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Department of Archaeology

MSc Palaeopathology


This unique MSc programme is led by Professor Charlotte Roberts, one of the leading specialists in the world.

Palaeopathology is part of the discipline of bioarchaeology and is defined as the study of past disease. As archaeologists, we attempt to investigate the way people lived in the past. This is usually achieved by studying excavated remains such as pottery, buildings and a multitude of other archaeological evidence; the actual people who created these cultural remains can often be forgotten. People's ill health can compromise how societies functioned, past and present. We have designed this programme to take a holistic view of disease, as in clinical contexts today, and to prepare you to undertake significant research projects in this subject, or to work in contract archaeology. The emphasis is on health and well-being using a multidisciplinary approach, and the consideration of biological evidence for disease within a socioeconomic, cultural and political context (the bioarchaeological approach).

You will focus on theoretical and practical knowledge of how to study and interpret data collected from excavated human remains. Please note that, while this is not a forensic anthropology course per se, we do teach many of the methods of analysis that are used in forensic anthropology for the identification of victims of crime.

This degree will provide you with a wide range of transferable skills suitable for a variety of professions or future research - 57% of our graduates have either continued working with skeletal remains, found employment in universities, museums, and as bioarchaeologists in the field, or undertaken further study. 24% have continued their research at doctoral level and beyond.


Find out more about entry requirements, mode of study, duration of the course and tuition fees here. (Note: this link will direct you to the University's central course tool. Use the link provided to return to the Department of Archaeology homepage.)

Find out more about funding your programme here.

How will I be taught?

The programme is mainly delivered through a mixture of lectures, seminars and practical classes. Each module is made up of 300 'learning hours'.

Typically lectures provide key information on a particular area and identify the main areas for discussion and debate among palaeopathologists. Seminars provide opportunities for smaller groups to discuss and debate particular issues or areas, based on the knowledge that you have gained through your lectures and through independent study outside of the programme's formal contact hours. Practical laboratory classes allow you to gain practical skills including the identification and interpretation of skeletal remains. Such classes provide an important element of the programme as they allow for independent and group work, as well as hands-on experience under laboratory conditions, which is essential for a future working environment.

The balance of these types of activities changes over the course of the programme as you develop your knowledge and your ability as an independent learner. In Term 1 you typically attend 3 hours a week of lectures and 2 hours of laboratory sessions, in addition to 1 seminar and 4 workshops. Outside timetabled contact hours, you are also expected to undertake independent study to prepare for your classes and broaden your subject knowledge.

In Term 2 the balance shifts from learning the basic skills required to applying them within the discipline of Palaeopathology, and to developing the necessary skills for identifying palaeopathological conditions in human skeletal remains and their limitations. In addition, the Themes module aims to develop in you a critical approach to the evaluation of multiple forms of biological and cultural evidence for the reconstruction of specific themes. In Term 2, you typically attend an average of 4 lectures a week, 2 seminars and 2 laboratory sessions, in addition to 4 workshops a term.

The move towards greater emphasis on independent learning and research continues in Term 3 and beyond, where the use of research skills acquired earlier in the programme are developed through the dissertation research project. Under the supervision of a member of academic staff with whom you will typically have 4 one-on-one supervisory meetings, you will undertake a detailed study of a particular area, resulting in a piece of independent research. The dissertation is regarded as preparation for further professional or academic work.

Throughout the programme, you will have access to an academic advisory who will provide you with academic support and guidance. Typically you will meet your advisor 2 to 3 times a year, in addition to which all members of the teaching staff have weekly office hours when they are available to meet with you on a 'drop-in' basis. The department also has an exciting programem of weekly 1 hour research seminars that postgraduate students are strongly encouraged to attend. Additionally, as a student on the MSc Palaeopathology course, you are provided with the opportunity to attend 4 journal paper critique sessions per term.

We will provide you with a wide range of skills essential for working in a related profession or undertaking future research. This course benefits from excellent learning resources and cross-collaborative links with other departments. The Fenwick Human Osteology Laboratory, in which most of this programme is taught, is well equipped with teaching materials including a full range of anatomical models, analytical equipment and skeletal collections for teaching and research. To develop your network of academic contacts, you are encouraged to work on skeletal material outside of Durham for your dissertation, and the staff have international collaborations around the world that enable you to work in different countries.

What will I be studying?

The course is one year in duration (full-time) and is composed of six modules, four of which are taught between October and March (Terms 1 and 2). A further two modules make up the dissertation (15,000 words), which is undertaken during the summer and submitted by September. The modules comprising the course are:

Research and Study Skills in Archaeological Science

This module enables you to acquire an understanding of research methods, and study and presentation skills in archaeological sciences, and more specifically in palaeopathology. Generic areas covered include computing and statistics, academic and ‘popular’ writing skills, oral and poster presentation skills and aspects of preparing for your future career.

Delivery: lectures, workshops and laboratory sessions.

Assessment: grant application, article critique and statistics exercise.

Identification and Analysis of the Normal Human Skeleton

This module provides you with grounding in the normal anatomy and physiology of the human skeleton so that subsequently, you will be able to recognise abnormal variations representing disease or injury. Methods of identification of human remains along with the recording and analysis of sex, age, stature and non-metric traits are also considered, plus palaeodemography.

Delivery: lectures and lab sessions.

Assessment: practical test and essay.

Palaeopathology: Theory and Method

This module provides an awareness of how palaeopathology has developed as a discipline, key landmarks, and how it relates to archaeology/anthropology. It also develops the necessary skills for identification of palaeopathological conditions in a wider context, such as the need to consider differential diagnoses and pseudopathology, and a global history of disease is reviewed.

Delivery: lectures and laboratory sessions.

Assessment: practical test and essay.

Themes in Palaeopathology

Palaeopathology is so often considered a discipline detached from any cultural interpretation and can stand as a study of disease for its own sake. In this module the emphasis is on using palaeopathology as just one piece of evidence in linking biological data for disease with cultural contextual data. Palaeopathology is used as one form of information in the reconstruction of particular themes in archaeology such as eating (economy/diet), living (environment), travelling and migrating (contact/trade and conflict), caring (treating health problems) and working (occupation). Variables such as age (lifecycles), sex, gender and social status, and their effects on health, are also considered.

Delivery: lectures and seminars.

Assessment: poster presentation and essay.

Dissertation (double module)

The dissertation allows you to pursue an area of particular interest from the course in a focused research project. This may be a practically or text based piece of research. You are encouraged to develop your own ideas for the dissertation, although staff can provide guidance and suggestions. Staff also work with you during the course of the project. In addition, it may be possible for you to study material in other institutions around the world through contacts with colleagues. The research leads to the production of a 15,000 word thesis submitted by September.

Who will teach me?

Professor Charlotte Roberts has more than 20 years of research experience in bioarchaeology. She has published widely in the field, especially in palaeopathology, and together with Keith Manchester wrote the key textbook The Archaeology of Disease (3rd edition, August 2005). Other senior authored books (2003) are Health and Disease in Britain, Prehistory to the Present Day and The Bioarchaeology of Tuberculosis: a global perspective on a re-emerging disease and her recent book “Human remains in Archaeology – A handbook (2009)”.

Dr. Becky Gowland is a bioarchaeologist whose key research interests are in health, gender and age identity in Roman and Anglo-Saxon England. The integration of skeletal evidence with social theories of identity has been the theme of much of her research and this was the subject of her co-edited book The Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. Dr Gowland has published widely on techniques of estimating age-at-death, social perceptions of childhood and the elderly in the past, and health in the Roman world. Current research includes childhood health in Roman London, morbidity and mortality in the Anglo-Saxon fenlands, the taphonomic effects of marine submersion on human bone, and social perceptions of disability in early Anglo-Saxon England.

Please note that Dr Gowland will be on research leave 2014-15 academic year, and Professor Roberts will be responsible for most of the delivery of the course.

Guest Lecturers for 2012-13 include:

Richard Annis (Archaeological Services, Durham University)

Professor Don Brothwell (University of York)

Keri Brown (University of Manchester)

Professor Terry Brown (University of Manchester)

Professor Andrew Chamberlain (University of Manchester)

Dr Tim Thompson (Teesside University)

What is my next step?

For more information about applying for the MSc in Palaeopathology, please visit How to Apply.

All Home/EU applicants offered a place on the MSc Palaeopathology course will be asked to pay a £500 deposit by 1 April 2014. For offers made by the Department after 1 April 2014, each applicant will have 4 weeks to pay the £500 deposit from the official offer letter. This £500 deposit will be deducted from the first instalment of fees after starting the course in September 2014. Please note, that this £500 deposit will only be refunded in the event of the applicant not meeting their conditions set out in the official offer letter.

All Overseas applicants offered a place on the MSc Palaeopathology course will be asked to pay a £1000 deposit no later than 6 weeks following any official offer emailed letter. Please note, that this £1000 deposit will only be refunded in the event of the applicant failing to meet their conditions set out in the official offer letter or refusal of a visa for entry to the UK. Please ensure that you read this information concerning the deposit.

This £1000 deposit will be deducted from the first instalment of fees after starting the course in September 2014.

“I am impressed with the rigor and breadth of the MSc course in Paleopathology at Durham University. It should be of interest to any serious student of ancient health and disease.”

Professor Jane Buikstra, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University, USA

Katie Hunt

"The professors and faculty are clearly at the forefront of the field and sincerely care about our progress in and out of the classroom. The type of personal attention and resources available has been so valuable to me, and has provided me with the knowledge, experience and confidence to pursue my passion in bioarchaeology."

Katie Hunt - MSc Palaeopathology, 2012-13.

Aja Sutton

"Entering the course as an historian with archaeological field experience, I was unsure what to expect of the MSc in Palaeopathology. I am glad to say it fulfilled and indeed exceeded my expectations. The course is fast-paced and intensive, but this should not daunt the student coming into bioarchaeology from a different field. I can proudly say that the interdisciplinary abilities I gained through this course have left me a more well-rounded academic and person."

Aja Sutton - MSc Palaeopathology, 2012-13.

Kori Lea Filipek

"I’ve not only been able to gain training from researchers that I’ve long admired, but have also had opportunities to work on additional research projects, gain training in other specialisations, and tangibly analyse skeletal remains with conditions I would not otherwise have access to. I’ve been able to see things for the first time outside of poorly produced photographs in books and articles, and beyond that, tutored on the subsequent mechanisms and methods for above-standard analysis."

Kori Lea Filipek - MSc Palaeopathology, 2012-13.