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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

MSc Bioarchaeology

Apply science to the past – learn skills for the future

Human Osteology – Zooarchaeology – Archaeobotany – Geoarchaeology – Biomolecular Archaeology – Chronometry

Bioarchaeology research at Durham University is at cutting-edge, exploratory, world-wide in scope, and internationally renowned. We see bioarchaeology as the scientific study of the whole of the biosphere for understanding the human past – not just human remains, but all biological materials and their environmental contexts. This creates a uniquely interdisciplinary, creative, and dynamic environment for bioarchaeology learning and research at Durham. Combined with our state-of-the-art laboratory facilities, which are unsurpassed in the UK, we believe this is why we and our students are so regularly involved with new scientific breakthroughs and important archaeological discoveries.

The Durham MSc in Bioarchaeology is the only programme in the world that allows you to combine human osteology, zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, or geoarchaeology with isotope analysis, ancient DNA, or chronometric techniques – or to specialise in one of these techniques individually. Through their practical project work, our students play an active role in the development, testing, and application of new methods, and many of our MSc students have produced highly original, publishable research.


  • A uniquely flexible programme that can be tailored to your individual interests, skills needs, and career aspirations
  • Advanced training in biomolecular archaeology, environmental archaeology, palaeoecology, or chronometry delivered by the UK’s leading researchers
  • Potential to combine environmental archaeology and biomolecular techniques to build practical skills in more than one field
  • Train and conduct your own research in our in-house world-class laboratories
  • Work side-by-side with world-leading researchers on exciting archaeological research projects, many run by our own staff and our in-house commercial unit, and see your research make an important contribution to the understanding of the past
  • Be mentored by friendly, supportive and caring staff with experience and success at helping MSc students navigate into employment or doctoral studies

F4KB09 Bioarchaeology MSc Postgraduate Taught  2019



Degree MSc
Mode of study Part Time + Full Time
Duration 1 Year (full-time), or 2 Years (part-time).
Location Durham City
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Course Summary

Course Summary


Bioarchaeology is a branch of Archaeology that focuses on the study of biological materials found in archaeological contexts to provide information about the life and environment of humans in the past. It is a fast-paced and continually evolving field with new breakthroughs and discoveries emerging almost every month. Studying the subject at Durham University opens the door to the latest developments and state-of-the-art laboratories in archaeological science, including stable isotope mass spectrometry, ancient DNA, materials analysis, luminescence dating, environmental archaeology, human osteology and geoarchaeology.

The course is lecture, seminar and laboratory based and designed so that students can specialise in a chosen field and obtain the skills and knowledge of how to obtain and interpret data from biological assemblages. We specialise and teach in areas such as human and animal dispersal and mobility, human health, palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, human-animal-environment relations and subsistence strategies. Many of the human, animal and environmental assemblages our students work with for their research derive from ongoing staff research projects, current Departmental excavations or our in-house commercial unit, Archaeological Services. The course is aimed at inquisitive graduates from science or archaeology with or without past experience of Bioarchaeology, and for those who aspire to continue into a PhD programme or work in contract archaeology.


Course Structure

The  course is structured in three terms: Michaelmas (October-December), Epiphany (January-March), Easter (April-June) and Summer (July-September). The teaching in the course includes:

- Two taught modules in the Michaelmas term: one core module ("Research and Study Skills in Archaeological Science") and one optional module to choose between "Identification and Analysis of the Normal Human Skeleton" (common to the MSc in Palaeopathology) or "Environmental Archaeology".

- Two taught modules in the Epiphany term: one core module ("Topics in Archaeological Science") and one optional module to choose between "Isotopic and Biomolecular Archaeology" or "Practical Guided Study".

- One double module over Easter term and Summer term ("Dissertation") with a submission deadline in early September.


Core Modules:

  • Research and Study Skills in Archaeological Science (Michaelmas)
  • Topics in Archaeological Science (Epiphany)
  • Dissertation (double module) (Easter and Summer)


Optional modules:

  • Identification and Analysis of the Normal Human Skeleton (Michaelmas)
  • Environmental Archaeology (Michaelmas)
  • Isotopic and Biomolecular Archaeology (Epiphany)
  • Practical Guided Study (Epiphany)


Learning and Teaching

Course Learning and Teaching

The program is delivered through a mixture of lectures, seminars, tutorials, workshops and laboratory practicals. Lectures provide the student with key information on a particular topic, and identify the main areas for discussion and debate among archaeologists. Seminars and tutorials provide opportunities for smaller groups of student-led discussion and debate of particular issues based on the knowledge gained through lectures and independent study outside the programme’s formal contact hours. Practical classes and workshops allow the student to gain direct experience of practical and interpretative skills in Archaeological Science with guidance from experienced and qualified scientists in Archaeology. Finally, through independent supervised study the student will be to develop and undertake a research project to an advanced level. Throughout the programme emphasis is placed on working independently outside the contact hours, to read widely, explore and synthesise larger datasets and to develop critical and analytical skills to an advanced level.

The balance of activities changes over the course of the programme.

In Term 1 the emphasis is upon students acquiring the generic knowledge and practical skills needed to undertake scientific study in archaeology whilst acquiring the basic skills in an area of specialism: human osteoarchaeology or environmental archaeology. In the module "Identification and Analysis of the normal human skeleton" students learn how to record and interpret human skeletal data. In the module "Environmental Archaeology" the students are introduced to several aspects of environmental archaeology: archaeobotany, archaeozoology, geoarchaeology and dating methods.

In Term 2 the balance shifts towards a more hands-on and interpretative approach. In the module "Isotopic and Biomolecular Archaeology" students learn the various methods of studying organic and inorganic materials, e.g. isotopic and DNA analysis. The other optional module, "Practical Guided Study" is a lab-based module, which enables the student to receive practical tuition in one of the sub-fields of environmental archaeology (zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, or geoarchaeology), and to conduct a substantial lab-based and interpretive project. This module has a strong emphasis on practical laboratory work in preparation for the dissertation. In addition, the module "Topics in Archaeological Science" introduces current key topics and central research themes in archaeology, providing the students with tools to examine and debate relevant archaeological theory and the 'big questions' to which scientific methods are applied. While the precise topics presented vary from year to year depending on current issues and staff research expertise, they are usually centred around the themes of chronologies in archaeology, reconstructing palaeoenvironments and palaeoeconomies, human impact on the environment and climate change, human health and environment, animal husbandry and domestication and human dispersals and mobility. Outside timetabled contact hours, students are expected to undertake their own independent study to prepare effectively for their classes, work in the laboratory, focus on their subject knowledge and develop a research agenda.

The balance shifts to independent study into Term 3, as students develop the ability to conduct independent research as part of their dissertation work. The dissertation is regarded as the capstone of the taught programme and an indicator of advanced research potential, which could be developed further in a professional or academic field. Under the supervision of a member of academic staff, students undertake a detailed study of a particular theme or area resulting in a significant piece of independent research. Students typically have ten one-hour supervisory meetings with his/her supervisor and it is also expected that they interact with technical lab staff and other postgraduates and PDRAs as they carry out their research.

Throughout the programme, students have access to an “academic advisor”, usually the director of the course, who provides them with academic support and guidance. Typically a student will meet with their adviser three times a year. In addition, all teaching staff members have weekly office hours when they are available to meet with students on a ‘drop-in’ basis. The department also has a vibrant research community and offers an exciting programme of Departmental, research group and postgraduate research seminars that students are strongly encouraged to attend.


Admissions Process

Subject requirements, level and grade

A minimum of an upper second-class (2:1) degree or equivalent; GPA of 3.3 or above in Archaeology, Anthropology, Biology, Biochemistry, Chemistry or related disciplines.

Relevant working experience will be also considered.


Reference Requirements:

Two satisfactory references are required.

Application Deadlines:

There is no specific deadline for applications, although applications for any given academic year must be received before the start of that academic year (i.e. applications for the 2019/20 academic year must be received before October 2019).

Tuition fee deposit:

All self-financing overseas students are required to pay a £1000 tuition fee deposit if an offer from the Department of Archaeology is accepted. The tuition fee deposit is paid before the University issues a Confirmation of Acceptance to Study (CAS) number, which is required in order to apply for a visa.

£500 deposit is also payable by Home/EU applicants if an offer of a place from the Department of Archaeology is accepted.

English Language requirements

Please check requirements for your subject and level of study.

How to apply

Fees and Funding

Fees and Funding

Full Time Fees

EU Student £8,500.00 per year
Home Student £8,500.00 per year
Island Student £8,500.00 per year
International non-EU Student £18,300.00 per year

Part Time Fees

EU Student £4,700.00 per year
Home Student £4,700.00 per year
International non-EU Student £10,100.00 per year

Note: Fees are subject to review and change in-line with inflation.

Please also check costs for colleges and accommodation.

Scholarships and funding

Open Days and Visits

Open days and visits

Pre-application open day

Overseas Visit Schedule

Postgraduate Visits


MSc Bioarchaeology Postgraduate Open Day Live Webinar Event February 13th, 2019

If you are unable to attend Durham University’s Postgraduate Open Day on 13th February 2019 in person, this is an opportunity for you to attend the event live, online. Follow the link on the Department's Facebook page.

Find out more about the Archaeology Department and the MSc Bioarchaeology programme, meet the programme director, and tour our world-class archaeological science labs. Ask any questions, live, using Facebook, Twitter, SMS, or telephone.

To register your participation, and to receive more information about the event and how you can join it, please email the Archaeology Department’s Postgraduate Secretary, Louise Gascoigne, at, by 11th February 2019.

You can also view the video of our last PGT Open Day Live Streaming event at the Department of Archaeology, on November 28, 2018

It’s a very unique programme. There aren’t a lot like it in the States or in the UK. We got to learn the process behind analysing a sample set, which is really valuable.
The course motivated me to think creatively about how to combine my passion for understanding past societies with my knowledge of disease, genetics, and epidemiology. This course also dramatically improved not only my scientific writing but also my ability to read scientific literature with a more critical and observant eye. For example, I have learnt the importance of questioning protocols and results and reviewing the statistics and other methods that researchers use to present their data. This is an important skill because science should always be questioned in order to make progress.

Maggie Scollan (USA) - MSc Archaeological Science 2014-15