Brad Hettler was on his first-ever archaeology dig when he found himself holding a 250-year-old musket ball that had likely killed or injured an American soldier fighting in the woods of Saratoga, New York in 1777 during the Revolutionary War. There were no bones or bodies around the musket ball, but Hettler knew it hit someone because it had the imprint of cloth on it, which was probably left by a shirt the lead ball had passed through all those centuries ago.
“I was holding this musket ball that took a man’s life, an American’s life, or maybe his arm,” said Hettler, an Army infantry veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Ramadi, Iraq in 2007 when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded near him and sent shrapnel through his face.
“It was a very solemn experience at times, doing these battlefield archaeological excavations,” he added. “But it’s a fantastic feeling and sense of pride and honor that I’m able to be a part of this mission to uncover data and understand this battlefield better.”
Hettler is one of many veterans to have experienced this feeling while doing archaeology with American Veterans Archaeological Recovery, a nonprofit that aims to help vets work through feelings of isolation or loss of purpose after leaving the service, while simultaneously exposing them to rigorous archaeological fieldwork and career development.
While there are plenty of nonprofits that take veterans on hikes, hunts, motorcycle rides, and other fun activities, part of what sets AVAR apart is its focus on professional-level archaeological training, should participants choose to go into the field for a career or just as a long-term hobby.
“It’s one thing to put someone on a project and have them enjoy a dig,” said Stephen Humphreys, a former Air Force aircraft maintenance officer who founded AVAR, holds a doctorate in archaeology from Durham University and is now a research fellow at the University of York. “It’s completely different to keep putting them on projects. This field is much less friendly than a single dig is, so what I want the program to do is not just get someone through one dig, but allow them to continue engaging with archaeology for as long as they want.”
Like Hettler, Humphrey did not know much about archaeology before he found himself at his first excavation at Tel Gezer, an Iron Age settlement in Israel, about 10 years ago. At the time, Humpheys had just left the Air Force with the intent of coming back in as a chaplain. But getting up close to history at Tel Gezer convinced him to become an archaeologist instead.
“For me, it was being able to reach back and touch that person’s story from 3,000 years ago,” he said. “That was just incredible. If I could spend every day on a site working, I would do that. I just love to dig.”
Archaeology provides a different connection to history that you simply can’t get in a book or museum, Humphreys explained. It’s not quite like punching Nazis and running away from boulders like Indiana Jones, but it is definitely more hands-on than a Smithsonian exhibit.
“To me, museums are like zoos,” he said. “You can go to a zoo and you can see what those animals look like, but it’s nothing like actually seeing them in the wild. Going on an archaeology dig is like seeing that stuff in its natural habitat. You get to see everything that came up around that artifact when it’s still dirty and nasty, and you’re the first person to touch it in a couple thousand years.”
Humphreys was working on his Ph.D. in England in 2015 when he heard about Operation Nightingale, a project that helps British veterans work on archeological projects in Britain and abroad. Inspired, Humphreys started AVAR for American veterans in 2015, but the problem was finding the money to get the project going.
“We had no resources whatsoever,” Humphreys said. “I was a poor grad student, and my days of having an officer income were way behind me.”
But in 2018, AVAR got a big shot in the arm with a sizable grant from National Geographic. Things started moving even faster when AVAR partnered with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which works to account for or recover the remains of missing American war dead overseas. Their partnership, Operation Keeping Faith, is a win-win, because the agency gets support in its mission to account for missing service members, while AVAR gets support in helping veterans gain archaeological skills and experience while doing something rewarding together. And archaeology can certainly be rewarding at times.
“I think that dig [in Saratoga] was the first time I had laughed as much and as hard as I had since I was in the service,” Hettler said. “You’re out there, you’re working, you’re sweating, it’s hot. And you know, us guys with the military, how do we beat that? We beat it with humor. And we just had a good time.”
The digs are not just for laughs though: the hard work of AVAR participants has also helped advance our understanding of history. For example, their metal detector survey at Saratoga alongside National Park Service archaeologists revealed the troop movements across that historic battlefield in greater detail than ever before. AVAR is also planning an expedition to Texas in early 2022 where they hope to find the lost battlefield of Medina, the deadliest battle in Texas history, which took place during the Mexican War of Independence in 1813.
With potential discoveries like that on the line, it’s vital that AVAR participants have the skills to avoid mucking it up. If someone accidentally throws human bones into a dump pile, that person is gone forever, Humphreys explained.
“The fact that what we’re doing has fairly high stakes means you have to be operating, you have to be paying attention,” he said.
The professionalism ingrained in AVAR participants is part of the program’s mission, which is to give veterans the tools they need to work at dig sites not just through AVAR, but with any other site they want to work in. Hettler is a prime example of that. After digging at Saratoga, he went all-in on archaeology and now has a dream of doing it professionally. He said part of what makes AVAR stand out from other groups helping veterans is its rigorous commitment to gaining a specific skill set, rather than focusing solely on giving vets a mental health break.
“A lot of these programs are like underwater basket weaving, you know?” Hettler said. “It’s a vacation and it gets your mind off the real world, but as soon as you’re done, you’re plopped back at home, back into the real world. So even though you get a break from reality, you don’t get a push or a drive or a community of goal-oriented individuals that stick with you.”
Plenty of other people seem to agree with him: Humphreys said about 80 veterans have participated in AVAR over the past five years, but this year alone, the program will put about 100 into the field. AVAR has completed projects in Italy, the United Kingdom, Israel and the United States, and it plans on putting 50 veterans on a dig site in Sicily this summer to recover the remains of the crew of a P-38 Lightning fighter that crashed during WWII.
But as exciting as battlefield projects are, they are only one type of archaeological skillset, and Humphreys has his eye on many more. Digging down into the dirt is like digging into a layer cake of time, the archaeologist explained. A battle, which only occurs across a few days or months, takes up just a thin layer over a wide area like a field. But excavating an ancient village, for example, requires putting aside the metal detector, picking up a trowel and digging deeper into the layers of sediment that build up over generations.
“This is one of the things that’s fascinating about archaeology, is you really have to adapt your tactics to each individual site to get the most information in the least amount of time,” Humphreys said. “We want to give our veterans a broad sense of all the things they need to know so they’re not stovepiping themselves and only focusing on one thing.”
The amount of time AVAR participants spend on a dig varies from site to site. Two to four weeks is the average, though the Sicily project this summer will be six weeks. Participants work eight hours on site per day, with two days off on the weekend. AVAR covers the cost of food and accommodation, and even covers flight costs on missions carried out in partnership with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
“One of the things we have to confront with veterans is at first they often just want to go as hard as possible and move as much dirt as possible,” Humphreys said. “And sometimes we don’t always recognize that we don’t do PT all the time anymore, so we’re not in the shape that we were in in our 20s. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
More experienced AVAR participants, called squad leads, serve as mentors for the newcomers. The program also employs a mental health clinician who helps screen applicants to the program; works with occupational and physical therapists from Sacred Heart University; and works with a sexual assault prevention expert to prevent problems from happening in the field.
“We have a lot of processes and resources that we’ve worked hard on, which a ‘dig down the street’ isn’t necessarily going to have,” Humphreys said.
As the program grows, Humphreys says he hopes AVAR will also have opportunities for underwater archaeology. After all, plenty of veterans are already trained to SCUBA dive in murky conditions like the ones found at an underwater dig.
“There’s actually been a lot of demand from veterans for it,” he said. “I’m not an underwater archaeologist, but I think that maybe by 2024 or 2025 I would bet that we’ll have an underwater project by that time.”
It’s all in the name of giving participants more opportunities to grow into archeology for the long haul, not just for a fun weekend.
“When you learn these skills, when you’re with these other people, and you are becoming a better person in this field, you are also getting a better sense of self-worth and self-confidence,” Hettler said. “I think a lot of veterans that are dealing with mental or physical challenges really need something like that to give them a boost. And that’s what AVAR does.”
Featured image: Participants with American Veterans Archaeological Recovery take a break while excavating a Hellenistic temple at Beit Lehi, southwest of Jerusalem, in April 2019. (Facebook / AVAR photo)