Human skeletal remains are the most direct evidence of past lifeways and their scientific investigation gives unique insights into human history.
Bioarchaeology (the study of archaeological human remains) is an exciting field that draws on a variety of techniques, ranging from visual examination of the whole skeleton to the biomolecular analysis of small bone samples. Demographic shifts, environmental changes, migrations, the spread of diseases and the impact of violence and conflict all leave traces on the skeleton.
This MSc provides the skills required to understand skeletal biographies and interpret them in their cultural context at the individual and the population level. Combining theoretical learning with hands-on practice, we will provide you with the theoretical knowledge and practical skills essential to your handling and analysis of specimens recovered from archaeological sites.
Throughout the programme, you’ll take part in lectures, seminars and practical work with archaeological skeletal assemblages and reference collections. You will complete six courses that are assessed through reports, lab exams, oral and poster presentations and essays.
Drawing on Edinburgh’s long history in the study of the human body, you will also have the opportunity to visit Surgeons’ Hall Museum and the Anatomy Department, which provide unique collections of pathological and anatomical study specimens.
You will also submit a dissertation on a research topic of your choosing. Past dissertations have ranged from experimental projects on violence in prehistory to dietary studies of Chalcolithic Turkey and considerations of disease and impairment in post-Medieval England.
The courses on this programme are:
On successful completion of the programme, you will be able to:
Examples of career paths available to archaeology graduates (although some may require additional training) include: higher education, heritage management and agencies, commercial archaeology, environmental assessment, teaching, tourism industry, broadcasting and the police.
An archaeology degree does not, of course, restrict you to a career in archaeology. The programme also equips you for advanced study.
Palaeopathology is the study of past disease in human remains; it is a sub-discipline of bioarchaeology (study of human remains from archaeological sites). This lecture, seminar and laboratory based MSc equips you with the theoretical and practical skills knowledge of how to study and interpret data collected from human remains. The emphasis is on health and well-being using a multidisciplinary approach, linking biological evidence for disease with cultural data (the bioarchaeological approach). This course is unique in the world and it takes a holistic view of disease, as seen in a clinical contexts today, and will prepare you for undertaking significant research projects in this subject, or working in contract/commercial archaeology, and many other fields. It is aimed at graduates mainly in archaeology and anthropology with or without past experience of knowledge in this field, and for those who aspire to continue into a PhD programme or work in contract archaeology. However, past students have come from a variety of subject backgrounds, and destination data illustrate a wide range of employments take these students.
Two taught modules in the Epiphany term (Research and Study Skills in Archaeological Science and Identification and Analysis of the Normal Human Skeleton), and two taught modules in Michaelmas term (Palaeopathology: Theory and Method; Themes in Palaeopathology), with the double module dissertation over Easter term and the summer (submitted early September).
The programme is mainly delivered through a mixture of lectures, seminars and practical classes. Typically lectures provide key information on a particular area, and identify the main areas for discussion and debate in bioarchaeology. Seminars then provide opportunities for smaller groups of you to discuss and debate particular issues or areas, based on the knowledge that you have gained through your lectures and through independent study outside the programme’s formal contact hours. Finally, practical laboratory classes allow you to gain direct practical skills in the recording and interpretation of data from skeletal remains. The latter provide an important element of the programme in allowing independent and group work, as well as hands-on experience under laboratory conditions, essential for a potential future working environment.
The balance of these types of activities changes over the course of the programme, as you develop your knowledge and ability as independent learners, giving them the opportunity to engage in research, professional practice, and developing and demonstrating research skills in a particular area of the subject.
In Term 1 you will typically attend 4 hours a week of lectures and 2.5 hours of laboratory sessions, in addition to seminars over the term. Outside timetabled contact hours, you are also expected to undertake your own independent study to prepare for your classes and broaden your subject knowledge. External speakers specialising in specific subject areas from “industry” and academia are brought in to engage the students on issues in research, but also in the profession.
In Term 2 the balance shifts from learning the basic skills required for recording and interpreting skeletal data (age at death, sex, normal variation), to further developing skills for palaeopathological data recording and their interpretation and understanding the limitations. In addition, the Themes module aims to develop in students a critical approach to the evaluation of multiple forms of evidence, beyond that for human remains, for the reconstruction of specific themes. It focuses on discussion and debate of different related issues. In Term 2 you will typically attend 4 hours a week of lectures and 2.5 hours of laboratory sessions, in addition to seminars over the term. Again, external speakers specialising in specific subject areas from “industry” and academia are brought in to engage the students on issues in research, but also in the profession.
The move towards greater emphasis on independent learning and research continues in Term 3 and beyond, where the research skills acquired earlier in the programme are developed through the dissertation research project. Under the supervision of a member of academic staff with whom they will typically have three one-to-one supervisory meetings, you will undertake a detailed study of a particular area, resulting in a significant piece of independent research. The dissertation is regarded as a preparation for further professional or academic work. In Term 3 students are given the opportunity to attend a Careers Session in the Department where past graduates of the course talk about their career trajectories since graduating.
Throughout the programme, you will have access to an “academic adviser”, or in the case of this MSc the two Directors (Professor Charlotte Roberts and Dr Rebecca Gowland), who provide you with academic support and guidance. Typically a student meets their adviser two to three times a year, in addition to which all members of teaching staff have weekly office hours when they are available to meet with students on a ‘drop-in’ basis. The department also has an exciting programme of weekly one hour research seminars which postgraduate students are strongly encouraged to attend. Additionally, the students who attend the MSc Palaeopathology course are provided with the opportunity to attend journal paper critique sessions each term, and human bioarchaeology seminars given by PhD students.
Many of our postgraduates move into an academic career, either teaching or by taking up post-doctoral research positions in universities. Others join museums or national and regional heritage organisations. Some work in professional archaeology, in national or local planning departments, while others elect to use their analytical and presentation skills to gain positions in industry, commerce and government.