History

Unlike Us, Ancient Societies Knew What to Do With Their Outdated Monuments

Smashing. Scrubbing. Symbolic humiliation. How Romans, Sumerians, and Egyptians handled the old-statue problem.

A family of four, with one of the children's faces erased.
Portrait of the family of Septimius Severus, circa 200 A.D., with the face of the son Geta scrubbed off, by order of his brother. Image by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro via Altes Museum, Berlin

As I found while researching my book, Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of American Monuments, most of the more than 200 public monuments taken down after the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 are still sitting in storage, while we argue about whether they should stay hidden or be put back up. But I’m a classicist. If there’s anything the ancient world can teach us, it’s that we’re not thinking big enough when it comes to disposing of our surplus statuary.

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The ancients even had better deep storage strategies than us. Take this portrait sculpture of Ur-Ningirsu, who ruled a Sumerian city-state in what is now Iraq in around 2080 B.C. Ur-Ningirsu, who is folding his hands in prayer, clearly never skipped an arms day. He rocks a sheepskin hat with a rolled brim as well as a magnificent unibrow. The statue would have been placed in a temple, so the gods would think Ur-Ningirsu was standing there in perpetual adoration. In return, they would grant him a long life (#PolytheisticLifeHack).

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A statue's head, with heavy brows.
Head of the portrait sculpture of Ur-Ningirsu. ALFGRN/Flickr
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When divine favor eventually wore thin, and Ur-Ningirsu died, another ruler wanted prime altar real estate for his own votive sculpture. Ur-Ningirsu’s sculpture was likely removed and carefully deposited in a pit dug into the temple floor. (We’re not completely sure this happened to this sculpture, since we don’t know where it was before it appeared on the European art market in the 1920s, probably after being looted from an ancient site.)

Ur-Ningirsu and his fellow ancient Mesopotamians thought about portraiture like we do nuclear fission—an immense power, usable for good or evil. Statues could convince the gods to give you power-ups. But enemies could injure you by attacking your statue. To prevent magical abuses, priests unplugged the connection between Ur-Ningirsu and his statue before they buried it, via a quick ritual decapitation. This led to a lot of complications in the early 20th century, when the Louvre bought his body and the Metropolitan Museum bought his head. They put him back together, and now he flies across the Atlantic every four years, like a kid in a custody dispute.

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Bronze is tough, and marble can be easily repaired. It’s easy enough, say, to glue Columbus’ head back on. Most of the American monuments to have come down since 2020 were officially removed, but even the 35 that were pulled down by protesters remain mostly unscathed. No matter how controversial now, they could easily be put back up if the political winds blow the other way. If we don’t want our public monuments to remain in storage ready for redeployment, like some sort of North American Strategic Racism Reserve, maybe we need to take tips from the Mesopotamians on how to lay a statue to rest for good.

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Statue of a standing woman with a pharaoh's headscarf.
 The Female Pharaoh Hatshepsut, life-size statue of the ruler in female attire wearing the nemes, a head cloth typically worn by kings, circa 1479–1458 B.C.  The Met, Rogers Fund, 1929. Torso lent by Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.
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True, damaging a monument isn’t really a way to get rid of it permanently, as is shown by the many statues of Hatshepsut, who ruled Egypt from circa 1479–1458 B.C. Hatshepsut took power on the death of her husband, initially acting as regent for her 2-year-old stepson Thutmose III. But Hatshepsut never stepped aside. She ruled for 22 years and constructed an elaborate burial complex with numerous statues, showing herself as a queen, male pharaoh, or sphinx. After her death, Thutmose (or perhaps his son) reacted by smashing many of these statues.

Archeologists have been happily piecing Hatshepsut back together again since modern excavations began in Egypt. The destruction didn’t erase her from history—but it did show how her successors reacted to her memory. We might be horrified at the reasons for their disapproval, but we are certain of their opinions. What will future generations think of our current habit of tucking away monuments celebrating white supremacy in expensive, climate-controlled storage, designed to preserve them indefinitely?

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The ancient Romans are even more famed for the deliberate destruction of images, thanks to their habit, dubbed damnatio memoriae by modern scholars, of destroying all portraits of people deemed enemies of the state. Emperors were especially vulnerable to a posthumous popularity contest. Of the 70 Roman emperors from Augustus to Constantine, 25 were declared deities after their death, while 26 had their memories condemned.

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Some of these erasures involved very deep cuts. A round wooden painting made in Egypt circa 200 A.D. shows the Emperor Septimius Severus, his wife, and his son Caracalla, all with cheerful smiles and bulging eyes. A scrubbed-off circle of gray floats where the face of the other son, Geta, once was. When they were co-emperors, Caracalla ordered Geta assassinated and his memory erased. Someone in provincial Egypt, far from the capital, was eager to comply.

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We still remember Geta, like we remember Hatshepsut. Damnatio memoriae is a sign of disavowal, not an actual magical removal of a person from history. What damnatio memoriae did was change the meaning of the image. The obliteration of Geta’s head made the tondo a statement of the owner’s obedience to Caracalla. (Long story short about Caracalla: You really, really wanted to stay on his good side.)

The power of damnatio memoriae to change meaning without destroying an entire object might give us some good ideas for modifying modern monuments. Take, for example, the Freedmen’s Memorial, dedicated in Washington, D.C., in 1876. The monument shows President Abraham Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation while a newly freed Black man, clad only in a loincloth, crouches at his feet. As soon as the monument was unveiled, Frederick Douglass criticized its representation of this man “on his knees like a four-footed animal.” Many others have echoed this criticism, and in June 2020, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton announced she would seek its removal, as the monument failed “to note in any way how enslaved African Americans pushed for their own emancipation.”

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But in 1916, Freeman H. M. Murray, a Black journalist and activist, proposed a different solution. Murray argued that the crouching man was an example of the way that American monuments depicted Black people not as they really were but as white Americans wished they would behave: subordinate, obedient, second-class citizens, grateful for their freedom, and admitting that they were unfit for real political or social equality. To stop this message from spreading to new generations of Americans, Murray proposed removing the Black figure from the Freedmen’s Memorial, transforming it into a memorial to Lincoln alone. This removal—not of a historical person, but of a noxious and false idea—is less a damnatio memoriae than a damnatio propagandae.

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The Romans also give us another, even more practical idea: reusing statues by recarving them into a portrait of someone else. When the notoriously cruel Emperor Domitian was assassinated in 96 A.D., Nerva took over and condemned his predecessor’s memory. Artists killed two imperial birds with one stone by recarving condemned Domitians into new Nervas. Sometimes this didn’t work out so well, like on a set of two reliefs now in the Vatican Museums, which originally showed the gods, including Mars and Minerva, celebrating a triumphal Domitian. Cutting down Domitian’s head into a portrait of Nerva did make the new emperor look like he had a swole neck, but his comparatively tiny skull looks ridiculous.

Part of a carved panel with six men.
Part of Cancelleria Relief panel A, with Nerva (formerly Domitian) on the left, circa 81-96 A.D.  Vatican Museums/Wikimedia Commons. 
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A petition to swap Columbus out for Prince at the Minnesota state Capitol is just one of many similar proposals, but I haven’t yet heard of anyone thrifty enough to replace a controversial monument by recarving, in 2022. But artists have been using more temporary means of transforming standing monuments. In Richmond, artists projected portraits of Breonna Taylor, Malcolm X, and others on the pedestal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Similarly, the figures on the 1954 Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia, Bulgaria, have become superheroes, been doused in pink to apologize for the Bulgarian occupation of Prague, and were painted in the colors of the Ukrainian flag to celebrate the 2014 Ukrainian revolution. Of course, it’s easier to scrub off these additions, as authorities have routinely done, than to repair a recarved monument.

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So far, I’ve been talking about transformations of monuments in times of peace. But the ancient world also has plenty of examples of wartime transformations of monuments, especially those captured by invading forces and taken back home as trophies.

A head of a man.
The Meroë Head, or Head of Augustus, circa 27–25 B.C. The British Museum
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A bronze head of the Emperor Augustus, now in the British Museum, was once one of these trophies. In 24 A.D., a decade after Augustus’ death, an army led by Queen Amanirenas of Kush invaded Roman territory in Egypt, hacked this head off an oversized statue, and brought it back home to Meroë, in what is now Sudan.* They buried it beneath the staircase leading to an altar of victory. For the next two millennia, everyone approaching the altar symbolically humiliated Augustus by treading on his face. Something strangely similar happened in 2015, when an artist encased a Communist-era statue of Lenin, slated for removal from the grounds of a factory in Odessa, Ukraine, in a titanium sheathing, transforming him into Darth Vader. Like Augustus, the buried Lenin gained a new, unexpected power: a transmitter in his helmet beams out free Wi-Fi.

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In the 12th century B.C., the Elamites, in what is now Iran, made an entire collection of captured monuments. One was a massive stele, once over 7 feet tall, carved in the mid-3rd millennium B.C. to celebrate the victory of Naram-Sin, king of the Akkadian Empire, over Lullubi people in Iran’s Zagros mountains. In it, the colossally sized Naram-Sin is shown striding over the puny, prone bodies of his dead enemies. A thousand years later, the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte invaded what had once been Naram-Sin’s territory. He ordered the stele taken to his capitol, Susa, 300 difficult miles away.

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Shutruk-Nahhunte’s artists gouged out Naram-Sin’s face, as well as that of the puppet king he had left behind to rule the Lullubi. And they added another inscription to tell the story of Shutruk-Nahhunte’s victory. His capitol held other captured monuments, including the famed law code of Hammurabi and another victory monument showing Naram-Sin’s grandfather, Sargon, holding a net full of thrashing, captured soldiers.

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Naram-Sin’s and Sargon’s monuments had once sent a message to their subjects, reminding them that the expense of paying the onerous annual tributes the Assyrians demanded would be nothing compared with the pain that would come if they rebelled. By modifying and moving these monuments, Shutruk-Nahhunte showed these threats were finally empty.

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Several modern collections have also brought together works of outdated propaganda to show how the world has changed, ranging from the Soviet statues on display at Grūtas Park in Lithuania to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Michigan’s Ferris State University. Unlike the Elamites, though, such collectors have been reluctant to damage the monuments themselves. But perhaps the modern world is finally catching up with the ancients, as Charlottesville’s Swords into Ploughshares initiative shows.

In July 2021, the focal point of 2017’s deadly Unite the Right rally, a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, finally came down. Later that year, the city transferred the monument to a local nonprofit, which plans to commission an artist to use its melted-down bronze to sculpt another artwork. Unlike the Lee statue, erected as part of an anti-interracial marriage campaign, the new monument will bring Virginians together instead of driving them apart. We need more of these creative responses to controversial monuments as we redecorate our nation, to remind us that the transformation we’re aiming for is far deeper than just the monuments in our parks.

Correction, April 11, 2022: This article originally misstated when an army led by Queen Amanirenas of Kush invaded Roman territory and hacked the head off of a statue of Augustus.

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