The Past is Prologue

An archaeologist considers a Confederate statue.

Often overlooked in media coverage surrounding Confederate monuments are the monuments themselves. Sweeping pronouncements about their significance are rarely accompanied by even a cursory description of their appearance. But in debates about monuments, the monuments matter. We cannot defend, oppose, or claim to understand them without first studying their symbols, reading their inscriptions, and walking in their shadows. What can monuments actually tell us about the past?

Archaeology may have an answer. The discipline has long grappled with the complexity of monuments and offers accessible frameworks for interrogating our own commemorative landscapes. Archaeologists develop interpretations by considering artifacts in their local contexts and situating them within broader cultural trends. By examining Confederate monuments in this way, we may hope to see their significance in clearer terms and perhaps foster a more productive conversation at the impasse between “heritage” and “hate.”

The Confederate Soldiers Monument in Durham, North Carolina, was unveiled in front of the county courthouse in 1924. Why did a Civil War memorial appear in 1924? At the time, Durham was home to one of the country’s most prosperous Black communities. Black Wall Street lay half a block from the courthouse, about 45 seconds from the statue. Viewed in this context, the monument is less a shrine to the dead than an instrument of intimidation. Whereas Durham’s WWI and WWII memorials feature olive branches and bald eagles, the Confederate monument displays cannonballs, an armed soldier, and Confederate flags. There are no gestures toward reconciliation, only signs of defiance. Sixty years after the war, a powerful circle in Durham either believed they were still living in a Confederate state or tried hard to make it look like one.

What does the monument want us to remember? An inscription makes it clear: “In memory of ‘the boys who wore the gray.’ ” What were these boys fighting for? Another carving features a representation of George Washington, who, of course, has no historical connection to the Confederacy. Yet his image links the Civil and Revolutionary wars, aligning the Confederate cause with the birth of the nation. The Civil War is cast as another rebellion against tyranny, the South’s war of independence. Archaeologists should recognize this strategy. Repressive regimes have always cloaked their reforms in symbols of tradition, couching radical changes in patriotic terms. In his will, Washington ultimately freed his slaves. The boys in gray fought to keep theirs.

So, does the Confederate monument honor the war dead? Of course, but it does much more. It is a public project that excluded the Black community, a memory of 1865 from 1924, an American monument with no American symbols, a war memorial that can’t remember the reason for the war, a victory monument for the Lost Cause.

Damaging the statue, then, did not erase history. The monument itself has been erasing history for a century. Like all monuments, it reveals more about its makers than the people it commemorates. It teaches us nothing of the Civil War but speaks volumes about Durham, North Carolina, in 1924. Monuments gesture to the past, but they stand firmly in the present. Archaeology lays bare these contradictions. It teaches us to be skeptical of our monuments, to notice that what they say is often not the same as what they do. It is easy to understand what monuments want us to remember; we must look harder to see what they want us to forget.

This essay has been excerpted from “Archaeology's Lessons for Confederate Monuments,” which appears on Medium.