Blog Post #14: Grad Student Feature with Aurora E. Camaño

One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.

What topic do you study?

My name is Aurora Camaño, and I am a PhD Candidate in Archaeology at Simon Fraser University. I consider myself a medievalist, with a focus on Byzantium and the neighbouring Armenian Kingdoms. My research explores themes of identity, place-making, and collective memory in contexts of forced resettlement via comparative analysis of the built landscapes.

My dissertation concerns the medieval resettlement of Armenians in Cilicia (modern Çukurova Turkey). Throughout the 11th century the medieval Kingdoms of Armenia experienced several waves of coerced and involuntary migration, with large numbers of Armenian families relocating to central Anatolia, particularly Sebasteia and Cappadocia, as well as among the Taurus mountains and plains of Cilicia. The rough terrain of Cilicia provided a familiar mountainous refuge similar to their lost ancestral homeland. Over time, the Armenians of Cilicia were able to rebuild and assert their dominion over this new home. By 1080, Cilicia was recognized as an Armenian Principality, and under Roupenid rule the fully sovereign Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia was born in 1198.

I look at both the landscape of origin (the Bagratid Kingdom of Greater Armenia) and the landscape of resettlement in Cilicia to compare settlement practices, social organization, use of toponyms, and architectural traditions. Through this study I question: How does the trauma of displacement and relocation challenge and transform internal conceptions of identity and belonging, and how is this reflected through the construction of their new kingdom? What memories, shared histories and traditions did the Armenians bring from their homeland, and how were they altered, used, and monumentalized to legitimate their position in Cilicia? 

What sources or data do you look at?

Ruins of the Armenian Church commissioned by Roupenid Prince T'oros at Anavarza.
Fig. 1. Ruins of the Armenian Church commissioned by Roupenid Prince T’oros at Anavarza (CC-BY-SA-4.0).

Although I am a field archaeologist by trade, I am unable to access many of the material sources typical of archaeological research for this project. Archaeologically, the period of Armenian occupation in Cilicia has been deeply understudied (Fig. 1). To date, no major published excavations have focused on this period and excavations from multi-phased sites have often neglected to publish these later finds in favour of the Classical and/or Prehistoric phases – an unfortunate trend in early Anatolian archaeology. It is also increasingly difficult to obtain permits to conduct new physical surveys of these important sites. I have had to get creative in my study of this landscape. Beyond a small corpus of architectural surveys published on the fortresses and ecclesiastical monuments of Armenian Cilicia and some historical writings, the major source of information comes from a combination of early travel literature and ephemera, archival photographs, memory books, historical maps, and satellite imaging.

Travelogues were a wildly popular literary genre throughout the 1800s and early 1900s in Western Europe. The region of Cilicia, on account of its historical intrigue as a crusader state and its opportune position as a passage between the plains of Anatolia, Syria and the Mediterranean world, is the subject of many such books. Authors included military officials, diplomats, scientists, merchants, missionaries and other adventurers, and while they wrote for entertainment rather than academic scrutiny, these volumes often have deep archaeological value. Their narratives are highly descriptive in nature, discussing the historical monuments, roadways, regional topography, and the local flora and fauna that they encountered. Many of these travelogues are additionally accompanied by drawings, photographs, maps, site and architectural plans and other travel ephemera.

Another archival source are Armenian memory books, which are ripe with historic photographs and maps. These Houshamadyan attempt to recapture daily life in Ottoman Armenia and lost local histories, and in doing so also revive the memory of the many medieval monuments of their forefathers. Together, these collections provide a snapshot of the historic landscape and its medieval features in a state of preservation which no longer exists today – as many of Cilicia’s Armenian monuments and settlements have since faced both environmental and cultural destruction.

I augment my archival findings with modern technology, using satellite imaging and open-source virtual globes to geo-reference these sites and gain spatial understanding of the wider medieval landscape of Cilicia. I also incorporate many theoretical readings from adjacent fields within the humanities and social sciences into my interpretations of these reconstructed landscapes. Writings on place-attachment, place-making, identity, nostalgia, and social memory have helped to shape the lens through which I interrogate the Armenian Cilician past.

How does your research shed light on real people in the past?

Although my research falls under the subfield of Landscape Archaeology, it is the people who lived within, constructed, and formed relationships with these lands who are at the heart of my work. Landscape archaeology approaches natural and built environments as cultural products that are assigned meaning and transformed through human interaction, allowing us to gain valuable perspective on the memories and motivations of past peoples (Fig. 2). The process of place-making and the relationships people build with their environment is an integral part of what informs an individual’s or group’s sense of belonging and identity. How people perceive a place and the meanings and stories they attach to it are entrenched in shared histories and lived experiences. This is heightened in contexts of forced resettlement, as dislocation causes painful disruption in one’s sense of place-attachment and belonging.

Fortress at the Armenian Cilician Capital at Sis, by Edwin John Davis (1879)
Fig. 2. Fortress at the Armenian Cilician Capital at Sis, by Edwin John Davis (1879) (Public Domain)

Archaeology has not always handled the study of forced migration well. Too often the focus has laid solely on materially identifying occurrences of mass migration and tracking patterns of movement – reducing such events to points on a map (See: Camaño 2021). I hope to rehumanize these complex stories of movement and resettlement. In my research, I advocate for a social anthropological approach to the archaeology of forced migration, centering on the social, experiential, and affective impacts and responses to the trauma of displacement and resettlement. The story told through the landscape of Armenian Cilicia, however, is not simply one of trauma – but rather it is a story of resilience. Their rebuilt kingdom in Cilicia stood until 1375 and was a noted economic and cultural centre, producing many important artistic, theological, and scientific traditions, which I also aim to amplify through my research.

Further Resources

Altman, I. and Low, S. (1992) Place Attachment. New York: Plenum.

Armstrong, H. (2004) Making the Unfamiliar Familiar: Research Journeys Towards Understanding Migration and Place. Landscape Research 29(3): 237–260.

Camaño, A.E. (Forthcoming 2021) Towards A Social Archaeology of Forced Migration: Comparing Memory, Myth and Place-Making in Medieval Armenian Cilicia, In Daniels, M. (ed.) Homo Migrans: Modeling Mobility and Migration in Human History. IEMA Distinguished Monograph Series. Albany: SUNY-Press.

Edwards, R.W. (1993) Settlement and Toponymy in Armenian Cilicia. REarm 24: 181-249.

Hamilakis, Y. (2018) The New Nomadic Age: Archaeologies of Forced and Undocumented Migration. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing.

Rishbeth C. and Powell, M. (2013) Place Attachment and Memory: Landscapes of Belonging as Experienced Post-Migration. Landscape Research 38(2): 160-178.

Yasur-Landau, A. (2018) Towards an Archaeology of Forced Movement of the Deep Past. In Driessen, J. (ed.) An Archaeology of Forced Migration Crisis-induced mobility and the Collapse of the 13th c. BCE Eastern Mediterranean. Louvain-la-Neuve: AEGIS Presses Universitaires de Louvain. 177-187.

Image of Aurora E. Camaño
Aurora E. Camaño
Aurora E. Camaño’s Academic Pages

Twitter: @AuroraCamano

SNF Centre for Hellenic Studies

Department of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University

Aurora E. Camaño graduated with a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Archaeology and Physical Anthropology with a minor in Religious Studies and Diploma in Heritage Resources Management from Memorial University of Newfoundland. This was followed by the completion of a Master of Arts in Early Medieval and Byzantine Archaeology at Newcastle University. Currently, she is a PhD candidate in the Department of Archaeology at Simon Fraser University and a member of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies where she has also worked as a sessional lecturer in Byzantine Archaeology. Aurora has been an active field archaeologist since 2008, having worked on sites across Atlantic Canada, Armenia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and North Macedonia and is also a trained numismatist with interest in the numismatic history of Byzantium and Armenian Cilicia. Her current doctoral research explores the intersections of forced migration anthropology, landscape archaeology, and social memory in Roupenid Cilicia. Aurora currently sits on the Graduate Committee of the Byzantine Studies Association of North America. 

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