Archaeology of Asia Stream

Taught Masters Programme for Archaeology (MSt/MPhil)


Coordinator: Dr Anke Hein

Oxford hosts a wide range of institutions, researchers and projects related to Asia, and this Masters stream will draw upon this expertise to offer students the opportunity to develop interests in the archaeology and cultures of Asia. Students can tailor the course from a wide range of themes to develop a broad expertise on Asia or choose to combine an Asia focus with learning in a particular chronological, theoretical or methodological area.

See the main page for the MSt/MPhil in Archaeology for more options.


Topics assessed by examination or essay (List A) Coordinator(s)
Ancient Maritime SocietiesDr Damian Robinson
Archaeological method and theoryProf Chris Gosden and Dr Dan Hicks
Archaeology of EurasiaDr Anke Hein and
Environmental ArchaeologyDr. Michael Charles
Landscape Archaeology and Spatial TechnologyDr Rick Schulting and
Topics assessed by essay (List B)
Archaeology and Geographical Information Systems and Dr Rick Schulting
Archaeology and Material CultureDr Dan Hicks
Archaeology of ColonialismProf Chris Gosden and Dr Dan Hicks
Chinese ArchaeologyDr Anke Hein
Hunter-gatherers in world perspectiveProf Peter Mitchell
Interdisciplinary Approaches to Chinese CeramicsDr Anke Hein and
Methods and techniques in maritime archaeology Dr Damian Robinson
Palaeolithic ArchaeologyProf Nick Barton
Practical ArchaeobotanyProf. Amy Bogaard and Dr. Michael Charles
Regional studies in Australian and Pacific prehistoryProf Chris Gosden
Topics from Archaeological Science MSt/MSc
Materials analysis and the study of technological changeDr Nathaniel Erb-Satullo
Molecular BioarchaeologyDr Rick Schulting
Principles and practice of scientific datingProf Christopher Ramsey

Not all the courses listed may be available every year.

Academic staff



  • required to study three subjects for examination
  • at least one subject must be assessed by examination with an unseen 3 hour written paper offering a choice of questions
  • the second subject will normally be examined by a pair of 5,000 word preset essays or the candidate may chose to substitute a 10,000 word dissertation on an approved topic
  • the third subject will normally be examined by a further pair of 5,000 word pre-set essays
  • at least two of the subjects studied should be from the 'Main' and 'Additional' lists above.
  • a viva voce examination may be held


  • in the first year, the candidate takes the same examination as the MSt and must pass it to qualify for the second year
  • in the second year, the candidate presents a 25,000 word dissertation on an approved topic and
  • is examined in one further subject chosen from those listed for the MSt, normally by a pair of 5,000-word pre-set essays

The dissertation

For the one-year MSt degree a thesis of up to 10,000 words on an approved topic is optional. For the two year MPhil degree submission of a thesis of up to 25,000 words on an approved topic is required. A supervisor is appointed to guide the student but the work must be the student's own original work.


Topics assessed by examination or essay (List A)

Ancient Maritime Societies
Coordinator: Dr Damian Robinson

Maritime societies have become a major research interest in archaeology, as the terrestrial bias of much traditional archaeological research has gradually been recognised. This paper will provide an overview of key theoretical and conceptual issues relevant to maritime archaeology, and in particular the study of coastal, island and other maritime societies. It will explore a broad range of social, cultural, technological and environmental issues relating to human ancient coastal and island occupation and seafaring, including ethnographic aspects of maritime societies, social aspects of seafaring and voyaging, developments in maritime technology, and the ecology of island colonisation. The paper will stress archaeological perspectives on maritime societies, but will also draw upon anthropological, palaeoenvironmental, documentary, and other sources of information to offer a holistic approach. In covering this range of themes, the paper will address maritime societies and seafaring through time, from the earliest records of coastal subsistence and movement across the sea through to maritime activities documented in textual sources.

Archaeological method and theory
Coordinators: Prof Chris Gosden and Dr Dan Hicks

One of the most vital areas within archaeology over the last forty years has been the debate concerning method and theory. Archaeological theory has shifted from the attempts to generalise about human life developed by the New or Processual archaeologists from the 1960s onwards. In the late 1970s there was a reaction against grand theory and a greater concentration on local prehistoric sequences and the fine details of people's lives by the so-called post-processualists. Today there is a huge range of archaeological theories in use, focussing on issues of identity, gender, mind, material culture, art and aethetics, as well as the more traditional questions of technology and subsistence. Archaeology has drawn on a huge range of theory from outside the discipline, ranging from evolutionary and ecological theories, post-modernist and post-colonial theories, feminist and gendered perspectives and theories of history and change. How relevant any or all of these theories are to archaeological subject matters and problems is debatable, but these are subjects that need debating if we are to decide the most profitable and productive directions for archaeology. Recently, archaeological method has become a source of intense debate, looking at how social and intellectual factors influence the ways in which archaeological sites are excavated and interpreted. Excavation and analysis are not purely technical matters, but have great influence on how we create our basic forms of evidence and make sense of them.

Archaeology of Eurasia
Coordinators: Dr Anke Hein and

The forests, grasslands, and deserts of Eurasia create an almost continuous ecological corridor across the northern half of the continent, bridging an apparent divide between East and West. Understanding the patterns of social connectivity, mobility, and human-environment interaction in this vital interstitial zone is currently a major focus of interdisciplinary research. Addressing itself to students of China, Western Europe, and the Classical World who are seeking to contextualize their research foci, this course introduces the archaeology of northern Eurasia from the beginning of the Holocene to the rise of the first nomadic empires. It explores transformation of Eurasian societies, the transmission of technologies and ideas, and the challenge of analytical scales which can make the archaeology of Eurasia appear simultaneously homogeneous and highly variable. The lecture part of this course is geared to graduate and undergraduate students alike, providing them with a general overview of the major archaeological phenomena in this region from the early 3rd to the late 1stmillennium BCE. Additionally, the tutorials provide an opportunity for graduate students to discuss case studies and develop a greater awareness of the methodological problems of defining identity groups, investigating cultural contact and human movement in the archaeological record, and assessing the relationships between humans and their natural environment.

Environmental Archaeology
Coordinator: Dr. Michael Charles

The course investigates various types of geoarchaeological and bioarchaeological evidence for the past environment and human interaction with it. Three main areas are covered: soils and sediments; biological remains; and historical ecology. It includes biological evidence for ancient economies (e.g. that given by bones of domestic animals) but not the exploitation of geological resources (e.g. mining). Teaching is based around lectures which consider particular lines of evidence which are then demonstrated in practical classes or field trips as appropriate. Classes and tutorials are used to develop themes which cut across or link the lines of evidence and to provide a theoretical basis for the subject.

Landscape Archaeology and Spatial Technology
Coordinators: Dr Rick Schulting and

This course provides and overview of the key issues in landscape archaeology, highlighting the role of spatial technology in the management and interpretation of the archaeological landscape. It will be delivered through a series of seminars and practical classes which outline the theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches which have furthered our understanding of the development of the cultural and physical landscape. Seminars will explore a wide range of topics, including the tensions between the formal economic models central to spatial archaeology and the discourse on space and place characteristic of more recent humanistic approaches to the landscape. Practical classes will include working with spatial data, archaeological prospection, modelling artefact distributions and analytical GIS.

Topics assessed by essay (List B)

Archaeology and Geographical Information Systems
Coordinators: and Dr Rick Schulting

This course provides a practical introduction to the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in archaeology. Since it's adoption in the late 1980s, GIS has become an essential part of the archaeological tool kit and has revolutionised the way in which archaeologists manage spatial data and think about spatial relationships. Whilst the use of GIS has been widely criticised for encouraging retrogressive positive approaches, the potential of GIS for enabling a 'humanised' approach to the archaeological landscape was recognised early in the adoption process. Seminars and practical classes will highlight the principal trends in GIS-based archaeology, from early applications grounded in formal models and economic theory, including Site Catchment Analysis and Thiessen Polygons, to more recent humanistic approaches based on modelling movement and visibility, including viewshed analysis and Least Cost Pathways. The analytical potential of GIS will be explored within the broader context of spatial archaeology, highlighting the methodological and theoretical implications of GIS-based approaches with reference to key case studies. Practical classes will be based on the topics covered in the seminars and will provide hands on training in the use of ArcGIS and ancillary software including SPSS and Landserf.

Archaeology and Material Culture
Coordinator: Dr Dan Hicks

This paper examines the historical development of the study of material culture in archaeology since the late 19th century, and introduces current debates. It traces the changing status of the study of objects from antiquarianism through the 20th century in culture-historical archaeology, processual and post-processual archaeologies, and in the present. The paper addresses key themes in the archaeological study of material culture, including materiality, museums, technology, aesthetics, material agency, heritage, the built environment, landscapes, consumption and historical change. It introduces contemporary relationships between archaeology and allied disciplines in the study of materiality: including anthropological material culture studies, Science and Technology Studies (STS), Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and non-representational theory. Through two extended essays, students draw upon these theoretical approaches to explore a particular body of material culture of their chosing. The textbook for the paper is The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies (Dan Hicks and Mary Beaudry, eds, Oxford University Press 2010).

Archaeology of Colonialism
Coordinators: Prof Chris Gosden and Dr Dan Hicks

Colonialism has been the dominant element of world history for the last five hundred years and an important aspect of world history for the last 5000 years. Archaeology has much light to throw on colonial forms past and present, complementing written accounts and oral histories. A comparative approach to colonial past and present is taken, drawing on perspectives from post-colonial theory, anthropology, world-systems theory as well as archaeology. Material culture from archaeological sites is an important source for the study of colonialism, but so too are museum collections and archival materials. Through its concentration on the material aspects of human existence archaeology has a unique perspective complementing those drawn from many elements of post-colonial theory which do not consider the material world in any great detail. Case studies which can be considered range from early Mesopotamia, Greek settlements, the Roman Empire, the Incas and Aztecs and colonialism post-1492.

Chinese Archaeology
Coordinator: Dr Anke Hein

This course provides a survey of the archaeology of Ancient China from the early Neolithic (ca. 10,000 BP) through the Qin period (221-208 BC). Each lecture is arranged around a particular set of questions as well as a time period and/or region. In this fashion, this course explores the major cultural developments, focusing on the most important finds in greater detail, while at the same time discussing general archaeological questions and approaches. The class commences by providing an overview of the environmental background as well as the history and organizational structure of archaeological work in China. After setting the stage in this fashion, the course will proceed chronologically, simultaneously covering questions of the emergence of agriculture, settlement patterns, burial practices, beliefs and ritual, craft production, the development of writing, complex societies, urbanization, and finally political unification.

Hunter-gatherers in world perspective
Coordinator: Prof Peter Mitchell

Humans, it has been famously said, have depended on the exploitation of wild plant and animal resources for more than 99 % of their evolution. But hunter-gatherers are defined by more than how they obtain food. This course examines diversity in the organization of hunter-gatherer societies using examples from both the archaeological and anthropological records. Particular themes include mobility and land use patterns, the organization of technology, diet, exchange, gender relations and similarities and contrasts between egalitarian and non-egalitarian hunter-gatherers. In addition, the range of theoretical perspectives from which hunter-gatherer societies have been explored will also be considered. Prominent here are social evolution, middle range theory, optimal foraging, Marxist and structural-Marxist perspectives and neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. Opportunities also exist for making use of the rich archaeological and anthropological collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum in teaching this course.

Interdisciplinary Approaches to Chinese Ceramics
Coordinators: Dr Anke Hein and

The tendency, even today, to refer to high quality translucent white wares as ?china? harks back to a period where this rarefied material was only obtainable from the East. Yet, the production of Chinese porcelain, with all its global impact, is only one late episode in a complex social relationship between humans and clay that stretches back almost 20,000 years. This course focusses on the emergence and development of ceramics in prehistoric and historic China, providing both general training in ceramic analysis and the specific context needed by students wishing to specialize in the study of Eastern Asia.

From the first modern archaeological excavations in China?which uncovered remarkable prehistoric assemblages of elaborately painted earthenware?to long-standing research on Imperial kiln sites and the recent discovery of the earliest pottery in the world, archaeological ceramics research has played an important part in uncovering China?s past. Traditional archaeological approaches will, therefore, form the foundations of the course. However, students will also be shown how archaeological interpretations of pottery in the past can be shaped within frameworks drawn from ethnographic, ethnoarchaeological, and historical research. In addition, by connecting Archaeological Materials component of the MSt course, students will be given a general introduction to suitable techniques for the analysis of both high- and low-fired ceramics.

The course will introduce China?s early relationship ceramics and consider how geography and climate help us to contextualize early finds and understand the character of later production. Focusing on concrete examples from the Chinese Neolithic to the Qing Dynasty, the course will show how ceramics can help us to explore innovation, specialization and centralization in production, to both define and transgress the boundaries of cultural units, and to investigate the character of long-distance exchange.

The course is taught by several specialists, including a practicing potter, who will provide students with insight and perspective into a wide range of research theories and methodologies. Within this framework, the students will have the opportunity to develop a framework for a research project of their own that may lead to a MSt/MPhil dissertation or a DPhil thesis.

Methods and techniques in maritime archaeology
Coordinator: Dr Damian Robinson

The purpose of the course is to provide an up-to-date overview of the current methods and techniques in maritime archaeology and its allied sub-disciplines of maritime history and anthropology. It will also highlight the importance of contemporary issues in maritime archaeology such as the requirement for a robust legislative framework for the management and protection of submerged sites, the problems with treasure hunting and the necessity to document the fast disappearing traditional lifeways of maritime communities. There are no temporal or geographical limits upon the examples of best and worst practise that will be used in this course.

Palaeolithic Archaeology
Coordinator: Prof Nick Barton

This course covers the Palaeolithic period in outline on a world-wide scale, but encourages the development of students' particular interests by treating in greater detail a selection of the most important current themes. Examples of these include: the origins of humans in sub-Saharan Africa; their first spread to other areas of the Old World; the subsequent dispersal of physically 'modern' humans; the technological, social and cognitive developments which characterize the Upper Palaeolithic; and the responses of humans in different regions to the major environmental changes brought about by the rapid ending of the Last Glaciation. Teaching, by lectures, classes and tutorials, is spread over all three terms. The direct study of actual archaeological material is an important supplement to the literature as a source of learning, right through the year.

Practical Archaeobotany
Coordinators: Prof. Amy Bogaard and Dr. Michael Charles

Many current debates in archaeology, ranging from the origins of agriculture to the rise and collapse of urban centres and empires, rely on ideas concerning the production and consumption of plants. This paper introduces the theory and methodology that underpin the analysis of macroscopic plant remains from archaeological deposits. Core topics include the identification of charred and waterlogged plant remains, issues of preservation and recovery, analytical approaches to the interpretation of archaeobotanical data and presentation of results.

The practical component of the paper consists of ten laboratory-based classes (2-3 hours each) and covers the key stages of archaeobotanical investigation, from on-site recovery to sample sorting, identification, quantification and data analysis. The tutorial component (five sessions) focuses on principles underlying analytical techniques and broader issues of interpretation.

Regional studies in Australian and Pacific prehistory
Coordinator: Prof Chris Gosden

The archaeology of Australia and the Pacific spans some 50,000 years of human prehistory and history. These regions are of interest in themselves but also for the light they throw on broader themes of world prehistory, notably: colonization; hunter-gatherer lifestyles, the origins of farming, systems of gift exchange and ritual; and colonialism. Australian prehistory exhibits considerable continuity with attachment to landscape and the longevity of ritual systems being notable elements. Levi-Strauss called Australian Aboriginal people 'the virtuosos of the human mind' due to the complexity of their structures of kinship and ritual. However, only limited elements of these complex structures find expression in material culture, posing considerable challenges for the archaeologist. The Pacific represents the last major area of the earth to be colonised by humans, between 3500 and 1000 years ago. Archaeological, genetic and linguistic evidence throw light on how this colonisation took place. The more recent prehistory of Papua New Guinea and the Pacific sees the rise of sophisticated agricultural forms and complex forms of trade and exchange. Archaeological and anthropological evidence can be combined in understanding the nature of these forms and their changes over time. Colonialism by Europeans and Asians has brought about considerable restructuring of ways of life and archaeology is a vital means of studying these changes, and again needs to be combined with anthropological and historical evidence.

Topics from Archaeological Science MSt/MSc

Materials analysis and the study of technological change
Coordinator: Dr Nathaniel Erb-Satullo

Much of archaeology is about reconstructing human behaviour from material remains - either humanly-modified material (such as stone tools), or artefacts such as pottery, metals, or even buildings. The scientific analysis of such objects can yield a great deal of information, not only about the raw materials, manufacture, use and deposition of the object, but also about the technological choices made by the artisan. This course provides an introduction to materials science and the history of technology; and the theoretical and practical aspects of materials analysis. It focuses on common material types - stone, ceramics, vitreous materials and metals, as well as the provenance of raw materials, and provides some case studies of archaeological problems.

Molecular Bioarchaeology
Coordinator: Dr Rick Schulting

Scientific methods are playing an increasingly important role in archaeological research, and this is particularly true of organic materials. Developments in the analysis of stable isotopes, lipid residues, trace elements and ancient DNA are providing new lines of evidence for a host of central questions, including past subsistence and environmental change, migration and genetic origins. This course provides a detailed, critical overview of these topics, both in terms of the techniques themselves, and their archaeological applications. More traditional bioarchaeological analysis of human, faunal, and plant remains also feature. The course includes a strong practical component, with a series of laboratory-based practicals. It makes use of the ongoing research of both members of staff and research students to present the latest approaches.

Principles and practice of scientific dating
Coordinator: Prof Christopher Ramsey

We need to be able to put past events onto a timescale if we are to understand them properly. Scientific dating allows us to explore the relationship between different sites and regions. Furthermore, chronologies built up from dating and other evidence enable us to understand processes at work in the archaeological record. This course looks at the scientific dating methods most commonly applied, including the practical aspects of radiocarbon, luminescence, tephrochronology and dendrochronology. It also provides an introduction to the use of statistical methods for combination of information from direct dating and other archaeological information. There is a strong emphasis on the critical evaluation of dating evidence.