Environmental Archaeology Stream 2022 - 2023

Image © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Environmental Archaeology stream explores the role of environmental archaeology in the understanding of past human societies.

Recovery of evidence of biological remains and their soil matrix is nowadays typically a key part of archaeological investigation, both on- and off-site. Critical evaluation of the possibilities and limitations of the evidence recovered is important for the subject to play its full role in the analysis and interpretation of human activity in relationship to the environment.

The history of the discipline is considered as a basis of its development into a core aspect of present-day archaeology. Focus is given to both the methods used to study the interplay between past economies and environments and the theoretical framework that interpretation requires.

Topics covered:

  • Preservation & recovery of bio-archaeological material
  • Identification & quantification of bio-archaeological material
  • Bio-molecular approaches
  • Ecology of past societies
  • Theoretical issues in environmental archaeology including niche construction and environmental determinism
  • Climate change and human activity
  • Food production and consumption
  • Land use and environmental impacts

The stream combines lectures, tutorials and laboratory based practicals to introduce students to a broad range of bio-archaeological approaches [including: archaeobotany [macro- & micro-], palynology, and archaeozoology]. These general principals are then directly applied through detailed study of plant macro and micro-remains.

The School hosts dedicated laboratories for the recovery, processing, identification, digital recording and isotopic analysis of plant-based materials [charred seed, pollen, phytoliths, starch etc]. There are extensive reference collections of seeds, herbarium and micro-fossil specimens from Europe and Western Asia.

You will take one module from List A, and one or two from List B. You will also take the Archaeological Principles module, and complete a 15,000-word dissertation on a stream-related topic.

If you take only one stream module from List B below, you will take another module offered from either: List B in any other stream*; the MSt in Classical Archaeology*; or a subject from the MSc in Archaeological Science* (please note that if you select the Bioarchaeology module you will not be able to choose another module from the Archaeological Sciences Programme).

*Not all offered every year

List A (Assessed by Written Examination)

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Mammoth Bones

Lectures cover the principles of palaeoenvironmental reconstruction as well as exploring examples of how these data are used in archaeological site investigations, and in documenting broad shifts in past climates and landscapes and human behaviour. Examples are drawn from Old and New World settings. Teaching is based around seminars which consider the methods and theories relating to the discipline and its role within the field of archaeology. These themes are then further explored in the field or laboratory as appropriate.

Module Co-ordinator: Dr. Mike Charles


List B (Assessed by two 5000-Word Essays)

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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 eight 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.

Coordinators: Dr. Mike Charles




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.

It is not normally possible to select the Bioarchaeology module in conjunction with an additional module from the Archaeological Science programme. Please contact pgt-support@arch.ox.ac.uk for more information if you are considering taking this module. 

Module Co-ordinator: Dr. Amy Styring

More information on the MSc Archaeological Science

This module presents the latest (bio)archaeological research into the origins and establishment of agriculture in western Asia, focussing on the Epipalaeolithic-Neolithic but also considering case studies from subsequent periods to illustrate the long-term development of farming. Through lectures, tutorials and museum-based classes we set out the chronological and material culture framework to assess the direct archaeobotanical and archaeozoological evidence for domestication relationships and management ecology in different ecological settings and through time. Geographically we focus not only on the ‘Fertile Crescent’ (the arc of relatively high rainfall extending from the southern Levant in the south-west through Syria, SE Turkey and N Iraq in its central zone and down through the Zagros mountains of Iran in the east) but also on adjacent regions (e.g. central Anatolia) that are proving equally important to the origins story and/or to its longer term consequences.'

Module Co-ordinator: Prof. Amy Bogaard and Dr. Mike Charles

Previous Dissertation/Essay Titles

  • The Neolithic Plant Economy of Tell Nebi Mend, Syria
  • Plant Intentionality and the Domestic Space of Neolithic Central Europe
  • Who killed the elm? A multi-disciplinary investigation of a single species decline

Please note that the modules and streams listed on this website are indicative of the typical offerings and are subject to review each year. Whilst every effort is made to offer the full variety of modules/streams this is not possible to do every year. This is due to the fact that some modules/streams are dependent on student numbers to ensure an appropriate quality of education; timetable clashes; staff availability; etc. We aim to keep the website as up-to-date as possible but we recommend that you seek specific advice from pgt-support@arch.ox.ac.uk on module/stream availability.