Students are uncovering ancient history half a world away through the efforts of two UT faculty members who have spent the past decade excavating an archaeological site in southern Jordan.
Erin Darby, professor of religious studies, and Robert Darby, lecturer in the School of Art, co-direct the ‘Ayn Gharandal Archaeological Project, where they have uncovered a Roman fort and bathhouse that date to the fourth century and human burials from the 12th through 14th centuries.
In 2013, the Darbys launched Dig Jordan, a study abroad program they lead as a field school for UT students, who spend three to five weeks in Jordan touring important archaeological, historical, and cultural sites.
In addition to cultural exposure, much of the students’ time in Jordan is spent actively excavating. They work alongside their professors on research projects aimed at developing new skills and methods for preserving and understanding ancient artifacts.
“We’re not a normal study abroad program,” Erin Darby said. “We are going above and beyond by also teaching students research skills in a field where you really need to learn it on site. This is experiential learning at its core.”
Six years ago, one of the Darbys’ first student teams helped to uncover a monumental Latin-inscribed block decorated with laurel branches and other common victory symbols of Roman art. It is currently on display at Jordan’s national museum.
In 2019, 10 undergraduates and one graduate student traveled with the Darbys to the archaeological site, where they each conducted their own summer research projects.
“I always wanted to study abroad,” said Symantha Gregorash, a double major in religious studies and sociology from Johnson City, Tennessee, who took part in the summer 2019 program. “As an educational opportunity, the experience of seeing a culture different from yours is so rich and fulfilling. But I also really wanted to do a trip that would be immersive and meaningful in terms of research and impact.”
Gregorash, who was recognized for extraordinary professional promise at the Chancellor’s Honors Banquet in the spring, was one of 11 students awarded a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to study abroad this past summer.
Dig Jordan is not limited to students in the College of Arts and Sciences. Sarah Faith Ingell, a third-year nursing major from Chattanooga, learned about it through UT’s Programs Abroad Fair.
For her research project, she studied human skeletal remains in ancient burial sites.
“It was another application of medicine that I would’ve never been able to learn if I were just going through nursing school,” Ingell said.
The Darbys’ archaeological work with students is supported by UT’s Office of Undergraduate Research, which offers fall and spring semester and summer research programs in several countries, including Australia, Chile, China, England, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Spain. Dig Jordan is one of two faculty-led programs; the other is Art History in Paris, led by Professor Mary Campbell in the School of Art.
“Student interest and participation in international research are increasing at UT,” said Marisa Moazen, assistant vice chancellor for research engagement and director of undergraduate research. “We’ve taken the traditional study abroad model and added an element of research.”
And the benefits of experience do not end for students when they arrive back in the United States. Their research projects are often featured at undergraduate research events such as EURēCA, Discovery Day, and Posters at the Capitol.
“We’re providing an opportunity for students, specifically from UT, to get outside of Tennessee,” Robert Darby said, “and to experience the world in a place they may have only seen on TV.”