Discovering the Past with Molecular Science (ARC2130)

StaffDr Alex Pryor -
Credit Value15
ECTS Value7.5
NQF Level5
Duration of Module Term 2: 11 weeks;

Module aims

This module aims to introduce students from first principles to the use of stable and radioactive isotopes, residue analysis and genetics in archaeological research. No prior knowledge of the techniques involved will be assumed, and the course will provide a foundational knowledge of the core scientific principles that underpin their application in archaeology. Students will be introduced to a range of case study examples of the application of each technique covering a range of time periods and geographic locations. By the end of the course students will be able to interpret, assess and critique published datasets generated using these techniques. 

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 1. Know and understand the use of stable and radioactive isotopes, residues and genetics in archaeological research
  • 2. Demonstrate ability to interpret scientific datasets and the implications for understanding the archaeological record.
  • 3. Demonstrate familiarity with key case study examples of the application of techniques presented in this module

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

  • 4. Appreciate the contribution of archaeological science to current debates

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 5. Understand basic statistical methods for analyzing data
  • 6. Present data and interpretation to peers in seminar/workshop settings
  • 7. Assess and synthesise data from qualitative and quantitative sources
  • 8. Write clearly and concisely in good English

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • Radioactive and stable isotopes and their uses in archaeological research
  • Isotopes and diet
  • Isotopes and palaeoclimate
  • Isotopes and migration
  • Genetics and ancient DNA
  • Lipid and protein residues analysis

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching18Lectures
Scheduled Learning and Teaching4Seminar discussions and formative student presentations
Guided independent study128Independent study

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Seminar presentations10 minutes group presentations, plus class participation1,3-4,6Oral feedback (lecturer and peers)

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Data interpretation exercise, using data provided by the lecturer502000 word report1-5,7-8Written
Examination at end of the module501.5 hour closed-book examination1-5,7-8Written

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Data interpretation exercise, using data provided by the lecturerData interpretation exercise, using data provided by the lecturer, 2000 words1-5,7-8Ref/Def period
Examination at end of the moduleExamination at end of the module1,3-5,7Ref/Def period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment. 

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Allentoft, M.E., Sikora, et al. (2015) Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia. Nature, 522 (7555), 167-172.
  • Ambrose, S.H. and Krigbaum, J. 2003 Bone chemistry and bioarchaeology. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 22(3):193-199
  • Bentley, R.A. (2006) Strontium Isotopes from the Earth to the Archaeological Skeleton: A Review. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory Vol 13 (3) 135-187.
  • Brothwell, D.R. and Pollard, A.M. (eds.) (2001) Handbook of archaeological sciences. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Brown, T. and K. Brown (2011) Biomolecular archaeology: an introduction Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell
  • Evershed, R.P. (2008) Organic residue analysis in archaeology: the archaeological biomarker revolution. Archaeometry 50(6), 895–924.
  • Fu, Q., Posth, C., et al. (2016) The genetic history of Ice Age Europe. Nature, 534 (7606), 200-205.
  • Leng, M.J. (ed.) (2006) Isotopes in Palaeoenvironmental Research. Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Pääbo, S. (2014) The Human Condition–A Molecular Approach. Cell, 157 (1), 216-226.
  • Pollard, M., Batt, C., Stern, B. and Young, S.M.M. (2007) Analytical chemistry in archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Pollard, A.M. and Heron, C. (2008) Archaeological Chemistry. Cambridge: The Royal Society of Chemistry.

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Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

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Key words search

Archaeology, science, isotopes, residues