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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?