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Durham University


F4KB09 Bioarchaeology MSc Postgraduate Taught  2020


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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Department(s) Website

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)


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 2020/21 academic year must be received before October 2020).

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

Full Time Fees

EU Student £9,700.00 per year
Home Student £9,700.00 per year
Island Student £9,700.00 per year
International non-EU Student £19,800.00 per year

Part Time Fees

EU Student £5,300.00 per year
Home Student £5,300.00 per year
Island Student £5,300.00 per year
International non-EU Student £10,900.00 per year

The tuition fees shown are for one complete academic year of study, are set according to the academic year of entry, and remain the same throughout the duration of the programme for that cohort (unless otherwise stated).

Please also check costs for colleges and accommodation.

Scholarships and funding

Career Opportunities

Department of Archaeology

Many of our postgraduates move into an academic career, either teaching or by taking up post-doctoral research positions in universities. Others join museums or national and regional heritage organisations. Some work in professional archaeology, in national or local planning departments, while others elect to use their analytical and presentation skills to gain positions in industry, commerce and government.

For further information on career options and employability, including the results of the Destination of Leavers survey, student and employer testimonials and details of work experience and study abroad opportunities, please visit our employability web pages.

Open days and visits

Pre-application open day

Overseas Visit Schedule

Postgraduate Visits


Department Information

Department of Archaeology


Our internationally respected research expertise will provide you with some of the best resources available for archaeological research. We have one of only three commercial archaeology units in the UK based in a university department here at Durham. You will be able to work with experts in the field and will have access to state-of-the-art laboratories and specialised facilities. Among the best in the world, our MA programmes – including Museum and Artefact Studies, International Cultural Heritage Management, and Conservation of Archaeological and Museum Objects – offer strong professional and vocational training. The MSc in Bioarchaeology and research strands of the MA in Archaeology offer ideal preparation for research careers and specialisation. Our unique MSc in Palaeopathology attracts students globally with academic and professional goals.