MA and MSc in Funerary Archaeology

* New Course, first entry was Sept. 2016*

Course director: Dr. Penny Bickle

At a Glance

Study the field that brings past people to life

Why choose this course?

Past societies responded to and treated their dead in a huge diversity of ways, providing archaeologists with crucial insights into their workings. Funerary archaeology combines analysis of human remains with their archaeological context to take a truly interdisciplinary approach to studying both life and death in the past. The course at York offers the chance to develop skills in a range of different methods and techniques, but all centred on learning how to investigate death and burial in the past. The flexible nature of the course enables you to pursue your own particular period or methodological interests.      

  • Explore the varied archaeological and methodological approaches to funerary archaeology
  • Work alongside internationally renowned specialists in a range of different periods and methodologies, by choosing either the MA or MSc route
  • Gain ‘hands on’ experience of the analysis of human remains
  • Learn through fieldtrips to local museums and relevant sites, e.g. the prehistoric monuments in the Yorkshire Wolds
  • Choose modules to support your own research interests
  • Use the latest techniques and equipment to build key practical skills
  • Receive advice on developing your career and research interests from knowledgeable staff

What does the course cover?

The course focuses a range of topics from identity, landscape, social structure, commemoration and memory, ritual and belief, and the body. It covers attitudes and responses to death from the first evidence for the special treatment of human remains by hominids up to the place of funerary rites in modern day societies, but with a particular focus on the interpretively challenging evidence from Prehistory. The analysis of human remains and their archaeological context are both taught in a flexible modular system, that allows you to tailor the course to your particular methodological or period interests.

The MA and MSc pathways offer a chance to specialise in different areas of Funerary Archaeology research. There is also an opportunity to learn valuable practical skills, which are essential for a wide range of archaeological and associated careers.

Who is it for?

This degree is for anyone interested in studying Funerary Archaeology from a range of perspectives, which are at the frontiers of both archaeological method and theoretical approach. It is primarily for students with previous experience in archaeology, anthropology, history, art history, biology or related fields, but students from a wide variety of academic backgrounds are encouraged.

What can it lead to?

The course provides a solid foundation for a wide range of careers and further studies. Postgraduate students at York have gone on to research degrees, academic or teaching careers, museum positions and archaeology posts at local councils, regional authorities, field units, and heritage bodies such as English Heritage. 

Course content

Pursue your own interests through diverse module options

This one year Masters course offers both MA and MSc pathways, taught via a combination of lectures, seminars, lab-based practical work and fieldtrips. Both pathways study two core modules and two optional modules. You will also take four shorter skills modules; two core and two optional. Finally, you will hone your research skills by producing a dissertation and presenting an assessed lecture on your dissertation topic.


During the autumn and spring terms, you will study two core modules, each worth 20 credits. These are:

The archaeology of human bones

Discover the field of human osteoarchaeology, exploring how skeletal remains can be analysed to learn how our ancestors lived, worked and died. You will study examples from England’s rich archaeological record and develop an understanding of the latest techniques used to analyse archaeological human remains.

Debates in Funerary Archaeology 

Explore the diversity of approaches to death and burial found throughout human history. Learn the theoretical and methodological approaches for studying funerary contexts through landscapes, artefacts, ritual structures and graves. Debate how archaeologists can work across disciplines to research the past.  

You will also study two shorter core 'skills' modules: 

Human bone practical skills I

Learn the basic skills required to analyse human skeletal remains. Gain hands-on experience of the latest techniques used in the osteological analysis of archaeological human remains.

Human bone practical skills II

Gain practical experience of human skeletal anatomy and metric analyses. Learn to identify and describe basic disease and trauma categories and their skeletal manifestations.

You will study two further 20-credit option modules and two further 5-credit skills modules. These could include any from this module table. 

For the MA route one of the optional modules must come from a MA course and is ideal if you wish to specialise in a particular period, e.g. Mesolithic, Vikings, Medieval or Historical periods

For the MSc route one of the optional modules must come from a MSc course and is ideal if you wish to specialise in a particular methodology, e.g. by taking Ancient Biomolecules or one of the modules offered by the Centre for Anatomical and Human Sciences, based at the Hull York Medical School.

We always try to give everyone their first choice of modules, although this cannot be guaranteed. Some skills modules required by particular programmes may be over-subscribed. Take a look at the full modules list for scheduling information, as some modules may not be available in some years, and some run concurrently.


In your final term of study, you will carry out research for your dissertation and give an assessed lecture on your dissertation topic. Here are some examples of relevant previous dissertations carried out at York:

  • Neanderthal children and burial
  • The treatment of the dead in Britain, 13,000-3000 BC
  • Violence or Accident: Trauma among Anglo-Saxon populations of Norton
  • Examining the existence and extent of tuberculosis in two Roman Leicester populations 

Experience in the field

You will have the opportunity to handle human remains on this course. In addition, you may have the opportunity to visit sites where human remains are being excavated, as well as fieldtrips e.g. to local musuems and to the monuments of the Yorkshire Wolds.




Learn from Funerary Archaeology specialists

Teaching for this course is conducted in small groups by an internationally renowned group of staff from the Archaeology department at the King's Manor.

As Director of Studies, Dr Penny Bickle provides the principal teaching and support for the course. Penny’s research focuses on interdiciplinary approaches to Neolithic Europe. She has particular interests in what archaeologists can learn about past identities and lifeways through the burial record and teaches the Death and Burial module in the spring term. The Archaeology of human bones module is taught by Malin Holst, a Teaching fellow in Osteoarchaeology. Malin is the director of York Osteoarchaeology Ltd, the UK’s leading commercial bioarchaeological company, carrying out excavation, analysis and reporting of human skeletons from archaeological projects.

Additional teaching, support and practical training is provided by other archaeological, bioarchaeologocal and anatomical specialists who lead various optional modules available to combine with the course. 

Former students say:

"The year was my favourite by far. Funerary archaeology was exactly what I wanted it to be and I enjoyed every moment" Sarah, Graduated 2017


A firm foundation for varied careers and research

By the end of the MA or MSc Funerary Archaeology course you will be able to:

  • a thorough understanding of the history of research and the theoretical approaches to Funerary Archaeology
  • a broad foundation in the key aspects of studying death and burial in the past
  • identify and record human bone assemblages
  • age, sex and assess pathologies from human bones
  • explore selected methods and periods in detail, through the option modules
  • critically evaluate published research and datasets
  • orally present knowledge and concepts
  • plan, design and undertake a piece of independent research

These skills and techniques are deployed widely in the field of archaeological research and exploration, but they are also valuable for a wide range of careers and further studies.

Many of York's Masters postgraduates go on to further research, academic or teaching careers, museum positions and archaeology posts at local councils, regional authorities, field units and heritage bodies. Some of the organisations our students now work for include:

  • Archaeological field units
  • Environmental archaeology
  • Professional archaeologists – field and laboratory based
  • Laboratory technicians
  • Demonstrators
  • University/research technicians
  • Academia
  • On-site osteoarchaeologists
  • Medical humanities

The Funerary Archaeology Masters will also provide a solid foundation for doctoral training programmes on offer in York, e.g. The White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities (WRoCAH)


How to apply 

To apply for this course, you will need:

  • A good honours degree (upper second or first class) or an equivalent qualification from an overseas institution in archaeology, anthropology or a related field.  

Mature students or those with less conventional qualifications but with relevant experience in this field will be considered. If you are uncertain whether your qualifications or experience are appropriate, please contact the Course Director.

For the MA Funerary Archaeology:

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F‌or the MSc Funerary Archaeology:

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First, check our How to apply page, which explains what information the Department needs from you.