Things Without Owners: Legal Fictions, Buried Treasures, and the Memory of the Armenian Genocide
Today, the Turkish state denies the historical truth of the massacres of 1915 and 1916, in which Ottoman forces killed over one million Armenians. Where the Turkish state based its denial on the putative lack of archival evidence, scholars responded to this official denial by trying to document both the factual basis and the genocidal character of the killings through archival research and personal testimonies. This project explores how this dispute over the authenticity of written sources plays out in an economic and cultural practice that is at once a direct result of the genocide, and a continuing source of contention for the current inhabitants of Turkish Kurdistan. Specifically, through ethnographic and archival research, it examines both the legal regulation of hunting for Armenian treasures—principally gold—and the practices of Kurdish treasure hunters under legal scrutiny. Treasure hunters seek to profit from the material wealth that was left behind by a population whose status as victims is vigorously denied by the same Turkish state that must issue permits for treasure excavations. Treasure hunts conducted without an official permit are considered illegal and prosecuted by up to two years of prison sentence. By tracing treasure hunters’ applications for excavation permits from a local state museum, as well as court files of unauthorized excavations, Önder Çelik’s research offers an ethnographic perspective on the ways in which trauma, memory, and history are articulated through the idioms of permissibility, prohibition, and desire that surround the legal governance of treasure hunting.
Life Underground: Hunting for Armenian Treasure in the Post-Genocide Landscape
Çelik’s book manuscript, Life Underground: Hunting for Armenian Treasure in the Post-Genocide Landscape, is based on 18 months of fieldwork in the region of Van, Turkish Kurdistan. The project draws on Çelik’s ethnographic research on popular practices regarding the search for treasures (principally gold) that were supposedly buried by victims of the Armenian genocide in a landscape that is haunted by both past and ongoing violence. By bringing the nexus of two enfolded crises, linking contemporary Kurdistan to the material afterlives of the Armenian genocide, Life Underground considers landscape and materials in the study of memory. As it complements narrative accounts of violent events with an examination of their material remainders, it aims to contribute to historical and anthropological studies of violence.