Lactase persistence and the early Cultural History of Europe  
line decor

OxfordUniversity of Bristol is internationally recognised for the exceptional quality of its research. For ca. 40 years the Organic Geochemistry Unit (OGU) has been a world leader in deriving detailed biomolecular information from complex sedimentary materials by exploiting the capabilities of chromatographic and mass spectrometric techniques. The last 15 years has been a period of significant development with the establishment of the Bristol Biogeochemistry Research Centre (BBRC) and recognition that biomarker and compound-specific stable isotope methodologies could be brought to bare on newly emerging research questions in the wider context of palaeoenvironmental research, such as archaeology.

ESR7 Lipids from pottery
Prof. Richard Evershed

Text Box:   Figure 3: Classification of origins of fats preserved in early Neothlitic pottery (plots a-c; black dots) based on comparison with δ13C values of 16:0 and 18:0 fatty acid components of reference animal fats (ellipses; from Copley et al. 2003).During the processing of organic materials in unglazed pottery vessels, e.g. the cooking of food, lipids are absorbed into the vessel wall and have been shown to survive over considerable archaeological time periods (e.g. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Lond. B. 1999, 354, 19). These lipids can be extracted and characterized using gas chromatography (GC) and GC/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) to provide quantitative estimates of the amounts of lipid present and chemical ‘fingerprints’. These fingerprints, based on the structures of individual compounds and their compositions (or ‘distributions’), allow identification of a variety of commodities processed in the vessels. C16:0 and C18:0 fatty acids derived from degraded animal fats are commonly observed in appreciable abundances in archaeological ceramics. Compound-specific d13C values determined by GC-combustion-isotope ratio MS have proved effective in distinguishing ruminant and non-ruminant adipose fats, most importantly dairy fats (Dudd & Evershed, Science 1998, 282, 1478). We have provided direct chemical evidence for the processing of milk products in pottery vessels from all prehistoric periods in Britain as far back as the early Neolithic (ca. 4000 BC; PNAS, 2003, 100, 1524, see Fig. 3) and SE East Europe and the near East as early as the 7th millennium BC (Evershed et al., in prep.). Given the robustness and success of this approach we will extend this investigation to early farming groups in Europe to test hypotheses regarding the spread of dairying.

The ESRwill investigate lipid residues in up to 600 potsherds from 20 sites. A rapid throughput approach to lipid analysis involving automate solvent extraction will allow processing of larger number of potsherds to provide enhanced surveys of the target regions and sites. In selected instances samples of modern animal fats and forages will be investigated in order to extend the reference data base of table carbon isotopes on which interpretation of pottery residues are based. This project will coordinate sample selection with ER1 , ESR1 & ESR2 , and be linked principally to ESR8 and ESR9 , and will report data to ESR12 and ESR2.

Professor Richard Evershed is Director of the BBRC and the NERC Life Sciences Mass Spectrometry Facility (housed at UoB). He has led the field of archaeological chemistry in providing new insights into ancient diets, economies and technologies, via organic compounds preserved in a wide range of archaeological finds including: pottery, skeletal remains, soils and amorphous deposits. He has supervised >35 PhD students to completion (100% success rate) and has ca. 300 published works. His achievements have been recognised with the award of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Theophilus Redwood Lectureship (2002) and Interdisciplinary Award (2003).


The OGU houses a suite of laboratories tailored to research of type proposed. The instrument laboratory comprises 8 mass spectrometers (4 organic and 4 light stable isotope). The OGU is embedded in the BBRC making the collective analytical facilities internationally exceptional, enhanced as a result of a SRIF award for £2M for laboratories and equipment. 
An exceptional intellectual environment exists in the OGU such that the student will benefit from interactions with other staff, PhD students and PDRAs. The OGU is integrated into the School of Chemistry (RAE 5*) and interdisciplinary earth science networks within University of Bristol (via BBRC) and has formal links with the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology.


1. Dudd SN, Evershed RP, Direct demonstration of milk as an element of archaeological economies. (1998) Science 282:1478-1481

2. Copley MS, et al.,Direct chemical evidence for widespread dairying in prehistoric Britain. (2003) Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 100:1524-1529

3. Copley MS, et al.,Processing of milk products in pottery vessels through British prehistory. (2005) Antiquity 79:895-908