Army’s Operation Nightingale comes to Folkestone

Injured soldiers learn new archaeology skills at Folkestone Roman Villa as part of Operation Nightingale to assist in their recovery.

Eight soldiers from 1st Battalion The Rifles (1 RIFLES) took part in the excavation of the Iron Age settlement and Roman villa at East Wear bay, Folkestone, for five days from Monday 24thOctober.   All of the soldiers had been injured on active service in Afghanistan. They helped in the excavation as part of Operation Nightingale, a new initiative being developed by the army to use archaeology as therapy for recovering soldiers.

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It is hoped the project will help to facilitate a return to the regiment for successful participants or provide a focus or hobby for those that may leave, as well as providing a sense of worth and purpose for the participants through learning new skills and building on team-working and social skills.

The excavation at East Wear Bay is taking place as part of a three year community archaeology project, ‘A Town Unearthed: Folkestone Before 1500’. The project is a partnership between Canterbury Archaeological Trust, Canterbury Christ Church University and the Folkestone People’s History Centre and is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Roger De Haan Charitable Trust, with additional contributions by Folkestone Town Council, Kent Archaeological Society, Kent County Council,  Shepway District Council, East Folkestone Change Together and the Tory Family Foundation.

The dig, which is being directed by Keith Parfitt of Canterbury Archaeological Trust, has uncovered new evidence about the Roman occupation of the site, but also significant evidence of a large Iron Age settlement that existed there before the Roman period, and which seems to have been a major focus of power and trade in the 1st centuries BC and AD.

Corporal Steven Winterton of 1 RIFLES has already spent four days at the site, as part of the development of Op Nightingale. His finds included a small Roman intaglio gem, probably a setting from a finger-ring. Corporal Winterton said, “I’ve really enjoyed the experience so far. It’s been brilliant. I’ve always had an interest in archaeology and this week has rekindled that. The project has been a great help in lifting the day-to-day burdens following my injury. It gives all of us participating in the project the chance to acquire new skills to help develop our future careers.”

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Rifleman Jake Watts who was at the Folkestone Roman Villa dig last week said “I didn’t know what to expect when we were told we would be doing archaeology but I went into it with an open mind and I have enjoyed it, especially the precise work”

Rifleman Watts and the others have previously been digging in the spill from badger sets on Salisbury Plain where they found Iron Age material. Rifleman Ashley Meredith said “To be honest when I came into it I thought it would be quite boring but when we were told what we were looking for and about the things that we had found – pottery bones, flint tools – I started to become interested.”

Operation Nightingale is the brainchild of Sergeant Diarmaid Walshe of 1 RIFLES. Sergeant Walshe, who is also a qualified archaeologist, said, “These soldiers have all endured a lot during operational tours. Due to the complex nature of their physical and mental injuries sustained in Afghanistan, the Army is looking at new and innovative ways to promote recovery. It is my belief that archaeology is the perfect way to achieve this, whilst enhancing their rehabilitation process. We are investing time and resources to aid these soldiers, with a firm belief that fieldwork and recording will aid their recovery.”

More than 500 soldiers from 1 RIFLES have deployed to Afghanistan where they have had considerable success in ensuring that local people can live and work in a safe environment.

Header Image Credit – Lesley Smith

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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