The Sumerian ruler Ur-Ningirsu lived around 2110 B.C., and a statue of him was placed in a temple. It showed him praying, so that the gods would look favorably upon him.
Then a new ruler succeeded him. Ur-Ningirsu’s statue was taken down and buried.
As it turns out, this is how ancient societies often dealt with their old statues. They smashed them, buried them, and sometimes even poked their eyes out. “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,” writes historian Erin L. Thompson in Slate.
Today, of course, statues are treated very differently. One group fights to take a statue down, another group fights to keep it up, and the whole thing becomes a proxy for our larger culture wars. That’s the comparison Thompson was making: While we battle over statues, she was saying, the ancients had no trouble demolishing theirs.
But as I read Thompson’s piece, I realized something larger.
We treat too many things like statues — whether they’re ideas, strategies, or ideologies. We seem to think that, because something was created, it must exist forever. As a result, we have trouble letting go. We feel compelled to defend something long after it’s useful.
Consider the phrase “set in stone.” It means something’s not budging, right? It’s been decided, and we can’t change it now.
But nothing is really that permanent. Even stone changes. The ancients showed us that.
It’s worth considering their mindset, so that we can adopt some of it ourselves.
Our modern debate over statues usually goes like this: A group of people identify a monument that they believe represents something harmful, like the statue of Robert E. Lee in the middle of a large Black community in Richmond, Virginia. That then triggers a wave of defenders who champion the dead figure’s accomplishments.
Consider why we’re having this fight. It is because, when that statue of Robert E. Lee was erected, nobody set a time in which it would be taken down.
We tend to think of statues as having a lifetime appointment — and because they’re statues, their lifetimes go on forever. As a result, statue removals carry tremendous weight.
This is not a constructive way to think about anything. Lifetime appointments are terrible — for statues, for ideas, for jobs, for companies, and for Supreme Court justices. That's not to say some things don't deserve lasting influence. When we commit to things forever, we make it much harder to update them.
Perhaps that’s why ancient societies had more dynamic ways of dealing with statues.
In ancient Rome, statues were sometimes subject to what’s been called damnatio memoriae — or, “condemnation of memory.” If a public figure was declared an enemy of the state, their statues were destroyed in an act of disavowal. Maybe that would be called “cancellation” today, but, like so many supposedly cancelled public figures who still enjoy a platform, it doesn’t mean they disappeared. Writes Thompson:
Here’s one of them:
Something similar happened in Egypt. Consider the saga of the Rome's first African emperor, Septimius Severus, and his family. He and his wife had two sons, named Caracalla and Geta. At some point, a painting was made of the happy family. Then Caracalla ordered Geta’s assassination and commanded that Rome erase his memory.
As a result, Geta’s face was scratched out of the painting:
Today, when people argue over statues, they often claim that the removal of a statue is like a denial of history. But actual history suggests otherwise. We do not need a singular object, in a fixed location, in order to know about something. Just look at Geta — was his memory erased? No. I’m writing about him right now. Memories are long; written records are longer.
This painting, minus Geta, became a kind of historical record: It is a symbol of what happened next. And the future should matter to us as much, if not more, than the past.
I want to make abundantly clear: I have no interest in culture wars. To me, this is a conversation about permanence — and I like the ancient model. The way the ancients saw it, a statue, or a painting, or a sculpture, or whatever, had some particular purpose, and that purpose would at some point end.
Good! All things end. A ruler cannot rule forever, nor would we want them to. Some ideas have an expiration date. A business closes once it's no longer fulfilling customers' needs.
And yet, we cling to so many things simply because they existed. I mean, Garfield went into national syndication in 1978. Flip open to the newspaper comics pages today — assuming that’s a thing you or anyone else does anymore — and he is still there, still making the same jokes. For decades, newspapers were the best way for a new comics artist to break through. Garfield hogged that space indefinitely.
That’s what a lifetime appointment looks like. Zzzzzz.
So here’s a crazy idea: Whenever we make new statues, let’s set term limits for them. A statue gets to live on for… what, 20 years? It doesn’t have to be destroyed after that, but its context must change: It must go to a museum, or a vault, or somewhere where, like, Geta’s scratched-out face, we register that life moved on. This way nobody’s upset, because the removal doesn’t symbolize anything other than that 20 years are up. Time passed. Something happened.
Next, let’s set term limits for our ideas, our efforts, even our positions. What does this mean? We can start by setting regular check-in times with ourselves and our teams, to make sure there’s still a purpose to our actions. I once wrote about Kyle Hanslovan, CEO of Huntress, who asks himself annually if he should still be CEO of his company. So far the answer is yes, but he recognizes that one day it’ll be no.
“I’m not dead set on being the CEO forever,” Hanslovan told me, “but I am dead set on our success.” This is extremely healthy! It allows him to focus on what matters most, and what matters most is not his own permanence.
There's nothing wrong with burying the old. Removing an old idea, or an old statue, should not be an insult to the people who supported or loved it. It is, instead, an act of service: It is saying that there are new ideas, and new people, and new concepts out there, and that they deserve a place in our lives too.
It is saying that, as time marches on, these new things will become more relevant to us than the things of the past, which helped shape us but cannot play an active role in what we will become.
Thank you for your service, Ur-Ningirsu, but your statue must be buried now. We’re on to the next — and the next and the next.
Even stone is not set in stone. We don’t have to be either.