conflict, thinking this can somehow be neutralized by other contextualization ignores the power of the non-verbal communications the original patrons understood and drew on.

      I am glad we do agree that this should be a decision for local communities. That means that the white supremacists who killed a counter-protestor in Charlottesville clearly were in the wrong, as the community had decided to remove the statue. At the same time, it is worth noting that a lot of states passed legislation limiting the power of local communities to remove or even change these monuments, so I would ask why states should be equated with local communities? Finally, my post is specifically addressed to well-intentioned calls (especially from within my own discipline) that use the same “historical” arguments you recapitulate here to oppose any steps to remove these statues. By repeating an argument for keeping them that is based in an abstract set of concerns of yours (in which, I would again note, you suggest explanations that actual historical research counters), you (like my colleagues) are implicitly assuming the right to weigh in on the decision that should be left to the cities and towns struggling with these histories.

      • It seems to me an argument that will not consider the full historical context in which these statues were erected (including the erection of similar statues in the North), but focus on the reductionist argument that they should be considered inherently racist, because they were erected in racist times is ultimately circular in nature.

        There are also distinct parallels to ISIS and its destruction of monuments in Iraq and Syria which national governments and local minorities associated with. Here, one of the underlying reasons for removing these monuments seems to be to strike at traditional Southern culture, which those who wish to remove these monuments also view as inherently racist. Certainly, in Iraq and Syria, one of the reasons ISIS wished to destroy statues and other monuments is because they were important to the nation states of Syria and Iraq as well as to minority religious and ethnic groups such as the Shia, Yazidis, and Assyrian Christians.

        Finally, I’m glad we agree that ultimately its a matter for localities and States not outsiders. States are important in this context because they sometimes own the statues in question, the land where they reside or otherwise have authority over localities under our system of governance.

        • My argument is not reductionist. Yours falsely conflates two very different movements, taking place at different points in time. It would help if you read the scholarly literature, or the popular articles, to which I linked. The monuments in question were erected across the south in well-documented moments in conjunction with well-documented political and social campaigns of repression of black citizens.

          The shared iconography of military commemoration is not at all surprising. It marks statues of many different periods in the European and US traditions. It was drawn on in these moments in the US south precisely because it would link the people whose histories were being remade with traditional iconography of heroism, thus failing to acknowledge that these particular soldiers sought the break-up of the United States to preserve slavery.

          My argument is not just that they were erected “in racist times”. Again, if you read the literature, they were erected to produce the effect of denying racism, to write a new false history of the Civil War.

          That’s also one part of why comparing the debate and removal of these statues to the actions of ISIS isn’t compelling. As I noted, we have much better analogues in the European treatment of Nazi and communist monuments.

          I appreciate your engagement, but I think we will simply go around and around if this is prolonged. I’ve made my points, you have offered your counters, I have explained why I don’t accept them.

          I have tried to treat your comments in good faith despite the use of language (such as “reductionist” and “political correctness”) that is used only in order to deny opposing arguments come from real, considered conclusions based in evidence. I would urge you, in the future, to consider not including those kinds of phrases; they don’t suggest a serious engagement, but rather, personalize and diminish the seriousness of those with whom you are debating.

  4. You’ve truly made this into a teachable moment. Many thanks.

    An anecdotal illustration in support: a scholar of religious studies here and an Anglican priest in Oakland both took many of the same courses and come from similar backgrounds. They take a Biblical passage and each prepares a talk/sermon on it, and while both come up with thoughtful results, the morals of their stories do not concur. What happened? A: The priest has a responsibility to his specific congregation today and to his religious institution, while the scholar has a commitment to the context within which the passage was produced, as well as its transmission history and development, as well as to the principles of his discipline. Why would anyone expect their results to line up?

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. One thing I did not go into in detail here is the challenge that reinterpreting monuments presents, even if people are really committed to that. Your anecdote illlustrates that well. As a scholar, I know that every text– including documents– is interpreted by a viewer whose own background and assumptions structure what is brought to understanding. We need a much broader discussion about the circumstances that led to the creation of these statues, and that isn’t something facilitated by the monumental setting. Monuments create a context for their own reception through their materials (durable, aesthetically enhanced, signifying value) and visual language (elevation of the image as a proxy for elevation of the person and circumstances represented). Those are powerful and hard to overcome through modest interventions.

  5. Prof. Joyce, thank you for all of your Berkeley Blog posts explaining and educating us about the lessons of history we are failing to overcome once again, because the human race cannot produce and implement solutions to prevent our never-ending acts of self-destruction.

    One paramount fact of life in 2017 is that time is running out for us to be able to survive in this century because we keep proving our brain is not designed to allow it in the short period of time we have remaining with out of control challenges of change we are experiencing, such as global warming, violence and inequalities.

    Trump has proven once again that the history of our continuous acts of self-destruction keep repeating beyond our control, he was able to become president because our political leaders in both parties failed to overcome the power of money, causing them to betray our working class once again, just like Ancient Athens, Rome, etc.

    The Greatest Generation won WWII and produced our best opportunities to overcome our failure modes, but we just keep failing with no worldwide solutions in sight to produce and protect an acceptable quality of life for our newest and all future generations.

    Unless you and your social science colleagues can come up with solutions in time.

    • Prof. Joyce, you asked a most important question in your concluding comment: “Do we want to change the future?”

      To this end I have been commenting on BB for years in a continuous effort to produce and implement solutions that would guarantee an acceptable future for our newest and all future generations.

      One solution I have had in mind is for Berkeley to dedicate all of its resources to protecting the human race, and I rejoice at the recent change in leadership replacing Nicholas Dirks with Carol Christ.

      To answer your question, it’s time to change the future.

  6. Thank you for your statement. It is a great synopsis of the issues at stake in this argument.

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