Life Underground: Hunting for Armenian Treasure in a Post-Genocide Landscape
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This dissertation is based on 18 months of fieldwork in the region of Van, Turkish Kurdistan. It draws on ethnographic research on popular practices regarding the search for treasures (principally gold) that were supposedly buried by the victims of the Armenian genocide in a landscape that is haunted by both past and ongoing violence. It takes as its premise the increasing surge of treasure hunting practices. Although the Armenian genocide took place over a century ago, in 1915, the widespread search for treasures took root during the last three decades, in a context characterized by violence and uncertainty. By bringing the nexus of two enfolded crises, linking contemporary Kurdistan to the material afterlives of the Armenian genocide, this dissertation makes a principal intervention. It considers landscape and materials in the study of memory. As it complements narrative accounts of violent events with an examination of their material remains, it contributes to historical and anthropological studies of violence. Ethnographically, this dissertation centers on a floating population of treasure hunters and shows how people descend into the world of a hidden underground that is considered more promising than the formal wage sector. In the dissertation, I examine how treasure maps, symbols carved on stones, and a landscape populated by ruins become a register for aspiration and terror. I argue that the nexus of post-genocide landscape and socioeconomic destitution produced a paradoxical consciousness, that a potential better future finds its ground in divination and in breaking the protective spells that are believed to have been cast by the objects' Armenian owners. Within this post-genocide landscape, the Armenian treasures bind the idea of future prosperity and the good life to the very material products of the past genocide. Thus, what is found in the terrain of treasure hunting is a kind of double “occult” practice that engages not only hidden treasure and invisible spirits, but also the occulted history of a genocide which bears, in Turkey, no name.