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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

All Research Projects

The Taphonomic Effects of Marine Submersion on Human Skeletal Remains

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


The transformative effects of water on bones are so poorly understood that it is not always possible to state: whether recovered bones are archaeological or modern in origin; the submersion times of the remains; or the nature of the submersive aquatic environment. This study aims to resolve these important gaps in our knowledge. English Heritage has stated that climate change threatens the survival of thousands of archaeological sites due to the ‘devastating' effects of coastal erosion and flooding. The destruction of these archaeological contexts has a direct effect on one of the most important foci of archaeological, anthropological and forensic study: human remains. Bones provide archaeologists, anthropologists and palaeoecologists with an important physical and chemical ‘archive' for reconstructing past diets, mobility and palaeoenvironments. An understanding of diagenetic processes in coastal contexts is fundamental to subsequent osteological analysis and the construction of accurate archaeological and forensic knowledge.

This multidisciplinary project is a collaboration between Dr Rebecca Gowland, Dr Charlotte Thompson (researcher in coastal sediment dynamics, National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton), and Dr Tim Thompson (School of Science and Engineering, Teesside University). Attached to this project is the NERC funded PhD student Samuel Griffiths.


The project is funded by the following grant.

  • Investigating Morbidity And Malaria In Anglo-saxon Wetland Environments (£7485.00 from The British Academy)

Published Results

Journal Article

  • DeBattista, R, Thompson, T J U, Thompson, C E & Gowland, R L (2013). A comparison of surface features on submerged and non-submerged bone using scanning electron microscopy. Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine 20(6): 770-776.
  • Thompson, C. E. L., Ball, S., Thompson, T. J. U. & Gowland, R. L. (2011). The abrasion of modern and archaeological bone by mobile sediments: the importance of transport modes. Journal of Archaeological Science 38: 784-793.


From the Department of Archaeology

Scottish Soldiers Project

Cooperating with the Palace Museum in China