In digging for Shaker remnants, history unearthed, veterans find avenue of rehabilitation

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NEW LEBANON — Trowels in hand, American veterans, civilians and children teamed up with professional archaeologists to investigate one of the oldest Shaker settlements in the United States.

For the second year in a row, DigVentures, a business that uses crowdfunding to host archaeological excavations, has broken ground at the Darrow School, where it is searching for remnants of the Shaker community that first arrived in the area in 1781.

From May 22 to June 3, DigVentures was joined at the site by a nonprofit that serves veterans by sending them to archaeological research sites so they can participate in excavations.

"I found a horseshoe the first day of the dig and, honestly, I've found camaraderie," said Nicole Fuentes, a former sergeant in the Marine Corps who is participating in the Digging Darrow excavation through the American Veterans Archaeological Recovery (AVAR) Program.

Fuentes, who lives in New Jersey with her husband, who is still on active duty, and their three children, said that for the first time in years, she was able to do something for herself.

Last month, she used GPS to survey land across the street from where other team members were digging at the cellar level of what they believe to be a Shaker print shop.

In 2014, Stephen Humphreys and Mark Reed, U.S. veterans and archaeologists, founded AVAR as a way to rehabilitate disabled American military veterans through archaeology.

Humphreys, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in Archaeology from Durham University, said that many people will label struggling veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, which is prevalent, but oftentimes those who recently transitioned out of the military are suffering from isolation.

He and Reed were inspired by similar programs available to veterans in the United Kingdom and decided to launch an archaeology program for veterans in the U.S.

"This brings them back together, doing hard, physical labor," Humphreys, 36, said, adding that the work is similar to what many veterans are used to and reminds them that "they can still function that way" despite their disabilities.

All the costs related to Digging Darrow are covered by the nonprofit, according to Humphreys.

DigVentures works with AVAR to ensure that the needs of the veterans are met during projects, Humphreys said.

Last week, there were a few days of heavy labor, which caused some combat veterans to have injury flare-ups, so last month they were assigned to work that was less physical, he said.

While Fuentes is interested in history and archaeology, Humphreys said many of the veterans on the digs are there simply for the networking and support from others who share combat experiences with them.

Humphreys has said many of the men and women from across the country who participate in the program stay in close touch after it ends, and the support some found during the program inspired them to get further help with their disabilities.

The mission of AVAR is something that resonates with Lisa Westcott-Wilkins, managing director of DigVentures.

Westcott-Wilkins, a parent of a Darrow School student, founded the company with her husband, Brendon, in 2012. She said that her business is trying to combat the idea that only those with a degree in archaeology can be meaningful participants on excavation sites.

Every DigVentures excavation is open to members of the public who contribute to the crowdfunding effort, and when individuals arrive on the site, professional archaeologists train them on how to carefully search for and collect artifacts, Westcott-Wilkins said.

Humans, she said, tend to learn quickly, and everyone on her digs has been respectful of the process.

In some cases, the archaeologists have had to push the participants to not be too hesitant at the dig.

The Darrow School, which opened in 1932 as the Lebanon School for Boys, is made up of 365 acres, according to school spokesman Steve Ricci.

DigVentures first visited the school in 2013, but hosted its first full crowdfunded project on the property last spring, when it investigated a former Shaker washroom on the Darrow School property and found artifacts including ink pots, eyeglasses, cookware and bottles, she said.

The most interesting discoveries over the last two weeks of the dig have been a marmalade jar and stylus from the Shaker period, Westcott-Wilkins said.

The DigVentures projects have been the first research excavations at the former Shaker community.

Anna Engel, a sixth-grader from Claremont, N.Y., found the stylus.

The ambitious 12-year-old has such an interest in archaeology that her family was prompted to join the Digging Darrow project, said her father, Brian Engel.

Anna said she has been fascinated by science since she was very young, first reading a lot about weather and now archaeology.

Last year's Darrow School valedictorian, Catherine Gagon, said she also developed an interest in studying history through artifacts at a young age.

Currently a DigVentures intern, the 19-year-old is a double major, in archaeology and anthropology, at the State University of New York at Potsdam.

"When I was in middle school, I was really interested in history, but I didn't want to be a teacher," she said.

After learning a bit about the science, she was sold on the idea, and for her 16th birthday, she attended an archaeology camp in Colorado.

While at Darrow, Gagnon worked closely with Westcott-Wilkins during last year's dig, washing and cataloging the finds.

Having completed a year in college and having interned at the New York State Museum, Gagnon said it has become easier for her to identify artifacts, like bones, found at the site.

"I like slate shingles," Gagnon said of some of her finds. "I don't know why."

This month, DigVentures plans to excavate the site of a mid-7th-century monastery in Coldingham, Scotland.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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