Heritage Forensics: Satellites and Specters in the Contested Caucasus
Thursday, April 27, 2023 5:00 PM
Adam T. Smith, PhD
Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences in Anthropology
As cultural heritage has moved to the center of 21st century conflicts, it has become a spectral presence, leaving traces of trauma, erasure, and loss in places of memory and contested imaginations of divergent futures. Nowhere has the spectral ‘present absence’ of heritage been more acute than in the South Caucasus, a region wracked by decades of violence, ethnic cleansing, animosity, and chauvinism. This paper introduces the praxis of heritage forensics by considering its central concepts and methodologies in relation to the ongoing engaged research program of Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW). Founded in 2020 in the wake of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, CHW uses the techniques of cultural aerospace to document, detect, and deter attacks on the fragile remains of the human past. Where heritage is constituted by the corpus of curated materials and intangible practices passed down to the present from the past, forensics refers to investigations that document disruptions of that legacy by state and non-state actors. Heritage forensics is thus an inherently public form of scholarship, where results from the field sites of investigations are constituted in public fora from courtrooms to news outlets to social media. Heritage forensics looks backward to the past to document how historic sites of collective identification have experienced their abusers. And it also looks forward, allowing the ghosts of the past to reveal themselves to publics as testimony in legal actions that seek to hold abusers accountable. Heritage forensics is thus forged in an alliance between researchers in the human sciences, human rights advocates, and international legal tribunals.