Researching Rev. John Garrow Duncan: could you help?

By Nicola Doyle, MA Museum Studies, UCL

I am a postgraduate student at University College London (UCL) doing my masters in Museum Studies. I’m currently working on the Artefacts of Excavation Project (AoE) in an effort to find out more about some very interesting people in the world of Egyptology. Under the supervision of Dr Stevenson, I am researching an individual by the name of Rev. John Garrow Duncan. How is this fellow interesting I hear you ask? Duncan was a church minister that was heavily involved with the world of archaeology (especially Egyptology), was a director of excavations in the Middle East, and friends with the much more famous archaeologist Flinders Petrie in the early 20th century. Duncan even co-directed three sites with Petrie: Shaghanbeh, Saft el-Hinna and Ghita, all within the same year of 1905-06. Talk about a busy and probably expensive year. Yet despite all this work, Duncan does not even get a mention in the Who Was Who in Egyptology.

So far, we know that Duncan (1872-1951) was a minister at Kirkmichael church in Scotland (located north-east of Perth), he was the Assistant Director of the Palestinian Exploration Fund from 1923 to 25 and was very much involved with excavations in the Middle East. Not only did he financially sponsor many sites, but he was a joint director on three sites with Petrie himself. Some of the sites that he sponsored include Piramesse (1885-86), Naqada (1894-95), Saft el-Hinna (1905-06) and el-Ballas (1894-95).

As far as we know, Naqada was the first site that Duncan visited and potentially worked on. Duncan was also a published author, even co-authoring an excavation report “Hyksos and Israelite cities” with Flinders Petrie. He wrote around 42 pieces of work that were published in more than 180 publications, the main subject matter of these works being biblical archaeology. We also know that Duncan even sent some cases of Egyptian pottery, many of which were acquired on his excavations in Naqada and el-Ballas, to a Professor Stevenson (a direct relation to Dr Alice Stevenson, my supervisor on this project, what a nice little coincidence). This collection of pottery has been accessioned into the archaeological collection of the Dundee McManus Museum. Other collections with Egyptian artefacts linked to Duncan have also been recorded at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow and National Museum of Scotland as a recent review of Egyptian collections in Scotland has shown.

For all we know about Duncan, there is much that we still don’t know. What I would like to find out is: what made Duncan so interested in archaeology? How did he get his start in it? How did he become friends with Petrie? Which roles did he perform while on-site excavating? What was his formal education? How did he fund this hobby of his and sponsor so many excavations?

In this difficult time of museum and archival closures (which we hope will open soon) and a global pandemic, access to information, especially archival info, has become a little more difficult than normal.

This is where you come in. I’m looking for any information about Duncan. Anything at all would be a great help, but one question I am specifically asking you the reader is if you have ever heard of Rev. Garrow Duncan or have come across his work before?

At the end of this project, I just hope to bring Duncan’s story to life and make people more aware of how much this reverend from Scotland had an impact on the early days of Egyptology.

label on an object

An image of one of the objects from the Dundee McManus Museum collection that was donated by Duncan. Shown is the object label with Duncan’s name and the year it was labelled and possibly accessioned into the museum – 1943. The ‘1’ seen on the label could represent the object standing in his collection, being object ‘1’. Image courtesy of Alice Stevenson