Why Symbols Aren’t Forever

In November 2016, a swastika was painted on an elementary school in my Denver, Colorado, neighborhood of Stapleton. As an archaeologist who specializes in identifying the remains of animals hunted by early humans, my work doesn’t often involve symbols. But after this event, I started to pay attention to the symbols around me. I began to wonder about the creation of symbols—and society’s investment in them—and what these phenomena say about our culture, both old and new.

Archaeology is often assumed to be limited to the realm of the ancients. However, the point of archaeology is not to dig up static moments in time from long ago but to use material items to track the ebbs and flows of human culture: to show how things change, how values change. We build statues, then later deface or demolish them. We create symbols, then alter their meanings. Some argue vehemently that monuments, such as Confederate statues, should be left in place—that their part in history should not be “erased.” But change is not an erasure of history;

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