Prof. Adam T. Smith, second from the right, with members of the local Armenian community

Archaeology’s Genocide Problem: Forgetting on the Armenian Highlands

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — On Friday, March 15, Vanderbilt University’s Anthropology Department hosted a lecture by Cornell University Prof. Adam T. Smith. His lecture was titled “Archaeology’s Genocide Problem: Violence, Heritage, and the Techniques of Forgetting on the Armenian Highlands.”

Prof. Adam T. Smith

Smith presented a survey of prominent archaeological texts in the field, pointing out how some of those writers, when discussing the heritage of Eastern Turkey, had failed to mention Armenians as natives of the land from earliest times until Islam, instead portraying the land as exclusively having Turkish heritage. He described this phenomenon as “the powerful narratives of denial,” not only in regard to the Armenian Genocide, but also the Turkish government’s negating the historicity of an ancient Armenian presence in Anatolia. Indeed, as Rouben Adalian states: “Despite the three-thousand-year existence of the Armenians and their continuous construction of civilization in their historic homeland, no archeological site in Turkey is permitted designation as historically Armenian.”

Professor Smith further emphasized that “archeological research is highly skewered” as Turkey denies that Armenian archeological finds are actually Armenian. Even the names of Armenian towns in Anatolia have been Turkified, again negating a historic Armenian presence there. According to Professor Smith names of approximately 75% of sites of the geographically historical Armenia have been changed.

Smith then offered a chronological timeline of ancient Armenian history discovered through archeological finds, starting with the first notation of an “Armenian” as such on the tomb of King Darius of Persia, ca. 518 B.C. He reminded us that “there is no ancient Turkey,” and that “Anatolia is relatively a new term used since the 10th century A.D.”

Against this background Smith elaborated on the various techniques of “unseeing” employed by the state authorities to erase the memory of the Armenian presence in Turkey. He divided these into four processes: omission from texts, monumentalization, de-ethnicization, and denial of denial — including disappearance, surveillance, prohibition, and self-censorship.

Lastly, Smith discussed the importance of “archaeology as bearing witness” to the Armenian Genocide. He stressed “the need for archaeologists to be able to access important historical sites in the ancestral homeland” of historical Armenia (not just the Republic of Armenia), which so far has been denied to archaeologists. He also expressed hope that academics would not be influenced by politics but rather maintain the standards of academic integrity and present the subject matter in an objective way.

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It is noteworthy that Smith’s archaeological work is pioneering in that he is introducing a new approach to Genocide studies which so far has been dealt with primarily by historians and sociologists.

Members of the Nashville Armenian community attended this lecture and actively participated during the question-and-answer session. After the lecture the community members met with Professor Smith and discussed various issues ranging from the impact of the Genocide on their immediate families, to community activities in Nashville, to Tennessee House Resolution 100 (which recognized the Armenian Genocide on the occasion of its centennial in 2015).

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