Why Military Veterans Are Turning to Archaeology

Digging up historical artifacts may help former members of the military transition to life as civilians.

Why Military Veterans Are Turning to Archaeology

Digging up historical artifacts may help former members of the military transition to life as civilians.

A partnership between a crowdsourced archaeology organization and a veterans recovery program has opened up new possibilities for American military veterans in a field that may once have seemed like a stretch: archaeology.

DigVentures, a company based in the United Kingdom, aims to change the way archaeology is done by expanding it beyond academic research settings. They crowdfund financial support, crowdsource site locations, and use real-time digitization technology to create collaborative digs that are accessible to experts and enthusiastic novices alike.

“Our participants are coming from all walks of life, from all over the world,” says Lisa Wilkins, managing director of DigVentures. “They're digging here with us in the trenches, and they're watching what's happening online.”

As a trench is excavated, the data is uploaded into DigVentures’ digital archaeological recording system, where it is immediately accessible to all their global supporters. In addition, the team produces daily 3-D models of each trench, gives updates on major finds, and uses the video streaming app Periscope to send live broadcasts from the dig. People watching digitally can help identify items or finds, in some cases influencing how the dig moves forward.

There are no training requirements for participants, so DigVentures gets people with a range of experience levels, from complete beginners to experienced professionals. They provide a tailored curriculum based on how much time a person plans to be with the dig, whether a couple days or an entire months-long project.

The company was particularly interested in working with veterans after Stephen Humphreys, a former Air Force captain, approached them with a proposal for something he called rehabilitation archaeology.

“A large number of veterans struggle with isolation and disempowerment, either because of their injuries or disabilities, or because the rules and experiences in the civilian world are so different from what they have been through,” Humphreys says. “The adventure, camaraderie, and sense of accomplishment that come from participating in archaeological digs directly address these problems.”

Pull Quote
This trench is so much further along than I would've expected by this time.
Lisa Wilkins, Managing director of DigVentures

His idea was to use archaeological digs to empower disabled veterans to use their valuable dedication and teamwork skills in a different context. That’s why he co-founded American Veterans Archaeological Recovery (AVAR) with fellow veteran Mark Reed in 2016, an organization that partners with groups like DigVentures to help ease the transition to civilian life. (Read more about the ways veterans are coping with the trauma of war and with life after their service.)

Wilkins says DigVentures agreed to the project, keen to employ veterans who might be struggling to find jobs or to engage with other segments of society. The company was also eager to see what kinds of skills and strengths the veterans would bring to their excavations. Humphreys recruited about a dozen veterans to work on DigVentures’ Shaker settlement project this past spring in Mount Lebanon, New York, with funding from a National Geographic Society grant. This, the group’s inaugural collaboration, involved excavating the largest and most significant site for the study of 18th- and 19th-century Shaker communities in America.

The joint effort fosters a fascinating blend of academic and veteran cultures, according to Wilkins. Humphreys added that the veterans have a strong sense of teamwork as well as the ability to work quickly and precisely in physical conditions that are sometimes uncomfortable. Some veterans tell him that facing a challenge with a trusted team around them is often the element of their service they miss most.

“That has definitely changed the tone of the dig for everybody else,” Wilkins says. “We're watching our archaeologists and our participants really bonding.” Not to mention the improvements to efficiency that this teamwork provides. “This trench is so much further along than I would've expected by this time,” Wilkins says.

The veterans, too, say they’re gaining valuable work experience on the digs. Veterans participate in all aspects of the excavation: clearing brush, digging trenches, conducting field surveys, and processing the finds from the dig. For veterans with injuries that may prevent heavy manual labor, there is work in the lab, cleaning and cataloguing the finds. Chris Sapolu, a former security forces airman with the U.S. Air Force who is currently focused on earning his bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Sacramento State University, worked on the excavation, with surveying, and in the finds room. He says the program could help him land a future job in museum studies work, as a lab technician, or possibly on a different archaeological survey.

Pull Quote
Getting out some physical exertion and then just hanging out with fellow veterans at night has been very helpful, just shooting the breeze, talking about our experiences, and learning about each other.
Nichol Fuentes, Former Marine Corps sergeant

“There's always an artifact to be interpreted,” Sapolu says. “When somebody can't find it—any leads or anything—they hire someone like us to go ahead and look at it.”

Nichol Fuentes, a former Marine Corps sergeant who is also working on the Mount Lebanon dig, feels like the camaraderie involved in the dig has shown her how her teamwork skills and strong work ethic can be applied to work beyond military service—and has helped her emotionally, too.

“My stress level since coming here has been very low,” Fuentes says. “Getting out some physical exertion and then just hanging out with fellow veterans at night has been very helpful, just shooting the breeze, talking about our experiences, and learning about each other.”

The social piece of the project is crucial to Humphreys’ vision. It reminds veterans of the sociability of their military service in a setting that feels familiar, providing a key link between their time in the armed forces and the new civilian lives they’re building. The success of the project has spurred both companies to consider partnering again as they build out their calendars for archaeological digs in 2019.