Abolished, Annihilated, Vaporized: Is Destroying a Statue Destroying History?

After demonstrations in Virginia over the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee left one dead and dozens injured, the question of whether such statues should be left in place or taken down has raged throughout the US media. BECCA WATSON and GREG MORTON take a look through the history of the destruction of statues to answer the question – is destroying a statue destroying history?

“People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.”
                                  George Orwell, 1984

US President Donald Trump has condemned the removal of statues of Confederate Generals as ripping apart the culture and history of America (via Twitter)

With controversy running rampant over the removal of statues of Confederate leaders in the US, one concept keeps cropping up: the destruction, denial, or removal of history. But does pulling down statues of individuals really equate to their erasure – or to the ‘ripping apart’ of history? We take a quick tour of the deliberate destruction of representations of individuals in the past to explore this phenomenon.

“Damnatio Memoriae”

Humankind has a history of removing, damaging or destroying representations of politically significant – and controversial – individuals.

Portraits had always been an important symbol of power and legitimacy in Rome. For Republican elites, for example, that meant displaying busts of one’s heroic ancestors along your hallways to guests. The first Roman Emperor, Augustus, eagerly bought into this potency – sending his portrait around the world on coins and statues.

This symbolism, however, had its dangers. On the death of the emperor Nero in AD 69, a wave of violence was directed at his image, both in Rome and across the empire. Statues were toppled, faces smashed. This was, apparently, not orchestrated centrally. Rather, the initiative was taken by individuals keen to appease Nero’s successors.

The potential underlying this destruction was clearly noted by some at Rome. When the much-hated emperor Domitian was assasinated in AD 96 an official message was sent to all corners of the world, mandating ‘damnatio memoriae’ – portrait destruction.

For interested historians looking back, this typical Roman efficiency can be deeply frustrating. Nonetheless, archaeologists have developed techniques for spotting an intentionally destroyed portrait. For example, when a marble bust has simply been recarved awkwardly into the image of the victim’s successor, leaving tell-tale signs of the original features.

A portrait of the Severan family, with the face of Geto removed (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In fact, however, this technique is often not needed. In the case of the second century Severan Tondo, for example, only the face was removed – leaving the subject’s identity clear. Whoever scratched out the emperor Geta’s head from the tondo clearly wanted his identity to be remembered. Geta was not being ‘removed from history’. Rather, Roman Damnatio Memoriae strove to take the power away from a portrait.

A Queen Forgotten?

Similarly, Hatshepsut, the Eighteenth Dynasty Pharaoh, had evidence of her reign destroyed by her heir and stepson, Thutmose III, for whom she had acted as regent. Her cartouches were chiselled from walls, and her statues removed. Some of these statues were smashed or defaced before being buried in pits, an act which would seem to imply some strong feeling towards the Queen.

However, there’s no evidence that Thutmose III bore any animosity towards Hatshepsut during her reign when he was young – nor indeed in the twenty years after her death before he began to destroy her image. Perhaps he sought to remove evidence of his co-regent, and to paint himself as sole ruler – a fabrication which would lend itself towards the legitimacy of his own son and heir, Amenhotep II. Perhaps, as has been suggested, the impetus did not stem from the aging Thutmose III, but from Amenhotep II.

The reasons behind the removal of Hatshepsut from the visual record remain unclear – but it has been argued that the sporadic, haphazard and incomplete nature of the act sets it apart from the damnatio memoriae of the Romans, and that the intention may never have been the systematic destruction of her image.

The removal or destruction of a particular representation of an individual does not have to be conducted with the intention of removing them from the historical record. To take the example of Marino Faliero, the 55th Doge of Venice who was executed for attempting to stage a coup d’etat to wrest power from the aristocrats of Venice.

The Space Reserved

Faliero’s portrait was removed from the Hall of the Great Council, and the space painted with a black shroud and a Latin inscription, hic est locus Marini Faletro decapitati pro criminibus: ‘his is the space reserved for Marino Faliero, beheaded for his crimes’. The intention here was not that Faliero be forgotten – after all, he is named in the inscription. The Venetians understood something that is perhaps being missed when people talk of history being destroyed – there is a difference between remembering someone, and honouring them. To destroy a portrait is not to destroy history.

The debate surrounding the removal of Confederate Statues has gripped the US over the past week following a rally in Virgina (Via BBC news website).

And perhaps we have been too narrow in the way that we view statues as history – as focal points on which to hang vast swathes of our past.  History is not just a static snapshot of one individual and their actions in the past. It is a tapestry of events and emotions, of results and reactions, and the changing circumstances, attitudes and responses towards our own past. The removal of these statues will one day be a part of history too.

In a world where visual iconography is far from the only way in which we record history, we are in no danger of forgetting the men whose statues we take down. By removing the representations of these individuals, we only seek to forge our own moments in history – the moments where we step forward and say that while we should remember these men and their actions, we should not necessarily be honouring them, or what they represented.

Unlike in Orwell’s dystopian classic, we are not ‘vaporizing’ individuals from history. In removing or protesting these statues, we are merely stepping forward to define our own place in history – by remembering what must be remembered, but honouring what deserves to be honoured. Today, as in Roman times, sometimes the first step must be to break the power of a portrait.

Written by Becca Watson & Greg Morton

BECCA WATSON is the marketing executive for Oxbow Books. She has a background in classical archaeology, with a specialisation in human osteology and funerary archaeology.

GREG MORTON is a second-year Undergraduate student at Lincoln College, Oxford. He studies Classical Archaeology and Ancient History, and is currently working as an intern for the marketing team at Oxbow Books.

Cover Image: Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, N.Y.C., by   Johannes Adam Simon Oertel

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