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


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Recreating Romans in Fallout: New Vegas

Recreating  Romans in Fallout: New Vegas

In Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment 2010), the post-apocalyptic world of Nevada has split up into various factions (sometimes referred to as “tribes” in-game) that are in a constant struggle to regain control of the land, specifically the New Vegas Strip.

Arguably the major antagonistic faction (although your player character can choose to join forces with them near the end of the game) is Caesar’s Legion. Within the game’s lore, Edward Sallow, originally part of a faction called the Followers of the Apocalypse, came across a cache of books during his travels and became obsessed with those detailing the Roman Empire. Soon after, Sallow began to conquer and absorb local tribes into his ever-growing army through enslavement. By the start of the video game, Sallow has now taken the mantle of “Caesar” and rules over a sizeable army of soldiers, spies, and slaves and represents a significant threat to the New Vegas area.

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Vulpes Inculta, part of the Legion’s Frumentarii, in his military uniform.

So how does these post-apocalyptic Romans compare to their real life, historical counterparts? Aesthetically, the New Vegas legionnaires have done their best to recreate Roman Imperial armour, but while historical armour had the luxury of gilding and other fancy embellishments depending on the status (MacMullen 1960), armour in New Vegas was restrained to whatever material that could be scavenged. This touches upon one of the major recurring themes of the Fallout series, which is the reuse of the debris of the nuclear war to create new weapons, tools, and armour. All legionnaires in New Vegas are outfitted in what appears to be repurposed American football gear and jerseys. Higher status officials, such as Centurions, will have have certain ornamentation to differentiation themselves from the average foot soldier – this may include metal spikes and paint on shoulder pads, animal furs, or helmet decoration, such as feathers. The Legate, as the leader of the army, wears specifically created metal armour, displaying his commanding status over all soldiers .

As a means of staying true to the historical Romans, Caesar’s Legion is mostly outfitted with melee weapons such as machetes and spears. However, advanced technology has also made its way into the ranks – guns are usually scavenged by soldiers and used when found, and higher officials will often have weapons based on the (futuristic to us) technology of New Vegas, such as thermic lances and pneumatic power fists. Like the Romans, the Legion also made use of crucifying as a method of punishment.

The organisation of the New Vegas Legion is a fairly accurate recreation of the historical Roman military, albeit rather simplified and re-appropriate several titles in roles that are only somewhat equivalent to their real-life counterparts (Sumner 1970, MacMullen 1984, Roth 1994). In New Vegas, the Legion has a hierarchical structure made entirely of men, with Caesar atop as dictator. Below him is the Legate, who leads the army, and the Centurions, who were commanders underneath the Legate. A Praetorian guard personally guarded Caesar himself, while the Frumentarri, based on the name given to food supply officers turned spies in the Roman Legion, were Caesar’s spy network. Those captured from conquered tribes and towns were promptly enslaved and fitted with bomb collars to prevent escapes; most slaves were put to work doing menial tasks, with those deemed too weak to be useful crucified or otherwise killed.

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Edward Sallow in command of the Legion as Caesar.

From an archaeological perspective, the Legion is a interesting example of selectively recreating and repurposing the past for the sake of organisation and domination. Prior to his reign as Caesar, Sallow was known to look down on other tribes as “lesser” and “inferior” creatures. To Sallow, Ancient Rome spoke to these imperialistic and fascist tendencies, and so he created a totalitarian dictatorship in its image to dominate the land with his ideology.

Like many leaders in Ancient Rome, Sallow also claimed divine right as leader – as Caesar, he claimed that he was the Son of Mars, who had brought nuclear war upon the United States to cleanse it for Caesar’s eventual rule. This divine right to lead created the propaganda needed to not only present the Legion as a powerful force to enemies, but it also kept Sallow in power as the sole dictator.

This propaganda, like in real life, also takes form in the shape of art, specifically coinage. Currency in Caesar’s Legion are decorated with depictions of Caesar  and inscribed with Latin propagandistic phrases, such as “Pax Per Bellum” (Peace through War). The importance and value of the New Vegas denarius (silver coins) and aureus (gold coins) can be seen in their creation, as these were difficult-to-find materials and most likely also difficult to create in the current post-apocalyptic landscape.

The tag line of the Fallout video games is “war never changes”, a sentiment that could also be expressed as “history repeats itself”. The Legion of New Vegas is a prime example of how the ugly head of imperialistic forces will rear its head time and time again, sometimes in the same form it once held many, many years ago.

The Fort, the headquarters and main camp of Caesar’s Legion in Nevada

References

Anonymous. (2011) Caesar’s Legion. Nukapedia: Fallout Wikia

MacMullen, R. (1960) Inscriptions on Armor and the Supply of Arms in the Roman Empire. American Journal of Archaeology. (p. 23-40)

MacMullen, R. (1984) The Legion as a Society. Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte. (p. 440- 456)

Obsidian Entertainment. (2010) Fallout: New Vegas

Roth, J. (1994) The Size and Organization of the Roman Imperial Legion. Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte. (p. 346-362)

Sumner, G.V. (1970) The Legion and the Centuriate Organization. The Journal of Roman Studies. (p. 67-78)


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.