Operation Nightingale archaeology: great CAG lecture at Roman circus centre

This evening (9th November), the Colchester Archaeological Group (CAG) presented their weekly winter lecture here at the Roman circus centre. This week’s illustrated lecture was given by Sergeant Richard Percival of the RAF and it was titled ‘Operation Nightingale; the recovery of people and history through archaeology’. Operation Nightingale is a military project which provides teams of wounded servicemen, veterans and ex-servicemen who have volunteered to work on field archaeology projects with professional heritage organisations. ‘Op. Nightingale’ is very successful: the technical and social aspects of field archaeology contribute to the servicemen’s recovery and development of new skills. Sergeant Percival arrived at the circus centre as a TV personality: he featured in a report on Op. Nightingale which was broadcast yesterday in Countryfile on BBC 1! His lecture this evening was extremely interesting and very well presented. Sergeant Percival provided so much great material that, unfortunately, only a brief summary of it can be given here.

Operation Nightingale is a project initiated by the Defence Archaeology Group (DAG) when it was set up in 2012 by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation and the Rifle Regiment. The DAG’s partners are the MoD, the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, the National Trust, the Vindolanda Trust, the University of Leicester and Allen Archaeology. The history of the British Army includes its ownership and protection of monuments and sites, and several famous military men were also pioneers in heritage or archaeology, ie Lieut.-General Pitt-Rivers, T E Lawrence, and Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Here in Colchester, in the old garrison, the Army deliberately afforded protection to St John’s abbey gate and, coincidentally, protected much of the site of the Roman circus from destruction by constructing part of the garrison over it…

Op. Nightingale selects servicemen from the large numbers who volunteer to take part. The selected servicemen are trained in a range of archaeological practices and techniques on fieldwork projects which are accessible or appropriate in other ways, depending on their individual physical and psychological issues. The fieldwork project teams include support staff such as military medics, and the teams work with professional archaeologists and archaeological volunteers. The servicemen are able to utilise existing skills such as map reading and terrain reading, and are trained in a wide range of archaeological techniques, from GPS surveying, controlled metal-detecting and excavation, to processing finds. Op. Nightingale is always looking for further fieldwork opportunities which they can get involved in.

Op. Nightingale provides a fieldwork team to excavate at Vindolanda every season and, this summer, will be sending teams to a rescue excavation in Cyprus (including some US servicemen) and for a second season at the battlefield of Waterloo. Sergeant Percival was the project supervisor of the excavation of a WW2 Messerschmidt ‘plane at Lulworth Cove and the excavation of a crashed WW2 Spitfire ‘plane and retrieval of its pilot’s remains at Great Fen in Cambridgeshire. He is extremely interested in archaeology, as are all the servicemen who take part in Op. Nightingale projects. Sergeant Percival described several individual servicemen and their stories, and the considerable benefits of their archaeological training: these range from gaining ‘archaeological passports’, developing new interests, going on to take degrees in archaeology, being able to return to their units, acquiring skills for civilian employment, and even one marriage, one engagement, and a baby!

The Trust and the Roman circus centre (formerly the NAAFI of the Artillery Barracks) have benefited from the help of servicemen from the MCTC in Colchester on several occasions.

The lecture was well attended and very well received by the audience. During the evening, Philip Cunningham of the CAG kindly promoted the Trust web-site and the concert of live music which is being presented at the Roman circus centre on Saturday 14th November.

*** Anna Moore of the CAG will be giving a talk tomorrow evening (10th November) to the Bures History Society at the Bures Community Centre. Anna will be talking about the CAG’s cropmark study of the Middle Stour Valley and their on-going creation of an archive of aerial photo.s of North-East Essex and South Suffolk.

Visit the CAG web-site at http://caguk.net/ . Read more about Op. Nightingale on the Defence Archaeology Group web-site at www.daguk.org/ .

The images show a selection of snaphots of the lecture.