The Archaeology of Vandalism

Monuments and, more specifically, the vandalization of monuments have become widely debated topics over the past year. American monuments of Confederate soldiers and others have been subject to destruction by activists across the country who protest against what they represent (Lockheart 2018) – just this week, the “Silent Sam” statue at the University of North Carolina was finally toppled by protestors. The statue was a monument to Confederate soldiers, originally gifted by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1909 and erected in 1913. The destruction of Silent Sam follows much debate and protest action over the statue’s presence, including the work of PhD student Maya Little, who painted the statue with blood and red ink in April (Vera 2018).

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“Silent Sam”, a statue at the University of North Carolina commemorating Confederate soldiers, after being toppled by protestors. (Image Credit: Samee Siddiqui)

And although people will decry acts of vandalism, they seem to forget that this is nothing new – vandalism is prevalent in our history and can be seen in the archaeological record, allowing us to get a better idea of the attitudes and opinions in the past. You might say it is one of the more “human” aspects of archaeology – while statues and monuments are built to showcase icons at fantastical proportions, graffiti will often represent the everyday person who is sharing their thoughts in a way that will be impactful and last thousands of years.

Two things should be noted before getting further into this blog post. Firstly, monuments do not equal archaeology in the sense that it represents history “as is”. Rather, monuments are a statement – they are intentionally created as an expression of a specific concept or opinion. Kirk Savage puts it best: “the impulse behind the public monument is the impulse to mould history into its rightful pattern” (1997: p. 4). It is a reminder to all who walk past it of a particular message. Many of the monuments across the world, unfortunately, represent white supremacist and/or imperialistic views – in the form of “celebrating” colonizers, racists, and others with bigoted thoughts. Secondly, I use the word “vandalism” here because the acts described in this blog are, by definition, vandalism – “deliberate destruction or damage to property”. However, I recognise that this word is loaded with a negative connotation that could imply disapproval so let me reiterate that personally, I believe that these monuments should be torn down and I am in full support of these activists and protestors.

Okay, enough preface – let’s take a brief trip through history!

Akhenaten, Disgraced in Name and Portraiture

To say that Akhenaten was a “controversial” pharaoh might be a gross understatement. During his reign in the 18th Dynasty, Akhenaten introduced a new form of religion to Egypt, centred around worship an entity known as Aten. This meant that the previous form of Egyptian religion – a polytheistic practice worshipping an entire pantheon of deities – was to be left behind (Reeves 2004). Akhenaten apparently attempted to rid Egypt of the previous cult of Amun by prompting destruction of any related art and goods, replacing them with work depicting Aten. This bout of vandalism and destruction can still be seen in surviving archaeology, including attempts to restore these works of art post-Akhenaten’s rule (Brand 2010).

After Akhenaten’s death, it didn’t take long for depictions of him and his religion to be removed – this includes the vandalism of many relief paintings, statues, and monuments. Akhenaten was nearly erased from history as a heretic as Egypt returned to its previous religious practice (Reeves 2004).

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A relief of Akhenaten – notice the chisel marks where his name has been removed. (Image Credit: Keith Schengili-Roberts)

Vandalism as Damnation in Ancient Rome

The Romans actually had a concept based around the vandalism of portraiture – “damnatio memoriae“, or “the condemnation of memory”. If and when an emperor was overthrown, depictions of said emperor were destroyed – this includes statues, busts, and even the portraits found on coinage (see below).

What makes this a rather unique form of vandalism is that it was formalised, with a legal process that prefaced it. The Senate was able to set damnatio memoriae into motion and a systematic destruction of the disgraced emperor’s legacy would begin: books were burnt, lists containing the emperor’s name were destroyed, property was seized, and legal contracts related to the emperor were often annulled (Varner 2004).

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A vandalised coin where the face of Emperor Commodus has been destroyed (Image Credit: the British Museum)

The Vikings and Their Graffiti Trail of Travel

One of the ways by which archaeologists and historians can see how far and wide the Vikings have travelled is through their graffiti – and there’s a lot of it. Some of our evidence for interaction between the Vikings and the Islamic world include graffiti found on Arabic coins – this includes images of ships, weapons, and runic inscriptions, as well as religious symbols, like Thor’s hammer or Christian crosses, gratified over text and imagery related to Islam. One interpretation is that this was a means for the Vikings to disassociate themselves from the religion (Mikkelsen 1998).

More general types of Viking graffiti have been found on various buildings and monuments. In Maeshowe, a Neolithic cairn found in the Orkney Islands of Scotland, a group of Vikings left graffiti behind that ranged from informative text about the purpose of their travel, to intricate designs and symbols, to writing that more or less reads “Ottarfila was here” (Towrie 1996, Forster et al. 2015).

Perhaps one of the more famous instances of Viking graffiti is found in the Hagia Sophia (see below), where indecipherable runes have been etched into the marble bannisters. Several images of ships have also been found graffiti in the church. In the article about the ships, Thomov makes an interesting connection between the ancient graffiti and the more modern graffiti that is also seen marking up the marble of the Hagia Sophia, wondering if both ancient and modern vandals had similar motivations for their graffiti. Perhaps to make one’s mark or place one’s name in a holy space…or just to express oneself freely in a space where this would normally be frowned upon (Thomov 2014).

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Possible Viking graffiti from the Hagia Sophia (Image Credit: The Wandering Scot)

As you can see, vandalism is nothing new – and nothing to scoff at or to simply write off. When used in an archaeological context, we get multiple layers of interaction at play: contact of different cultures (in the case of the Vikings), change in power and social status (Akhenaten and the Roman emperors), and ultimately, we see the expression of opinions and messages. The act of vandalising a monument, whether inspired by ideology,  religious beliefs, or “just ‘cos”, is an act of making a statement at the expense of whatever the defaced monument stood for. And today, these activists are making a stand against racism, against imperialism, and against colonialism by toppling these statues and monuments to the ground.

References

Brand, P. (2010) Reuse and Restoration. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology. 1(1) pp. 1-15.

Forester, A. et al. (2015). Etched in Memory. RICS Building Conservation Journal. pp. 28-29.

Lockhart, P.R. (2018) Researchers are finding Confederate memorials faster than they’re being taken down. Vox. https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/8/7/17661154/confederate-memorials-southern-poverty-law-center

Mikkelsen, E. (1998) Islam and Scandinavia during the Viking Age. Byzantium and Islam in Scandinavia. Paul Forag Astroms. pp. 15-16.

Reeves, N. (2004) Who Was Akhenaten? [Lecture] http://www.academia.edu/download/35141349/Who_Was_Akhenaten_.pdf.

Savage, K. (1997) Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth Century America. Princeton University Press.

Thomov, T. (2014) Four Scandinavian Ship Graffiti from Hagia Sophia. Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 38 (2). pp. 168-184.

Towrie, S. (1996) Maeshowe’s Runes – Viking Graffiti. Orkneyjar. http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/maeshowe/maeshrunes.htm

Varner, E.R. (2004) Mutilation and Transformation: Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Imperial Portraiture. Brill.

Vera, A. (2018) UNC Protesters Knock Down Silent Sam Confederate Statue. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/08/20/us/unc-silent-sam-confederate-statue/index.html

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