The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District, is home to the Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections (MCX-CMAC), a place where teams of trained archaeologists, archivists, and physical anthropologists rehabilitate collections that have been languishing in storage. The workload is massive, as the Corps owns nearly 47,000 cubic feet of artifacts and 13,000 linear feet of archival documents.
Veterans returning home from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom face a unique challenge: not only has the economic downturn meant that there are fewer jobs, but military veterans often do not know how to find their places in a competitive civilian environment. Veterans have also suffered from the trauma of the war and need support as they adjust to life at home.
Dr. Michael “Sonny” Trimble, director of the MCX-CMAC, devised the Veterans Curation Program (VCP) in 2009, as a way to meld these two issues into one solution. By employing and training selected veterans, the VCP chips away at the backlog of archaeological collections while providing vital employment, training and professional skills, as well as building confidence that veterans need in order to succeed in the current job market. There are three VCP laboratories— Augusta, Georgia; Alexandria, Virginia; and St. Louis, Missouri—and they receive collections from Corps districts around the United States.
Many of the collections curated by the VCP are prehistoric in nature and contain artifacts created by Native Americans 13,000 to 500 years ago. These items encompass many facets of prehistoric life, and include stone tools, ceramic storage and cooking vessels, food remains, and personal artifacts. Most collections that come to the VCP are not well organized nor have they been stored with the long-term preservation of fragile artifacts in mind. These factors limit the amount of information we can derive in future research. The VCP process includes organization and digitization of field records and site photographs, as well as state-of-the-art artifact photography. This information is then available to researchers and to the public by contacting the repository or the Corps.
Dr. Charles Coleman, a warrior and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Thlopthlocco Tribal Town, has been a supporter of the VCP for several years. He sums up the educational aspect of the VCP nicely, saying the program moves artifacts “out of the shed and into the heads” of researchers and school children. He feels honored that warriors of the American people are curating these artifacts and making their stories known. In his opinion, this adds a level of respect to the curation process. The veterans also have the distinct experience of feeling like they are a part of history and prehistory. They get to create a bond with the First American peoples and learn about archaeology and history firsthand. This is a perspective that not many people get to have, and it is one that they will carry with them into future endeavors. In addition to the knowledge gained, the friendships made among colleagues and fellow veterans will last well beyond the five-month term.
Marquita Kitchen, a VCP technician from November 2013 to April 2014, was born in Queens, New York and raised in Harlem, New York. She joined the U.S. Army in 2007, because she had a desire to serve her country. As a New Yorker, she felt especially passionate about fighting for the city she loves; her high school was close to the World Trade Center towers, and she felt a personal impact from the events of September 11, 2001.
While in the service, she was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as an Automated Logistics Specialist, working with warehouse and supply operations. She found herself near the front line and at the heart of the conflict. After experiencing combat and loss, Kitchen felt that she returned a different person and needed to regain her footing as a civilian. She came across VCP at the right time and made many personal connections to the program. Recently after realizing her own Native American ancestry, she is eager to learn more about the First Americans. While gaining a respect for the artifacts and the archaeological process, she bonded with her coworkers and appreciated being a part of something bigger. In her own words:
I am a veteran of the United States Army. I joined the military at 19; defending my country in uniform had been a dream of mine since I was a young child. Growing up in New York allowed me to experience different cultures and ethnicities, which made me an exceptionally well-rounded person. I feel that being a New Yorker is a big part of my identity. After 9/11, I knew I had to defend my home and country.
Life at the VCP was better than I had expected. This turned out to be one of those opportune moments in life that you just don’t pass up. When asked if I was interested, I wasn’t sure at first because I didn’t know what the job really involved. Once I did my research and took a tour with the lab managers to see what all the hype was about, I was really excited. Not many people can say they’ve worked a job as cool as this, and for me to have this door opened was more than remarkable. When I first began, I had recently discovered through some family that a major part of my lineage is Native American and I wasn’t sure of the significance of that fact. I still don’t know what tribe or tribes I might be affiliated with, but I feel a kinship with the prehistoric artifacts we’ve curated, especially the stone tools. Working at the VCP helped put a lot of things into perspective, such as the lifestyle and culture of Native Americans, possibly my own ancestors.
I had personal contact with some of the artifacts from prehistoric and historic times. That is the coolest thing I have done ever! I once found a shell pendant that Patrick, the laboratory manager for artifact processing, helped me to identify. He explained that this pendant was likely used as jewelry for a Native American woman. I am proud to say that I gave life to forgotten stories through these artifacts, and revived research that had been abandoned. Add to that an awesome mix of people, personalities, and cultural backgrounds from all over the country (brought together by the military and later by the VCP), and you have the best experiences and the best stories to tell. This is definitely a proud moment in my life. I’ve even put up a display in the Augusta Museum of History with my fellow veterans of our most memorable experiences while in the military. I was in charge of the exhibit design, which meant looking at the personal artifacts that everyone brought in and arranging them in a way that would best tell our story. For us, the display was a chance to talk about the unique and the universal experiences that we had as soldiers, and furthermore, the experiences we had coming home. Working together with this team helped me feel the sense of camaraderie I thought had been lost after leaving the Army.
I would like to see other veterans land on their feet once they’re out of the service and be aware of various opportunities to help them do that. The Veterans Curation Program is one such resource, but I think there could be more. There are so many opportunities out there. All a soldier needs is for someone to give them a chance. They have the skills and experience they need to succeed. There was so much that I took away from working at the lab that helped me land back on my feet and to make sound decisions because I was pointed in the right direction.
It has been an amazing process to see how the different aspects of the VCP all come together. There is a definite link between modern and prehistoric warriors, so it feels natural to bring veterans and the curation of archaeological artifacts together. Many archaeologists and archivists get into the study of history to help people make connections between themselves and the past. At the VCP, these connections are second nature; it makes this job easy.
Staff and supporters hope that the program will continue to operate and grow. Dr. Coleman has suggested that the VCP could be a model for the curation of tribal artifacts owned by other entities. The ultimate goal of the VCP, and the goal of many archaeologists and archivists, is to learn more about our shared history and to continue making these connections to the past available to the public.