From Afghanistan to archaeology

University of Leicester archaeologists are helping injured service personnel take part in archaeological digs.

When Professor Simon James of the University’s School of Archaeology
and Ancient History heard about Operation Nightingale, an award-winning
scheme that allows soldiers injured in Afghanistan to take part in archaeological digs, he knew he wanted to get on board.

“It was a combination of the fact they were looking for an academic advisor for a dig on my turf – Roman archaeology – and that the project itself had a military connection,” said Simon. “My specialisation is the study of Roman soldiers, so there was an immediate affinity. Other colleagues and students were already actively involved, and I could see a really rewarding partnership developing between the School and
Operation Nightingale.”

The project was the brainchild of Diarmaid Walshe, a qualified archaeologist and former infantryman, who came up with the idea while
serving as medical sergeant with 1st Battalion, the Rifles. The scheme,
supported by the British Army and the Ministry of Defence’s Defence
Infrastructure Organisation, allows soldiers with physical or psychological injuries to take part in excavations to help them in their recovery.

The Leicester connection began when James Spry, who recently graduated from the Archaeology degree programme at Leicester and is now registered
for an MA, invited his long standing archaeological friend Diarmaid Washe to give a seminar in the School, and sought volunteers for the project. When they started on a Roman building inside the Army’s Caerwent Training area, South Wales, Diarmaid asked the School for an academic advisor.

Simon offered his expertise, and a number of the School’s undergraduates
and MAs volunteered to dig alongside the injured soldiers during the spring of 2012. This resulted in invitations for the students to join the soldiers again in July,investigating Bronze Age and Anglo-Saxon burials at Barrow Clump, Wiltshire, while working with Diarmaid, DIO
archaeologist Richard Osgood, Wessex Archaeology and Channel 4’s Time Team.
Operation Nightingale recently won a British Archaeological Award in
recognition of its innovative use of archaeological work to aid the recovery of injured service personnel.

“Our students have been delighted to have the opportunity to work with the
soldiers,” said Simon. “As well as helping teach them to dig, we are all learning from them too, as they have many skills relevant to archaeologists, from reading landscape to the logistics of running a
camp! It is very rewarding to be able to support Operation Nightingale’s work in helping injured military personnel get their lives back on track – and, if they wish, pursue archaeology academically too.”

A number of the soldiers enjoyed archaeology so much that they have registered for Distance Learning degrees in the School. Deirdre O’Sullivan, Lecturer in Medieval Archaeology, successfully arranged a special fee scheme for injured military personnel wanting to take these
degrees. Generously supported by the college of Arts, Humanities and Law, this allows the soldiers to study at 2011-12 fee rates, despite the general tripling of tuition fees from September.

A number of soldiers have already signed up for the courses, with more expected to follow. Besides allowing them to pursue their new interest, their courses should aid their career development once
they leave the Army.

Deirdre said: “We have good experience and a strong reputation in distance
learning, and believe that we can do something really useful here. We are
also very impressed with the Ministry of Defence’s own long-term commitment to the wellbeing of injured military personnel, and believe we are privileged to be a part of an innovative, creative and intelligent way of addressing the challenges involved.”

This article originally appeared in LE1 Winter 2012

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