Prehistoric and historic pottery, stone tools, arrowheads, Indian beads, necklaces, earrings and ear spools, and ceremonial artifacts, even human remains, were collected. The items then sat in boxes and paper bags in university museums as well as private basements, garages and tool sheds.
In recent weeks, U.S. veterans — many with traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder — have begun processing, cataloguing, digitizing and archiving the collection as part of a one-year $3.5 million project, funded with federal stimulus money.
It's part of the corps' effort to find American Indian cultural items and return them to tribes or their descendants — something all federal agencies must do under a 1990 law. Michael Trimble, chief of curation and archives for the corps' St. Louis district, said the goal is to get the collection catalogued, digitally photographed and put on the Web for public viewing.
He said the corps' 47,000-cubic-feet collection of boxed artifacts and associated records, audio tapes and photographs would fill 30 semitrailers.
Trimble, who helped excavate mass graves in Iraq from 2004 to 2007 and testified in the genocide case against Saddam Hussein, said it was a friend who helped him understand he could both help veterans and apply their discipline to the care of the artifacts. He and his staff then applied for the federal funding.
Veterans say the project is providing them with hope and new job skills.
"This is the best thing that has happened to me since I got out of the military," said Cody Gregory, a Burleson, Texas, native who works at the Veterans Curation Project's St. Louis center, which opened in December.
Gregory, 27, a former U.S. Air Force mental health tech in Afghanistan, works with a dozen other Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam-era veterans at the St. Louis site. The project's two other centers — one that opened in October in Augusta, Ga., and one set to open Monday in Washington, D.C. — employ the same number of veterans.
Brockington Cultural Resources Consulting in suburban Atlanta runs the three centers for the corps and trains the veterans.
Cathy van Arsdale, who manages all three sites, said the project trains and employs veterans in records and data management and archiving. Veterans hold the jobs for six months, then work with the Veterans Administration to find permanent jobs.
Matt Bahr, 28, of Ste. Genevieve, said the job working on the archaeological collection allows him to apply the quick thinking and cognitive skills he learned as an Air Force flight nurse in Iraq.
"We have millions of dollars invested in our training that would be wasted if we sat at home," he said of veterans. "I may not save lives again, but I can do this."
Wearing white gloves, Bahr on Friday carefully handled field maps, drawings, photographs and other delicate specimens that told the story of a 1970s dig in Indiana conducted by university students.
Their notes, written on creased loose-leaf paper, with now-peeling tape, were held in a box that was water-damaged and moldy.
Trimble said the veterans are close and talk to each other.
"They've all been through the same stuff," he said. "The work is therapy."