Rehabilitation Archaeology

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 areas 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 helping veterans discover their future by uncovering the past ‘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.

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

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