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Department of Archaeology

F4K809 Palaeopathology MSc

Degree MSc
Year of Entry 2016
Mode of study Part Time + Full Time
Duration 1 year (full-time) or 2 years (part-time)
Location Durham City
Department(s) Website
Telephone +44 (0)191 334 1100


Palaeopathology is the study of past disease in human remains; it is a sub-discipline of bioarchaeology (study of human remains from archaeological sites). This lecture, seminar and laboratory based MSc equips students with the theoretical and practical skills knowledge of how to study and interpret data collected from human remains. The emphasis is on health and well-being using a multidisciplinary approach, linking biological evidence for disease with cultural data (the bioarchaeological approach). This course is unique in the world and it takes a holistic view of disease, as seen in a clinical contexts today, and prepares students for undertaking significant research projects in this subject, or working in contract archaeology, and many other fields. It is aimed at graduates mainly in archaeology and anthropology with or without past experience of knowledge in this field, and for those who aspire to continue into a PhD programme or work in contract archaeology. However, past students have come from a variety of subject backgrounds, and destination data illustrate a wide range of employments take these students.

Course Structure

Two taught modules in the Epiphany term (Research and Study Skills in Archaeological Science and Identification and Analysis of the Normal Human Skeleton), and two taught modules in Michaelmas term (Palaeopathology: Theory and Method; Themes in Palaeopathology), with the double module dissertation over Easter term and the summer (submitted early September).

Core Modules

  • Research and Study Skills in Archaeological Science
  • Identification and Analysis of the Normal Human Skeleton
  • Palaeopathology: Theory and Method
  • Themes in Palaeopathology
  • Dissertation (double module).

The programme is mainly delivered through a mixture of lectures, seminars and practical classes. Typically lectures provide key information on a particular area, and identify the main areas for discussion and debate in bioarchaeology. Seminars then provide opportunities for smaller groups of students to discuss and debate particular issues or areas, based on the knowledge that they have gained through their lectures and through independent study outside the programme’s formal contact hours. Finally, practical laboratory classes allow students to gain direct practical skills in the recording and interpretation of data from skeletal remains. The latter provide an important element of the programme in allowing independent and group work, as well as hands-on experience under laboratory conditions, essential for a potential future working environment.

The balance of these types of activities changes over the course of the programme, as students develop their knowledge and ability as independent learners, giving them the opportunity to engage in research, professional practice, and developing and demonstrating research skills in a particular area of the subject.

In Term 1 students typically attend 4 hours a week of lectures and 2.5 hours of laboratory sessions, in addition to seminars over the term. Outside timetabled contact hours, students are also expected to undertake their own independent study to prepare for their classes and broaden their subject knowledge. External speakers specializing in specific subject areas from “industry” and academia are brought in to engage the students on issues in research, but also in the profession.

In Term 2 the balance shifts from learning the basic skills required for recording and interpreting skeletal data (age at death, sex, normal variation), to further developing skills for palaeopathological data recording and their interpretation and understanding the limitations. In addition, the Themes module aims to develop in students a critical approach to the evaluation of multiple forms of evidence, beyond that for human remains, for the reconstruction of specific themes. It focuses on discussion and debate of different related issues. In Term 2 students typically attend 4 hours a week of lectures and 2.5 hours of laboratory sessions, in addition to seminars over the term. Again, external speakers specializing in specific subject areas from “industry” and academia are brought in to engage the students on issues in research, but also in the profession.

The move towards greater emphasis on independent learning and research continues in Term 3 and beyond, where the 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 they will typically have three one-to-one supervisory meetings, students undertake a detailed study of a particular area, resulting in a significant piece of independent research. The dissertation is regarded as a preparation for further professional or academic work. In Term 3 students are given the opportunity to attend a Careers Session in the Department where past graduates of the course talk about their career trajectories since graduating.

Throughout the programme, all students have access to an “academic adviser”, or in the case of this MSc the two Directors (Professor Charlotte Roberts and Dr Rebecca Gowland), who provide them with academic support and guidance. Typically a student meets their adviser two to three times a year, in addition to which all members of teaching staff have weekly office hours when they are available to meet with students on a ‘drop-in’ basis. The department also has an exciting programme of weekly one hour research seminars which postgraduate students are strongly encouraged to attend. Additionally, the students who attend the MSc Palaeopathology course are provided with the opportunity to attend journal paper critique sessions each term, and human bioarchaeology seminars given by PhD students.

Subjects required, level and graded

A minimum of an upper second class (2:1) degree or equivalent; GPA of 3.3 or above.

English Language requirements

Please check requirements for your subject and level of study

Requirements and Admissions

Information relevant to your country


Fees shown are for one year. Total fee will depend on the length of your programme. All fees are subject to annual increases. For more information please visit the Tuition Fees page

EU student fees


Home student fees


Islands student fees


International non-EU student fees


Please also check costs for colleges and accommodation.

Scholarships and funding

“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.