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Bioarchaeology is a branch of Archaeology that focuses on the study of biological materials found in archaeological contexts to provide information about the life and environment of humans in the past. It is a fast-paced and continually evolving field with new breakthroughs and discoveries emerging almost every month. Studying the subject at Durham University opens the door to the latest developments and state-of-the-art laboratories in archaeological science, including stable isotope mass spectrometry, ancient DNA, materials analysis, luminescence dating, environmental archaeology, human osteology and geoarchaeology.

The course is lecture, seminar and laboratory-based and designed so that students can specialise in a chosen field and obtain the skills and knowledge of how to obtain and interpret data from biological assemblages. We specialise and teach in areas such as human and animal dispersal and mobility, human health, palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, human-animal-environment relations and subsistence strategies. Many of the human, animal and environmental assemblages our students work with for their research derive from ongoing staff research projects, current Departmental excavations or our in-house commercial unit, Archaeological Services. The course is aimed at inquisitive graduates from science or archaeology with or without past experience of Bioarchaeology, and for those who aspire to continue into a PhD programme or work in contract archaeology. 

Course Learning and Teaching

The program is delivered through a mixture of lectures, seminars, tutorials, workshops and laboratory practicals. Lectures provide the student with key information on a particular topic, and identify the main areas for discussion and debate among archaeologists. Seminars and tutorials provide opportunities for smaller groups of student-led discussion and debate of particular issues based on the knowledge gained through lectures and independent study outside the programme’s formal contact hours. Practical classes and workshops allow the student to gain direct experience of practical and interpretative skills in Archaeological Science with guidance from experienced and qualified scientists in Archaeology. Finally, through independent supervised study the student will be to develop and undertake a research project to an advanced level. Throughout the programme emphasis is placed on working independently outside the contact hours, to read widely, explore and synthesise larger datasets and to develop critical and analytical skills to an advanced level.

The balance of activities changes over the course of the programme.

In Term 1 the emphasis is upon students acquiring the generic knowledge and practical skills needed to undertake scientific study in archaeology whilst acquiring the basic skills in an area of specialism: human osteoarchaeology or environmental archaeology. In the module "Identification and Analysis of the normal human skeleton" students learn how to record and interpret human skeletal data. In the module "Environmental Archaeology" the students are introduced to several aspects of environmental archaeology: archaeobotany, archaeozoology, geoarchaeology and dating methods.

In Term 2 the balance shifts towards a more hands-on and interpretative approach. In the module "Isotopic and Biomolecular Archaeology" students learn the various methods of studying organic and inorganic materials, e.g. isotopic and DNA analysis. The other optional module, "Practical Guided Study" is a lab-based module, which enables the student to receive practical tuition in one of the sub-fields of environmental archaeology (zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, or geoarchaeology), and to conduct a substantial lab-based and interpretive project. This module has a strong emphasis on practical laboratory work in preparation for the dissertation. In addition, the module "Topics in Archaeological Science" introduces current key topics and central research themes in archaeology, providing the students with tools to examine and debate relevant archaeological theory and the 'big questions' to which scientific methods are applied. While the precise topics presented vary from year to year depending on current issues and staff research expertise, they are usually centred around the themes of chronologies in archaeology, reconstructing palaeoenvironments and palaeoeconomies, human impact on the environment and climate change, human health and environment, animal husbandry and domestication and human dispersals and mobility. Outside timetabled contact hours, students are expected to undertake their own independent study to prepare effectively for their classes, work in the laboratory, focus on their subject knowledge and develop a research agenda.

The balance shifts to independent study into Term 3, as students develop the ability to conduct independent research as part of their dissertation work. The dissertation is regarded as the capstone of the taught programme and an indicator of advanced research potential, which could be developed further in a professional or academic field. Under the supervision of a member of academic staff, students undertake a detailed study of a particular theme or area resulting in a significant piece of independent research. Students typically have ten one-hour supervisory meetings with his/her supervisor and it is also expected that they interact with technical lab staff and other postgraduates and PDRAs as they carry out their research.

Throughout the programme, students have access to an “academic advisor”, usually the director of the course, who provides them with academic support and guidance. Typically a student will meet with their adviser three times a year. In addition, all teaching staff members have weekly office hours when they are available to meet with students on a ‘drop-in’ basis. The department also has a vibrant research community and offers an exciting programme of Departmental, research group and postgraduate research seminars that students are strongly encouraged to attend.

English Language requirements

Please check requirements for your subject and level of study.

How to apply


Career Opportunities

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.

For further information on career options and employability, including the results of the Destination of Leavers survey, student and employer testimonials and details of work experience and study abroad opportunities, please visit our employability web pages.

Visit the MSc Bioarchaeology page on the Durham University website for more details!




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