Military veterans look to the future through study of the past thanks to MoD archaeology partnership

21 Aug 2023
Archaeological dig

The University of Winchester has formed a new partnership with the MoD’s Personnel Recovery Centre at Tedworth House, Wiltshire to extend the offer of free archaeology courses to services veterans.

The University has offered fee-waiver undergraduate studentships in archaeology for wounded, injured or sick veterans since 2016, when the scheme was established by Dr Paul Everill.

This pioneering initiative was supported by the charity Help for Heroes, to provide opportunities to those who had discovered a passion for the subject through initiatives such as Operation Nightingale, Breaking Ground Heritage and Waterloo Uncovered.

The veteran studentship initiative has now been expanded to include the MoD’s Personnel Recovery Centre (PRC) at Tedworth House, Tidworth, enabling Personnel on Recovery Duty to benefit from the opportunity to study archaeology directly after leaving the military.

The offer aims to help former service personnel develop new skills as they recover from injuries and illnesses and transition from the military into civilian careers.

Winchester was the first university in the country to deliver a BSc degree in ‘Archaeological Practice’, delivering vocational skills for those wanting to pursue a career in commercial, developer-led archaeology.

An industry placement sandwich year has since been added which has proved popular with those on the veteran studentship.

In 2017, three of the first veteran studentship holders joined other British and Georgian students and injured Georgian military veterans on the Anglo-Georgian Expedition to Nokalakevi, co-directed by Dr Everill, a project which also hosted Ukrainian veterans in 2019 as part of a wellbeing programme.

Captain Leanne Kelly, Training Officer at Tedworth House, said: “Service Personnel on Recovery Duty face the challenges of not only their health issues, but also potentially the unknown in relation to their future.

“For some a life in the Services is no longer possible and seeking new opportunities in civilian life can be daunting. All service personnel have an excellent set of transferable skills and are highly- motivated but some find it difficult to identify a new and exciting challenge that matches their interests. This is where the University of Winchester has stepped in to provide those leaving the Service with an amazing opportunity to study archaeology.”

“Archaeology seems to have enormous potential for improving wellbeing” said Dr Paul Everill, who has undertaken research on the subject with psychologist Dr Karen Burnell of Solent University.

“The mechanisms aren’t fully understood,” he explained “but recent research demonstrates that active engagement in archaeology, when it’s designed as a therapeutic activity, can decrease anxiety and depression while increasing self-worth and wellbeing. It seems likely to be a combination of physical activity and working outdoors, plus teamworking which provides peer support opportunities – allowing veterans to share and process experiences.

“Engagement with material remains of the past is also a powerful factor, and perhaps one of the key ingredients. Of course, for the veterans who come to Winchester to study and retrain, there is also an important element of transition into a civilian career they are passionate about and being able to redefine themselves.”

The role of archaeology as a therapeutic tool is well illustrated in a new book Broken Pots, Mending Lives: The Archaeology of Operation Nightingale by the co-founder of Operation Nightingale, Richard Osgood.

It describes the origins of that initiative, the projects and experiences of veterans and the vital part played by the University of Winchester course.

Robert Cummings, a former Scots Guard who was in the first group of four veteran students, said: “The first year it was hard for me to adapt to academia after such a long time away from studying, but I soon got back into the swing of things and enjoyed being part of university life.”

In the four years since his graduation Robert has enjoyed a successful start to his archaeological career, and recently became Assistant Project Officer with his current employers. 

“If I could give advice to anyone thinking of taking up this studentship, I would say take it and run with it, as I did and I haven’t looked back and have never been happier doing the job I love,” added Robert.

Alastair Eager, a former Royal Marine about to start his fourth year at the University having recently completed the placement year of his BSc Archaeological Practice, is currently working in Nokalakevi as part of the Anglo-Georgian Expedition.

“Having left the Royal Marines in 2016 I was effectively at a loss as to what to do next, and it was by chance that I discovered archaeology through Waterloo Uncovered,” said Alastair.

“I was hooked, and it was the University of Winchester that enabled me to turn this historical passion into a new career. Being offered the studentship in 2020 was a life-changing opportunity for me. This career change would have been otherwise untenable with a young family to support. It's been a fantastic experience, and I’ve really enjoyed testing myself again, both in a classroom environment and while conducting archaeological fieldwork.”

Alastair described the new partnership between the University of Winchester and the MODs’ centre at Tedworth as “an incredibly positive step” which would “enable more veterans to select a career path they never thought possible.”

University of Winchester Vice-Chancellor Professor Sarah Greer said: “We are delighted to work with the MoD on such a worthwhile project which demonstrates the restorative powers of education. The university has already helped several recovering ex-service personnel to improve their wellbeing and find new careers through this initiative, and we hope many more veterans will be benefit from this partnership in the future.”

Pictured above: Veteran studentship holders from the University of Winchester excavating a Hessian Mercenary dugout in a collaboration between Pre-Construct Archaeology and Operation Nightingale at Barton Farm, Winchester, 2018Photography by Harvey Mills ARPS

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