MSc in Zooarchaeology

Course director: Dr. David Orton

At a glance

Study animals from the past with the techniques of the future

Why choose this course?

The MSc in Zooarchaeology at York is the UK's only dedicated programme in the archaeological study of animals. Any consideration of the human past is incomplete without examining the essential roles that animals have played in our economies and societies, and on this course you will study archaeological animal remains on a macro and micro scale to investigate what they tell us about how humans and other species have co-existed over the millennia. 

Housed within BioArCh, York's world-leading centre for research into ancient biomolecules, the MSc in Zooarchaeology also draws heavily on the expertise of functional and comparative anatomists from the Centre for Anatomical and Human Sciences, part of the Hull York Medical School. We use the full range of available techniques, including advanced biomolecular methods and sophisticated morphometrics, to investigate and interpret animal bone data in a variety of cultural contexts.

The scope of the course is global, equipping you with the knowledge and techniques to study the roles of animals in human societies from the Palaeolithic to the present, around the world. You will learn from leading academics in both traditional and biomolecular zooarchaeology, and from dedicated specialists in evolutionary anatomy, enabling you both to master the latest analytical techniques and to examine skeletal anatomy at a level of detail not possible elsewhere.

  • Study past relations between people and other animals, through the archaeological record
  • Examine zooarchaeology across the entire span of human prehistory and history, right around the world
  • Develop advanced skills in bone taphonomy and understand its importance to osteoarchaeological studies
  • Explore biomolecular techniques, including DNA analysis, proteomics and stable isotope analysis
  • Investigate skeletal anatomy in intricate detail
  • Work alongside leading academics in zooarchaeological research
  • Receive career and research guidance from Department of Archaeology staff with significant experience of successfully placing PhD students‌‌‌‌‌‌

What does the course cover?

This course covers the practical skills, analytical techniques, and interpretative frameworks necessary to study the roles of animals in past societies from the bones and other remains that we find on archaeological sites. Core modules and laboratory classes will provide you with a solid grounding in the essential tools of the zooarchaeologist's trade, while the option modules and dissertation allow you to explore and potentially specialise in a unique range of biomolecular and anatomical approaches. 

Who is it for?

This course is aimed primarily at graduates in archaeology who want to specialise in the analysis and interpretation of animal remains, either as a basis for future research or as a practical specialism to further a career in archaeology. We are also happy to accept graduates of disciplines such as biology, zoology, ecology, and palaeontology who wish to focus on the study of animals in a human context.

What can it lead to?

The advanced skills and specialist knowledge gained on this course can provide the springboard for many varied careers or further study at PhD level. Previous graduates of the course have gone on to careers in museum services, universities, conservation organisations and commercial archaeology units around the world.

See what our alumni have to say about the course:

“Completing York’s MSc in Zooarchaeology programme has not only allowed me to become an effective researcher who is well versed in current zooarchaeological and bioarchaeological methodologies, but also an asset in the field.”

Erin Keenan (2014)

Course content

Pursue your own interests through diverse module options

This one-year MSc course is taught via a combination of lectures, seminars and lab-based practicals. You will study two core modules, two optional modules, two core skills modules and two further skills modules of your choice. Finally, you will hone your research skills by producing a dissertation and presenting an assessed lecture on your dissertation topic.

You will be taught variously at the historic King's Manor compound in the heart of York and in the new state-of-the-art new £12m Environment Building, where the Archaeology department's BioArCh group has a dedicated floor. In addition to BioArCh's specialist laboratories for ancient DNA analysis, proteomics, microscopy and isotope geoscience, you will have access to the expertise of evolutionary anatomists from the Hull York Medical School, with their suite of 3D scanning, modelling and Geometric Morphometrics (GMM) capabilities.


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

Animal Bones for Archaeologists
Study the structure and chemistry of bone and the organisation of bony tissues in the vertebrate skeleton. Examine skeletal diversity in relation to phylogeny and adaptation, understand the principles of evolutionary anatomy in vertebrates, and apply these principles to archaeological material.

Interpreting Animal Remains
Review published case studies from around the world to find out how information is extracted from zooarchaeological data. Assess the potential and limitations of such data and examine the thematic topics to which zooarchaeology can make a major contribution – both within the field of archaeology and beyond, including studies of past biodiversity and environmental change.

You will study two further 20-credit modules and four shorter 'skills' modules from this table

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 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 current and previous dissertations:

  • Fishing practices and transitions in the Mesolithic and Neolithic of Adriatic Croatia: insights from the fish remains from the site of Vela Spila, Korčula.
  • 'Sleipnir's Rejects': comparing disarticulated horse remains with horse burials in the Anglo-Scandinavian Danelaw.
  • ZooMS collagen fingerprinting as a tool for interpreting sheep and goat husbandry at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Turkey.
  • Osteochondrosis in sheep and cattle: differential diagnosis and estimating prevalence.
  • A taphonomic analysis of a small vertebrate assemblage from Kinsey Cave, Yorkshire.
  • The use of augmented reality as a teaching aid in zooarchaeology.
  • Caves and taphonomic processes: an analysis of Jac̆mica Pećina, Istria (Croatia).

The Zooarchaeology programme is also available for study as a Postgraduate Diploma or Certificate in Zooarchaeology.

“The modules offered are diverse and cover all aspects zooarchaeological practice and techniques. Furthermore, optional modules allow freedom to study topics of interest such as field archaeology and artefacts. Through this structure I learnt many new skills whilst developing existing ones.”

Ewan Chipping (2014) Archaeologist, AOC London


Learn from experts in zooarchaeology and related fields

Teaching for this course is conducted in small groups by experienced and respected academics in zooarchaeology, comparative anatomy, ancient biomolecules, and associated specialisms.

As Course Director, Dr David Orton provides the principal teaching and support for the course. David is himself an alumnus of the course, having used it as a foundation for a PhD at Cambridge followed by a string of zooarchaeological research positions at Binghamton (State University of New York), Cambridge and UCL. David's research interests cover a broad range of periods, places and taxa – from the spread of farming in the Neolithic Balkans to medieval fisheries and urbanisation in western Europe. He is currently also the zooarchaeologist for the West Mound project at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Methodologically, David is particularly interested in combining traditional zooarchaeological methods with biomolecular approaches, and in techniques for integrating zooarchaeological data on a grand scale.

Prof. Matthew Collins, founder of the BioArCh research unit, is noted for his research on ancient proteins, particularly their preservation in archaeological bone. He is interested in applying molecular methods to the analysis of faunal remains and artefacts made of animal products. He, along with Mike Buckley (Manchester) developed ZooMS, a rapid screening technique for the identification of animal bone fragments, and he has been applying this method to materials as diverse as Mesolithic bone tools, Viking eggshells, and medieval manuscripts.

Director of the closely-allied MSc Bioarchaeology programme, Dr Michelle Alexander is a specialist both in ancient biomolecules and in medieval Iberia. Her research currently concentrates on dietary stable isotopes in both animals and humans, although she also has experience working with ancient animal DNA and recently published a groundbreaking study in the evolution of domestic chicken.

Based jointly in the Archaeology Department and at CAHS in the Hull-York Medical School Dr Philip Cox, is a functional and evolutionary anatomist specialising particularly in rodents and in digital approaches to anatomy, including geometric moorphometrics (GMM) and finite element analysis. Phil is particularly interested in relationships between diet and cranial morphology. Phil is heavily involved in teaching on the Bone and Bones core module.

Further teaching, support and practical skills training is provided by the specialists who lead various optional modules on the course, and by other members of BioArCh and CAHS who often supervise MSc dissertations. These include  Dr. Oliver Craig, Dr. Camilla SpellerProf. Paul O'HigginsMs Malin Holst, and Dr Sam Cobb.

“The teaching staff are extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their subject and always willing to help. This made my time at York extremely enjoyable, learning important skills for employment and making many friends in the process.”
Ewan Chipping (2014) Archaeologist, AOC London



Open the door to advanced research and fascinating careers

By the end of the MSc Zooarchaeology course you will have:

  • gained a thorough grounding in all aspects of vertebrate zooarchaeology, including general aspects that are applicable to invertebrate zooarchaeology
  • experienced the processes of data collection, analysis and interpretation, both in principle and in practice
  • developed a range of analytical abilities by studying and undertaking quantitative analysis of zooarchaeological data
  • gained essential critical skills through reviewing and assessing published work from throughout the world, including hunter-gatherer and agrarian sites, and socially complex societies
  • studied the vertebrate skeleton, its evolutionary origins and its adaptations
  • identified and recorded archaeological bone assemblages
  • reviewed the field of taphonomy and the practical recognition of the taphonomic ‘imprint’
  • developed independent research skills by completing a dissertation project

Many our MSc Zooarchaeology postgraduates go on to conduct further research at PhD level. Others progress into careers with archaeological units, museum services, conservation bodies and a range of other organisations.

Here’s a selection of possible destinations and careers for students of this course:

  • Academia
  • Professional archaeologists – field and laboratory based
  • Museum outreach programmes and the heritage sector
  • University/research technicians
  • Commercial laboratory technicians
  • US graduate school programmes

The MSc in Zooarchaeology also provides a solid foundation for the two doctoral training programmes on offer in York:

Find out what some of our alumni have said about the course and how it improved their career and research prospects.


Where next? A word from our alumni

Alumni of the MSc in Zooarchaeology have gone on to take up varied careers and research posts in the archaeology sector and in a whole range of occupations.

Here’s what some recent graduates had to say about the course:

Erin Keenan (2014), currently pursuing postgraduate research opportunities in the USA

“Completing York’s MSc in Zooarchaeology programme has not only allowed me to become an effective researcher who is well versed in current zooarchaeological and bioarchaeological methodologies, but also an asset in the field where my zooarchaeological expertise is a valuable commodity.”

Ewan Chipping (2014), currently working as an archaeologist for AOC London

“The zooarchaeology MSc at York offers a good theoretical and practical understanding of how animal remains can be understood and contribute to the archaeological record. The modules offered are diverse and cover all aspects zooarchaeological practice and techniques. Furthermore, optional modules allow freedom to study topics of interest such as field archaeology and artefacts. Through this structure I learnt many new skills whilst developing existing ones. The teaching staff are extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their subject and always willing to help. This made my time at York extremely enjoyable, learning important skills for employment and making many friends in the process.”


How to apply 

To apply for this course, you will need: 

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

 Graduates in a biological subject will also be considered, as will mature students or those with less conventional qualifications but with relevant experience.

 If you are uncertain whether your qualifications or experience are appropriate, please contact the Course Director for more information. We normally interview applicants before making an offer.

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



Here at York we have an unrivalled concentration of expertise in the analysis of ancient animal bone, and the facilities to match: from proteomics to geometric morpho-metrics, stable isotopes to aDNA - all alongside traditional strengths in identification, taphonomy, and zooarchaeological interpretation. The Zooarchaeology MSc takes full advantage of these strengths, to offer students truly comprehensive training in the archaeology of animal bones.

Dr David Orton