REVIEW BY IAIN BANKS
This is a landmark publication, summarising as it does the 12 years (and counting) that Operation Nightingale has been in existence. During this period, some excellent archaeology has been carried out and some excellent therapeutic work has been done for military veterans. This is primarily their story, told by the archaeologist most involved in the work of Operation Nightingale: Richard Osgood. Richard has been working for many years as one of the MOD archaeologists responsible for the sites on MOD property, and, as such, he was instrumental in getting Operation Nightingale going; his work has been acknowledged by the award of a richly deserved MBE. This is his account of the projects and the veterans who worked with him.
It is an eminently readable book, very much with the public in mind. Rather than a dry account of contexts and deposits (although there is a list of publications on the different sites at the end of the book), we have summaries of the archaeology of the sites, excellent photos from Harvey Mills (all worthy of an Operation Nightingale calendar), and always an account of the veterans involved, including insets that give the veterans their own say. Beyond this, there is a thread running through the book about the benefits to the participants (both veteran and archaeologist) of the projects undertaken.
For archaeologists, the book is important as it adds to the literature that looks at the value of such work with veterans. Richard points to publications from the medical side, which show that there is a definite benefit, but that the activities need to be repeated. This is the same conclusion that the Waterloo Uncovered team have come to – see Ulke et al. (2021) ‘The Legacy of Mars: battlefield archaeology and improved military well-being’, Journal of Conflict Archaeology (https://doi.org/10.1080/15740773.2021.2038477). Both projects show that there is a definite improvement in mood and a lessening of depression for the veterans, but that the experience is not a cure and needs to be repeated; would that all medicine and treatments were so conducive to good outcomes!
The book also points out that there are similarities between a military unit and an excavation team, in that they are both a group of people working closely together with a common purpose; given the amount of military terminology that we inherited from the generation of Mortimer Wheeler and Leslie Alcock, this is not a surprise. What Richard does note is that it is the personal side of things, the camaraderie and socialising, that really makes a difference to the veterans. They feel once again part of a team, and they have a purpose in what they are doing: many have lacked this since their injuries or the end of their military service. The importance of this is shown by how many of them have continued in archaeology: taking degrees and getting jobs in archaeology. They have found a new direction for their lives, one which has some familiar aspects to it.
Having worked with veterans myself at Mametz on the Western Front, Stalag Luft 3 in Poland (Richard kindly includes a bit about the project in the book), and at Bannockburn in Scotland, I know how valuable their contributions have been, and how much important work they have achieved. It would be easy for this to be the new trendy focus for archaeologists, a way that the grant fairy can be influenced, but it is far more important than that. Operation Nightingale has always focused on making sure that the projects are meaningful archaeologically and meaningful for the participants. Richard has some very pertinent things to say about what makes a good project for Operation Nightingale, and anyone contemplating working with veterans should take note of his conclusions in the final chapter. This is an opportunity for archaeology to show the benefits it has, and why we should never apologise for doing it.
Oxbow Books, £25