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Veterans get experience by rehabilitating archeological artifacts

Posted: August 9, 2014 - 11:04pm
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Navy veteran Ryan McLay shows a projectile point that she catalogued for the Veterans Curation Project. The program provides temporary jobs for veterans who are transitioning out of the military.   Photo by Jim Blaylock
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Navy veteran Ryan McLay shows a projectile point that she catalogued for the Veterans Curation Project. The program provides temporary jobs for veterans who are transitioning out of the military.

Former Army medic Benjamin Nay spends his days preserving, repacking and tagging, photographing and cataloging historical artifacts at the Veterans Curation Program lab in Martinez.

Lately, he’s been unwrapping pottery shards and projectile points wrapped in paper bags and rotting rubber bands collected and archived in the late 1970s.

He and other military veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan earn employment and job training through the program operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. The goal of the program is to rehabilitate the Corps’ archeological collections and associated records for long-term curation and future research. Through the program, veterans are also given skills for reentering the civilian workforce.

Nay said he’s always found history very interesting. He is studying for a history degree in hopes of becoming a high school history teacher.

“It fits right in with what I want to do with my interests,” Nay said of his five-month stint in the lab working with artifacts. “That’s the best part is seeing some of the stuff. Otherwise, you’d see it in a museum behind glass. This way, we actually get to handle it. That’s really cool too.”

The Martinez lab, one of three in the country, employs 12 veterans of all military branches. They work as a team to open and inspect all artifacts and documentation of particular Corps investigations, much of which wasn’t originally stored for long-term preservation.

The technicians rebag and retag the artifacts in acid-free, longer-lasting packaging, clean up and mend associated documents and assign each a unique tracking number. The information about the artifacts is then compiled into a database to make future searching and research much easier.

“They are from prehistoric peoples,” former Navy translator Ryan McLay said of the pottery shards and projectile points she was cataloging during an open house on Tuesday. “As far as maintaining the legacy of their cultures, it’s important that we maintain these materials. These are cultures that don’t exist any more, even with the Native American groups that are still around.”

McLay graduated with an anthropology degree just after starting her lab work in May. The lab work is valuable hands-on experience toward a career in anthropology which could be audience studies for high-tech companies to museum curation.

During their time at the lab, veterans are also given opportunities to develop their resumes, build communication skills and network with prospective employers.

“We are all actively looking for jobs,” McLay said. “That’s one great thing, we get three hours a week where were are actually allowed to job search. So we are being paid to find a job.”

Chris Welch said he was medically discharged from the military several years ago. Since, he tried out several career fields before opting to get a degree in graphics design and web design.

At the open house, Welch was demonstrating the drop-out, or infinity camera used to photograph “culturally significant” artifacts for further preservation.

He took the job thinking it’d be a cool experience, but didn’t expect to earn any practical experience.

“It’s been a really, really cool thing,” Welch said. “It’s been the first time since I’ve been out (of the military) where I really feel like I’ve earned a pretty good opportunity that most people might not have had they not served.”

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