Carrie Duncan digs through history in the Middle East

The religious studies professor brings students to Jordan every other year to learn hands-on about archaeology and the Middle East.
Professor Carrie Duncan stands between two sifters at the ‘Ayn Gharandal archaeological site in Jordan. Duncan is the assistant director of the project and leads student trips every other year. Courtesy of Carrie Duncan

At 16 years old, she already knew she wanted to be a biblical archaeologist.

Now, assistant professor of religious studies Carrie Duncan spends her summers working on three different archaeological projects, or digs, across the country of Jordan.

In her teenage years, she started reading issues of a magazine about biblical archaeology and began receiving college pamphlets in the mail.

In a process she described as “frighteningly arbitrary,” she began throwing away pamphlets that didn’t meet certain requirements — the college had to have archaeology programs, couldn’t have too many students, must be in the right geographic area. She then went back to those archaeology magazines, which featured articles written by university faculty.

She found an article written by a professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts, a college that met all her requirements.

“I picked a name in a magazine of a lady who had written an article about archaeology, and decided that she would be my adviser,” she said. “So my dad and I went on a road trip, and I walked into her office and said, ‘Hi, I’d like to be an archaeologist.’ Then, I was 17. She said, ‘Great! Come here, and we’ll do that.’”

Duncan did end up enrolling at Tufts and majoring in archaeology, with that professor as her adviser and mentor.

That professor, Jodi Magness, is now the Kenan Distinguished Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

“(Jodi) has literally run my life since I was 17,” Duncan said.

Duncan speaks highly of Magness, but the feeling is mutual.

“This is kind of like asking a proud parent to talk about their kid,” Magness said. “Carrie is amazing. You don’t get to where she is today if you’re not smart, hard-working, dedicated.”

Duncan’s work today

Duncan brings students to her digs every other year. During the years Duncan is not leading students, she works as a senior staff member on two other digs. One of these is called the Petra North Ridge Project, and it involves searching for houses of normal people who lived in the now-famous ancient city in the fourth century.

“Petra is an interesting case,” Duncan said. “The focus for a really long time has been on the fabulous monumental remains there. Those are the famous facades of Petra that appear in ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.’ That’s what people think of when they think of Petra.”

The builders of those remains were the nomadic Nabatean people, who financed the construction through their monopoly control of the land-based spice trade. Duncan said that this fact, coupled with ancient documents about the Nabateans, had given previous archaeologists the wrong idea.

“It was actually standard scholarly thought to think that the people didn’t build any houses,” Duncan said. “People hadn’t excavated any small-scale, ‘regular-people’ dwellings, because so much of the attention and focus was on these really big, exciting, sexy finds.”

That’s where Duncan and her team come in. Previous archaeological teams have made major finds in terms of churches in the area, but Duncan’s team wants to find the often-overlooked houses of average churchgoers.

But they have a slight problem — they are finding houses from the time right before their period of interest.

A major earthquake in A.D. 363 destroyed many buildings in the area. Duncan described it as a “watershed” event in the historical timeline.

“We were hoping to find structures that were built after the 363 earthquake, and we kept finding the ones that had been destroyed in the 363 earthquake — structures that dated from the second, the third and early fourth centuries, rather than the (late) fourth and fifth century,” she said.

You can’t always control what you find, Duncan said. She explained that archaeologists have goals and research agendas, but those only go so far.

“At the end of the day, you very rarely know what’s under the dirt before you start getting into it,” Duncan said. “Whatever you find, you have to dig responsibly and publish it and learn what you can from it, even if it’s not at all what you originally intended to investigate. That’s one of the ethical responsibilities archaeologists have.”

Student trips

Every other summer, Duncan brings a group of MU students along to her archaeological digs in Jordan. The next trip is this summer. Students join Duncan in excavating the Roman fortress at Ayn Gharandal, a dig at which Duncan is the assistant director.

Fifth-year senior Gabryel McBaine traveled to Jordan in 2013 and worked on digging out the rooms of the officers’ quarters. Her group found the bases of a stone archway inside the room.

She explained that the time and effort needed to install indoor archways signifies the importance of the area.

“I had never been on a dig before; I did not know what to expect,” McBaine said. “So I learned very quickly that it has to do with a lot of hard labor, but at the same time, there’s also a lot of delicate work. It involves a lot of teamwork, and if you don’t work well with your team, then the dig itself does not work.”

McBaine, who is now a quadruple major — classical humanities, art, art education and archaeology — was not an archaeology major before going to Jordan with Duncan.

“I had the classics major at the time and had been to Greece and seen archaeology digs,” McBaine said. “So I was very interested in it. And when I came back is when I signed up for my archaeology major. I absolutely fell in love with it.”

Duncan runs a field school at the site to teach students the basics because, like McBaine, not everybody who goes on the program is an archaeology major.

“Students don’t even need to know anything about the ancient world,” Duncan said. “We teach everybody everything that they need, so they need no background or prior experience.”

McBaine plans to return to the dig this summer. She said she has never felt unsafe in Jordan.

“When you go to the Middle East in general, everyone says, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re a woman, you’re blonde, that’s going to be a problem,’” McBaine said. “It’s not. We did not have any issues at any point of feeling threatened by anything.”

Duncan explained that by learning about other cultures in hands-on ways, students learn more about themselves and can begin to think critically about their worldview.

“(Students) realize that their view of the world and of politics and of international relations is so highly predicated on their own social position, and that other people can think very differently about some of these issues,” Duncan said. “That who you are is controlled to such a high degree by where you lucked into being born or raised or educated. There’s a large degree of culture shock that goes on for our students.”

Research findings

Even though Duncan’s past teams at Petra in Jordan have not found exactly what they were looking for, they were still able to draw valuable conclusions about the lives of ancient people.

“The houses we’ve found belonged to people who were not dirt-poor, but certainly not part of the city’s elite,” Duncan said. “The artisan class or merchants. People who had some capital that they could invest and display, but not a lot. These were people that shopped at IKEA, not at Crate & Barrel. But also not people who shopped at Goodwill.”

Another archaeological team had already found “the Crate & Barrel crowd.” While one of those houses may have marble inside, Duncan said, the houses her team found would use white stucco that was painted to look like marble, in an attempt to show off to their neighbors.

“They’re imitating the style that was the height of fashion,” she said. “But they’re using materials that are within their means, which is really interesting to us. You can make modern parallels about the fashion world. In some ways, people haven’t changed a whole lot.”

Following her mentor’s footsteps

Duncan said it was an “accident” that she ended up teaching religious studies specifically, but she said that choice was based on sound career advice from her mentor.

“One of the other things that Jodi (Magness) said to me when I was 17 was, ‘I’m really glad that you want to be an archaeologist. You’ll never get a job. But what you can do is be trained in a related field that will give you a job, and then you can be an archaeologist in your research with the grant money you can get,’” Duncan said.

Following this suggestion, Duncan eventually joined Magness at UNC to earn a doctorate degree in the religious studies department. Duncan explained that the connection between studying the religious texts and her archaeological work enhances both realms.

“By being able to put material evidence — stuff that archaeologists have found in excavations — in conversation with the texts, we get a much more nuanced, complicated version of that the ancient world would have looked like,” Duncan said.

In the meantime, Magness still stands by the advice she gave Duncan many years ago.

“The fact of the matter is that a vast majority of undergraduates won’t go on to a career in whatever it is that they majored in, they’ll go on to another career,” Magness said.

Therefore, Magness urges students to select a major they’re interested in. She said that the undergraduate level is the only time in a person’s academic life where they can truly study anything they want, and she encourages students to take advantage of that opportunity.

“Choose a major not on the basis of ‘is this going to earn me money when I get out,’ which it won’t, by the way,” she said. “So choose an undergraduate major that you love, and if you love it, you will do well at it. And if you do well at it, you’ll get good grades and you’ll write good papers and get all the skills. And you will then be well-equipped for whatever you go onto after that.”

The truth, Magness said, is that society does not need many archaeologists or professors of religious studies, but those professions are still necessary.

“What makes life interesting and worth living is living in a diverse society,” Magness said. “We don’t need large numbers of people who do these things, but they are necessary if we live in any kind of enlightened, educated world where people have some sort of intellectual curiosity.”

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