“I just want to work with other vets again. No one else understands.”
“This is a phrase we at AVAR have heard often since we began our program in early 2016. AVAR’s mission is to assist disabled American military veterans in their transition to civilian life by allowing them to participate in archaeological excavations. Thanks to Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, most people associate archaeology with a certain sense of adventure, and it is no accident that many real archaeologists have had a military background. Famous examples include T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Jane Dieulafoy, and the ‘Monuments Men’ of WWII. There is no doubt that archaeology can provide insights into America’s past, or that these insights have value in defining who we are as a country. However, most people would not expect archaeology to have therapeutic value or to solve modern social problems.
AVAR knows it can. We call this unique approach to discovering the past while helping people in the present ‘Rehabilitation Archaeology’.
Archaeological excavation is incredibly effective in creating strong, cohesive groups. This already occurs on digs around the world as the volunteers bond around the shared sense of adventure and accomplishment. For many it is this social element as much as an interest in the past that keeps them coming back year after year. AVAR takes this aspect of the excavation environment and enhances it by introducing staff members with leadership and team-building skills honed through years or decades of military service.
But there are literally thousands of non-profits that allow veterans to bond over everything from horseback riding to SCUBA diving to golf. What makes archaeology any different?
Excavations have a mission, a specific research objective which dictates their excavation strategy and the equipment they will utilise in the field. The success or failure of this mission can change our understanding of humanity’s past, so that mission matters. The work requires constant interaction and cooperation among small groups. Typically 2-4 new volunteers will excavate a single trench under the watchful eye of a supervisor, who is in turn responsible to a field supervisor and so on. Normally the dig team lives and eats in close proximity to one another, sometimes in rough conditions. The work is physically demanding but also requires precision and constant concentration as every bit of dirt removed could change the interpretation of the site. Veterans are right at home in these conditions; most say archaeology digs remind them of their time in service. They want to be part of something larger than themselves again. AVAR lets them do that.
Most existing veterans therapy programs provide a single enjoyable experience. We at AVAR view helping veterans as a long-term commitment; we are aware that at the end of each dig our veterans return to the ‘real world’, and we want to be sure they walk away with more than memories. Guided individual progression is the foundation of AVAR’s Rehabilitation Archaeology program. We operate on a three-tier model focused on vocational skills acquisition, increased peer support, and increased confidence. This allows us to simultaneously balance out the needs of the mission with the needs of the people. More importantly, our three tiers ensure that our program pushes veterans toward personal success and away from dependence upon benefits. Our three tiers do not create professional archaeologists (although they can be a step in that direction) but they do generate individuals with greater confidence, competence, and awareness of the field of archaeology and the importance of historical preservation.
Our Tier 1 (Core) excavations serve as an introduction to archaeology for veterans new to the AVAR program. This allows our full team of expert staff to get a better sense of the needs of the individual veteran and provide them with 1-on-1 mentoring based upon their specific goals in this field. At the same time, Core excavations provide a foundation in cutting-edge archaeological methods as practiced on an iconic American site. Core excavations emphasize high-quality training provided by recognized technical experts, team-building, and making archaeology accessible to participants regardless of disability or injury.
Our Tier 2 (Recon) excavations allow us to place veterans who have previously been exposed to Rehabilitation Archaeology on projects in more exotic locations based on their specific interests and abilities. Many of these take place outside the United States. AVAR incorporates cultural immersion activities into these excavations so that our veterans build friendships with our host country partners while they act as ambassadors for the United States military veteran community. Recon excavations prioritize skills progression, exposure to new cultures, and development of expertise in peer support.
Our Tier 3 (Solo) projects integrate experienced AVAR veterans into projects of their choosing, allowing them to bring the veteran work ethic and attention to detail into the wider archaeological community. Essentially this tier functions as a competitive scholarship opportunity for AVAR participants who have previously completed a Tier 1 and Tier 2 project, and who are now capable of integrating into an existing dig team of their choosing without additional support from AVAR staff. Our Tier 3 scholarships are designed to cover the cost of this excavation in order to give our participant every advantage in continuing to pursue archaeology as a career or hobby. In return, our Solo participants are expected to represent themselves, the AVAR program, and the United States military veteran community well, and to continue to act as mentors for AVAR participants at earlier stages of progression.
Archaeological excavation gives our veterans a chance to pursue excellence as a team in the same way they did while wearing the uniform. Some of our participants have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and PTSD, and some have physical injuries. Excavation gives them a chance to prove that these injuries will not define them. We have seen disabled veterans’ eyes light up with a new sense of purpose as they test themselves by carrying out challenging, meaningful work. We have seen previously isolated veterans build long-term friendships as they work in trenches. We have seen these friendships carry veterans through the hard times. This is Rehabilitation Archaeology. And it works.
If you are interested in digging with AVAR or would like more information please join us or contact us today.
—Stephen Humphreys, CEO of AVAR
Stephen Humphreys, BA, MTh, MA, PhD
Stephen Humphreys was commissioned in the US Air Force following his completion of a BA in History at the University of North Texas. He served as an Aircraft Maintenance Officer, deploying in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Following an assignment as Assistant Professor of Aerospace Studies at Texas A&M University, he separated in order to attend a seminary program with the intent of returning to military service as a chaplain. A trip to a dig at Tel Gezer, Israel convinced him to become an archaeologist instead.
Stephen holds a Ph.D. in archaeology from Durham University as well as an MA in Archaeology and Biblical Studies and an MA in Theology from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His academic areas of interest are charity in the Early Christian era, and health and wellness in antiquity. His doctoral thesis was on the development of ‘Holy Water’ in the Christian church between the 4th and 7th centuries (spoiler: it was for demon-killin’). He is a National Geographic Explorer and a dedicated field archaeologist with dig experience in Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, and the USA.
Clarissa Humphreys, LMSW, LCDC
Mental Health Advisor
Clarissa Humphreys is a Licensed Master Social Worker and Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor in the State of Texas. She is also a Qualified Social Worker in England. Clarissa has worked with veterans in both inpatient and outpatient mental health and substance-use treatment settings. Clarissa has case management and clinical experience which includes providing group and individual therapy utilizing predominantly Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Motivational Interviewing. Clarissa supports the development of the crisis plans for each dig and ensures that there are volunteers who are trained in Mental Health First Aid on all excavations.
Clarissa has a Master of Science in Social Work from the University of Texas at Austin and a BA from Texas A&M University. Clarissa enjoys digging and has excavated in Israel and Cyprus.
Nichol Fuentes, BA
Chief Operating Officer
Nichol Fuentes joined the United States Marine Corps in 2003 and served for ten years as an Aviation Supply Specialist. She excelled in a variety of leadership roles in Japan and the United States, deploying to Iraq and Asia before separating as a Non-Commissioned Officer due to injuries sustained during her time in service. She has since served her community by teaching science and social studies at the 6th and 7th grade levels.
Nichol earned a BA in History through University of Maryland University College. She brought her unique leadership and management skills to AVAR in 2018 after participating in the program’s excavation at Darrow, New York.