Digging for history

From her parents’ perspective, Erin Darby’s journey into archaeology was “fated.”

“My parents remember me being obsessed with digging up things in the backyard in Bellwood,” laughed the 35-year-old assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

All of Darby’s childhood practice has seemingly paid dividends as she and her husband, Robert, who also teaches at the university, recently led an excavation at ‘Ayn Gharandal, in the country of Jordan, that uncovered the remains of an ancient Roman fort and, specifically, a giant limestone block, a part of the fort’s gate that bore a thrilling surprise – a Latin inscription still holding small flecks of red paint.

“It sounds exciting, and it is exciting, but archaeology is also fundamentally slow,” Erin said, “so actually, it was excruciating. We have to excavate all of the earth at the same time at the same level, so even though the stone started being visible, it took another five or six days to uncover it.”

Erin, whose maiden name was Smith, grew up in Bellwood. Before she reached middle school, her family relocated to Virginia Beach, Va. Due to her father’s military obligations in the Navy.

Erin’s family kept close ties with all of her grandparents, who lived in Bellwood and Antis Township. She still has extended family living in Bellwood.

She studied at Evangel University in Missouri and then obtained her master’s degree at Missouri State. She acquired her doctorate from Duke University and has been teaching at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville since 2011.

“I actually fell into archaeology,” Erin said. “I graduated college and did not know what I wanted to do. It was only during my master’s that I found archaeology, and by the time I was in my doctorate program, I knew what I wanted to do.”

The big limestone block was laying face down when the team first uncovered it.

“As the expert on Roman material, I realized there was a good chance there would be an inscription,” Robert said. “I was pretty excited, but I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t want to get everyone’s hopes up, in case it just turned out to be an overturned stone.

“I could see the block for a week before we got it excavated. It was absolutely thrilling for me when we turned it over.”

When the stone was flipped, the team could only take a “split-second” look to confirm the inscription, Robert said. In the Middle East, the sun bakes very hot and would immediately fade the ancient paint. Quickly, the stone was once again covered in sand and shipped to a conservation lab four hours away to be studied.

Erin said the inscription told the story of the Roman soldiers stationed at the fort.

“Robert’s further research showed that the troop was brought down earlier to suppress a Jewish revolt,” she said, “but no one had any idea what happened to them after that. They had relocated to Jordan to protect the eastern border of the empire.”

An ancient Roman bathhouse was also discovered at the site, which the Darbys’ team began excavating in 2009.

“This site is just crazy surprising,” Erin said. “You are standing 10 feet above the original Roman ground. It’s very unusual [for a site] to be this preserved. It’s a pretty cool site.”

Archaeology does hold some danger for the Darbys and their students.

“The Middle East is dangerous, but that’s not the kind of danger we worry about,” Erin said. “We don’t go certain places; my father called it situational awareness. So it’s not stuff people think is dangerous that is dangerous to us.

“Our dangers are environmental. It’s not for sissies. We worry about dehydration, heat exhaustion, food-borne illness, scorpions under rocks. That’s the stuff we worry about, but we’ve never had a major incident.”

Erin and Robert even take their toddler daughter, Madeleine, to the field with them.

“Archaeology is our family business,” said Robert. “Others run pizza shops. We dig up artifacts.”

Among the UT students who accompanied the Darbys on their archaeological dig was Hilarie Zombek, a senior due to graduate next month with a degree in anthropology. Zombek is a western Pennsylvania native, from Harrison City, just outside of Murrysville, and a graduate of Penn-Trafford High School.

“My experience at ‘Ayn Gharandal was greater than I ever expected,” Zombek wrote in an email. “I knew I would have an amazing time, but I did not expect to love archaeology or the entire country of Jordan … as much as I did when I left. It was by far the greatest, most meaningful thing I have done in my entire life.”

Zombek’s experience on the dig and her association with the Darbys have led her to consider doing more in the field of archaeology.

“I have forever fallen in love with archaeology, all thanks to Erin and Robert,” she wrote. “The Darbys are wonderful people. Not many people could do what Robert and Erin do, and I can honestly say I have bonded and made two mentors that I could go to for anything for the rest of my life. They are amazing.”

The Darbys plan to go back to ‘Ayn Gharandal in 2015 for another big excavation, but Robert said they may do some limited work this coming summer “to finish areas we weren’t able to complete.” In 2015, they will focus on opening new areas of the ancient Roman bathhouse, as well as working on the fort. They plan to continue the work there until 2021.

“We’ll take students and volunteers, no age limit,” Erin said. “We bring [them] from around the world, and introduce archaeology to a wide range of people, and they get to work day in, day out with Jordanians.

“It’s satisfying when you see people have a life-changing experience.”

Mirror staff writer Cory Dobrowolsky can be reached at 946-7428.