To the Green Fields Beyond

“Some of the described field situations are incredibly poignant. One participant describes his reaction to holding body parts for the first time since the death of soldiers from his unit in Afghanistan.” – CHACR unearths a literary treasure in Broken Pots, Mending Lives: The Archaeology of Operation Nightingale

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TITLE: Broken Pots, Mending Lives: The Archaeology of Operation Nightingale

AUTHOR: Richard Osgood

REVIEWER: Dr Timothy Clack

The connections between soldiering and archaeology are long-standing, and derive, in part, from the shared features of mapping, fieldwork and large-scale, task-orientated deployment of people and equipment. T.E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) was an archaeologist before he was a soldier, and Augustus Pitt-Rivers, whose founding collection was the genesis of the Pitt Rivers Museum, made the opposite transition. In its overview of the origins, growth and merits of Operation Nightingale, Broken Pots, Mending Lives makes evident further military-archaeology crossovers linked to recovery, wellbeing and transition.

Operation Nightingale, a Ministry of Defence initiative to assist wounded, injured and sick military personnel and veterans, has been running since 2011. The book’s author, Richard Osgood, is a senior archaeologist in the Defence Infrastructure Organisation and runs its archaeology programme. The title is structured around eight chapters, and also includes an introduction, conclusion, further reading and index. The work is accessible to the general reader and production values are high. The contents are illustrated sumptuously in colour throughout helping to tell the story but also bring the trenches, sites and landscapes to life.

The book describes aspects of Operation Nightingale’s various deployments to date. The diversity of these – in time and space – is a real highlight. These include: Netheravon (Neolithic); East Chisenbury (Iron Age); Barrow Clump and Avon Camp (Anglo-Saxon); Barton Farm, Winchester (1770s); Burrow Island (1840s); Bullecourt, Normandy (World War I); and Aldbourne Camp (World War 2). The features excavated range from feasting sites, barrows and burial grounds to battlefields, military encampments and a Spitfire crash site. The book describes how participants have engaged not only in survey and excavation but also the analyses of aerial photography, documentary research in archives and experimental archaeology. The latter ranging from pot-making, blacksmithing and preparing ancient foods to the construction of a Bronze Age roundhouse using period materials, tools and methods.

Whilst details on finds and sites are fascinating and considerable, the book offers insights into the wider enterprise and its cathartic value. This includes how, for example, participants enjoyed the relaxed, fun atmosphere and outdoor nature of fieldwork, body and mind became immersed in specific tasks, common focus on activities and time with like-minded people was appreciated, and new skills and learning were developed. It was described how this, in turn, enhanced self-esteem, forged bonds and better-connected participants to their current environment. The book also documents how the initiative has, with considerable success, courted the media adding to the sense of achievement for participants and promoting the Ministry of Defence, its stewardship of the defence estate, which covers approximately one per cent of the UK mainland, and multifarious knowledge outcomes. There are other ‘wins’ for defence considered, including providing realistic body recovery and forensic training for the Royal Military Police.

In recent years, it has been vogue in archaeological and historical circles to ‘people the past’, i.e. offer granular analyses at the scale of the individual. This book does that in spades (for example, in facial reconstructions and skeletal analyses) but it also ‘peoples the present’. Anyone who has served recognises the importance of camaraderie, banter and “spinning dits” (sharing anecdotes) in fashioning esprit de corps and these each feature prominently. The book is also interleaved with personal stories from participants. These are affecting but also speak to catharsis.

Many of the participants have suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a diagnostic term for the assorted symptoms which certain people experience after a high-threat or stressful episode, such as bouts of intense fear, helplessness, and unwanted intrusive images and thoughts. As well as those with PTSD often being triggered, panicked, hyper-aroused and/ or hyper-vigilant, disruption to social and economic functioning is also often apparent. The ways in which fieldwork has helped participants come to terms with their situations, engage in social interaction, foster long-term relationships, and adapt to, and find peace in, accomplishing tasks make for uplifting reading. It is inspiring to discover, for example, that a number of participants have not only gone on to complete degrees in archaeology but found new careers in the commercial archaeology sector.

Some of the described field situations are incredibly poignant. One participant, for example, describes his reaction to holding body parts for the first time since the death of soldiers from his unit in Afghanistan. Another, who had lost an eye and leg in an improvised explosive device attack, explained why he volunteered to excavate the remains of a soldier’s foot. Such connections are powerful. As the author writes, the team have “shared the landscapes and also hopes, ambitions and worries”.

With escalating societal focus on wellbeing and the modern military concern for Trauma Risk Management, some more background on PTSD might have been helpful for certain readers. PTSD was first diagnosed in 1981, for example, but the symptoms have been recognised for centuries and described variously as ‘nostalgia’ (Seven Years War), ‘irritable heart’ (American Civil War), ‘shell shock’ (World War I), ‘funk’ (World War II) and ‘combat fatigue’ (Vietnam War). More detail on the scale and form of the psychiatric support available during the fieldwork and afterwards would also have been welcome. Moreover, how the methodologies, experiences and outcomes of Operation Nightingale compare with similar ventures, such as Breaking Ground Heritage, the Falklands War Mapping Project, Waterloo Uncovered and Wings to the Past, would have been worthwhile.

Overall, the book is a magnificent testament to Operation Nightingale. It will appeal to those interested in the relationship between heritage and conflict, wellbeing of military personnel and veterans, and the history of Salisbury Plain and other training areas.

Published by Oxbow, Hardback, £25, ISBN: 9781789259384