Rehabilitation Archaeology

Military veterans and archaeology may seem like a strange combination, but research conducted over the last decade has demonstrated an unusually strong relationship between these fields.  It is no accident that many 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.  Veterans do have the potential to become outstanding archaeologists, but archaeological fieldwork has also been shown to help veterans find a new sense of purpose and a renewed sense of peace.  The following factors have been credited with effectively combating isolation and disempowerment among the veteran community:

Mission-focus: Excavations have a real-world scientific mission. Veterans are once again able to contribute to something bigger than themselves, which leads to increased self-esteem and a greater sense of self-worth.

Mindfulness: Whether articulating a pile of stones with a trowel or searching for remains in a screen, fieldwork requires continuous concentration. Mindfulness assists veterans in responding to anxiety and intrusive thoughts to remain focused on the present task.

Outdoor activity: Research clearly shows the positive impact being outdoors has on mental health. Excavation provides motivation for going out and staying out.

Structured environment: All archaeology digs have a defined hierarchy, chain of command, and work schedule, all familiar elements to veterans but sometimes lacking in the civilian world.

Thrill of discovery: Whether in the ground or in the library, a significant find brings a sense of accomplishment and a tangible connection to the past.

For AVAR, this earlier research is a proof-of-concept starting point.  We want to enhance these positives of archaeological fieldwork for participants while minimizing or eliminating the negatives.

AVAR terms this emerging field as Rehabilitation Archaeology, defined as the adaptation of fieldwork to generate consistent, positive long-term, personal and professional outcomes for participants.

We are actively conducting research with a range of professional partners in order to deliver these outcomes: 

Develop our veterans’ technical and field leadership skills.  There is a need for a standardized, practical skills training system in the United States.  AVAR is developing our Modular Archaeological Progression System (MAPS) to guide our veterans over the course of their engagement with fieldwork, and give them a competitive edge if they choose to pursue a professional route.

Reduce the physical impact of fieldwork.  Excavation is hard on the body.  The tools and motions associated with precision digging have not changed in centuries and we do not want to engage our veterans in work that only benefits their minds while damaging their bodies.  We partner with Occupational and Physical Therapists from Sacred Heart University to better understand the physical impacts of fieldwork and to provide holistic assistance to our participants.

Maintain wellness benefits over the long-term.  The existing research shows that participants have increased self-esteem and overall wellness at the conclusion of 2-4 week projects.  While the anecdotal evidence suggests that participating in projects can lead to positive changes away from the field, this is poorly understood.  AVAR is the only archaeology program in the world embed a Mental Health Clinician in the field environment on projects.  The Mental Health Clinician’s duties entail both increasing the safety of the fieldwork environment and providing a better understanding of how to sustain an environment conducive to wellbeing among our veteran community outside of the fieldwork environment.

—Stephen Humphreys, CEO of AVAR

Selected Bibliography:

Dobat, A.S., Wood, S.O. Jensen, B.S., Schmidt, S. & A.S. Dobat. 2019. “I now look forward to the future, by finding things from our past…” Exploring the potential of metal detector archaeology as a source of well-being and happiness. International Journal of Heritage Studies 2019

Everill, P., Bennett, R., & Burnell, K. 2020. Dig in: an evaluation of the role of archaeological fieldwork for the improved wellbeing of military veterans. Antiquity 94: 212-227.

Finnegan, A. 2016. The biopsychosocial benefits and shortfalls for armed forces veterans engaged in archaeological activities. Nurse Education Today 47: 15–22.

Nimenko, W. & R.G. Simpson. 2014. Rear Operations Group medicine: a pilot study of psychological decompression in a Rear Operations Group during Operation HERRICK 14. Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps 160: 295–97.

Sayer, F. 2015. Can digging make you happy? Archaeological excavations, happiness and heritage. Arts & Health 7: 247–60.

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