Past Is Prologue

Archaeology’s Lessons for Confederate Monuments

It’s easy to understand what monuments want us to remember — and harder to see what they wish we’d forget

Fig. 1. Monument memes. Gifs: imgflip;
Fig. 2. Old Durham County Courthouse. Photo courtesy of the author.
Fig. 3. Distribution of monuments in front of the courthouse. Photos courtesy of the author from Google Earth.
Fig. 4. Confederate Soldiers Monument as it originally appeared. Photo: DocSouth
Fig. 5. Victory Stele of Naram-Sin. Photo: Rama/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 fr)
Fig. 6. Plinth of the Confederate monument. From left to right: north face, south face, east face, west face. Photos courtesy of the author.
Fig. 7. Neo-Assyrian Lamassu sculptures. Photo: Dark Dwarf/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Fig. 8. Drawing of a relief sculpture from Nineveh showing the king (circled) overseeing the transportation of the monument (left). Hoisting of the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia (right). Images: Barnett et al. 1998, pl. 112–3; Savage 1994, fig. 6
Fig. 9. Base of the Confederate monument showing the dates of the Civil War. Photo courtesy of the author.

Most Confederate statues were not built in an outpouring of national grief immediately after the Civil War, but many decades later in the 20th century.

Fig. 10. Locations of Black Wall Street and Confederate Soldiers Monument in Durham. Photo modified from Google Earth.
Fig. 11. Histogram showing peaks in Confederate monument construction. Graph: SPLC
Fig. 12. Symbols of peace on the World War I and World War II memorials (top) and militaristic imagery on the Confederate monument (bottom). Photos courtesy of the author.
Fig. 13. Bronze sculptures cast from similar molds. Several molds were combined to create the different parts of a single statue, and other modifications could be made during the production process to render distinct features and details. Ancient Greek Riace Warriors (left); Confederate monuments in Kinston, North Carolina (center), and Durham, North Carolina (right). Photos: Alexander van Loon/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Craig Swain via HMdb; DocSouth
Fig. 14. Confederate monument (left); Vietnam and Korean War Monument (right). Photos courtesy of the author.
Fig. 15. Seal of the Confederate States. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Confederate monument not only hides the cause of the war, it lies about the outcome.

Fig. 16. Ara Pacis (left) with detail of the Aeneas panel (right). Photos: Rabax63/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0); Miguel Hermoso Cuesta/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Fig. 17. Mussolini’s Monument to Victory (left). Bust of Cesare Battisti (right), who was executed by Austro-Hungarian forces during World War I. Mussolini included Battisti’s image in the monument over the objections of his widow. Photos: Sailko/Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0); Wolfgang Moroder/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Fig. 18. Traditional American symbols around the courthouse. Photos courtesy of the author.

Toppling the statue did not erase history; the monument has been erasing history all on its own for nearly 100 years.

Fig. 19. Symbols on the Confederate monument. Photos courtesy of the author.


Ph.D. in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology from Bryn Mawr College, currently teaching in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University

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