Palaeolithic Archaeology Stream

Taught Masters Programme for Archaeology (MSt/MPhil)


Coordinator: Prof Nick Barton

This stream allows students to gain from the breadth of expertise in Palaeolithic Archaeology available at Oxford. Choices can be made to study aspects of the subject relevant to different regions, or to develop the skills necessary to do research in this area.

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


Topics assessed by examination or essay (List A) Coordinator(s)
Archaeological method and theoryProf Chris Gosden and Dr Dan Hicks
Environmental ArchaeologyDr. Michael Charles
Topics assessed by essay (List B)
Archaeology and Material CultureDr Dan Hicks
Archaeology of Southern African hunter-gatherersProf Peter Mitchell
Hunter-gatherers in world perspectiveProf Peter Mitchell
Palaeolithic and Mesolithic EuropeProf Nick Barton
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
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)

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.

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.

Topics assessed by essay (List B)

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 Southern African hunter-gatherers
Coordinator: Prof Peter Mitchell

Southern Africa has not only produced some of the oldest fossils of anatomically modern humans, but also has one of the richest and arguably best understood rock art traditions in the world. In addition, anthropological research here has made a significant contribution to both the development of general models of hunter-gatherer economic and social organization and, more recently, to their ongoing critique. This course provides a broad overview of some of the main recent developments in the archaeology of southern Africa's hunter-gatherers. The overall treatment is chronological, from the first anatomically modern humans at Klasies River Mouth to the impact of the Namibian liberation war on Bushman communities in the Kalahari. Within this framework, the emphasis will be placed on changing paradigms in the explanation of the Middle and Later Stone Age past and on the relationship between archaeological and anthropological data in understanding social and economic change. The relations between hunter-gatherers and the pastoralist, farming and settler societies with whom they have increasingly shared the southern African landscape over the past 2000 years form another major theme. The extensive southern African collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum are available for the teaching of this course, all the literature for which is in English.

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.

Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Europe
Coordinator: Prof Nick Barton

A study of the earliest arrival of humans in Europe more than a million years ago, and subsequent developments during the Pleistocene and the earlier Holocene (to 4000 BC). Archaeological evidence is used to explore the behavioural responses of archaic and modern humans to climatic and environmental change, and to trace technological, social, economic and cognitive development. Direct study of artefacts supplements the written sources

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

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.