While some were relaxing over the summer vacation, UT archaeologists made a monumental discovery in the deserts of the Middle East.

In early June, UT professors Robert and Erin Darby embarked with their team of 20 students – including 12 students from UT – on a five-week digging expedition in southern Jordan.

The sand dunes surrounding the 'Ayn Gharandal site have kept the area well-preserved, making it a prime location for an archaeological excavation. Robert and Erin Darby began excavating the region when they heard that the site was being destroyed by locals. Since then, the two have been traveling to Jordan every other summer, spending their years in the States analyzing and publishing their findings.

When digging resumed at the site in June, the expedition, which was co-directed by both the religious studies and art departments, uncovered ancient bathhouses and the collapsed gate of an ancient Roman fort. After these discoveries, the team concentrated their digging in the area of the gate.

"By the end of the second week a giant block began to emerge," said Erin Darby, an assistant professor in the department of Religious Studies.

Four years of digging and research seemed to pay off when the 500-pound block was uncovered, potentially revealing details of the site they had been exploring since 2009. Unfortunately, the block was face down, and the team had no way of knowing the true significance of the discovery.

"It would take several days before we could flip it over and the team was very anxious," Darby said.

Once the block was finally righted, excitement overruled reason as one student began brushing sand from the surface with his bare hand. Although this is technically considered 'breaking the rules' in archaeology, after he had cleared some of the sand away, the team caught a glimpse of the red, painted inscription.

What peeked through was a Latin inscription detailing who this fort was dedicated to and what infantry unit was stationed there, as well as decorating symbols of Roman victory.

Hilarie Zombek, a senior majoring in anthropology, was in the officer's quarters, a few feet away, when the block had finally been cleared.

"All we heard was cheering and screaming," Zombek said, "They had to cover it back up pretty quickly to protect it from the sun."

After the block was completely removed, the team sent it to the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, Jordan, to be further studied and analyzed.

Late Roman inscriptions have been found on forts in this region before, but this was the first inscription revealed through an archaeological team excavation. The discovery brings to light new historical information about the late 200s to early 300s A.D. era and could lead to another archaeological excavation based on the evidence provided.

Although the block was a tremendous find, the expedition wasn't over. For the remaining weeks in Jordan, the team concentrated their efforts on the ground floor.

"There were three meters of sand we had to dig through to reach occupation, which is basically the ground floor of the fort," Zombek said. "Once you reach occupation, there are tons of artifacts to be found."

"The site has already given us all kinds of things we weren't expecting to find," Darby said.

Students come from many different universities to participate in the expeditions, but the largest percentage represent the University of Missouri and UT. Those leading the digs are professors and expert archaeologists from all over the United States and Canada, allowing students to work with renowned leaders in their area of study.

"It's a really great opportunity because students get to meet archaeologists from all over," Darby said.

The next field study the Darby's are planning on conducting will take place in the summer of 2015, and Zombek had only great things to say about the upcoming trip.

"Definitely check it out for 2015, even if you are not into archaeology," Zombek said, "It is a once-in-a-lifetime, awesome experience and Jordan is amazing."

For more information about joining the "Dig Jordan" 2015 team, check out the Programs Abroad office, or visit their website here. For more information about the inscription and 'Ayn Gharandal, click here.