Accessibility statement
Plants remains under the microscope



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A valuable and unexploited archive of archaeological information rests within soils associated with human remains. Burials have the potential to reveal signatures of body decay; pre-burial treatment and mortuary practice; clothing and perishable artefacts; diet; cause of death; disease and drug-use.

This archive can be accessed using the tools of soil micromorphology, inorganic geochemistry and trace organic chemical analyses. This study will use these tools to reveal hidden secrets and help us to understand past cultural practices and environmental conditions.

The project is developing a procedure for sampling and scientific analysis of archaeological human burials to maximise data recovery especially in situations where visual remains are no longer present. This approach will not only benefit archaeology but will also be applicable in forensic investigations of human remains. To develop this we are gathering samples from ongoing excavations in Europe and beyond.

We are currently looking for more sites, in a variety of geological and climatic zones; please contact us if you have information on a site where we may be able to sample.


Samples of undisturbed soil are taken from the head, pelvis, hands and feet for each body. Controls samples both above and away from the grave are also taken for comparison. Once they leave the grave the samples are kept cool and taken to the Mary Cudworth Micromorphology lab for processing. Here the soil blocks are dried slowly by replacing the water content with acetone, this preserves the organic elements in the soil. The blocks are then impregnated with resin and a thin section slide is produced. The whole process from grave to slide can take two months or more, only then are the samples ready to be analysed under the microscope, by SEM and MALDI.

A pilot study on Iron Age cliff burials in Yemen, employing micromorphological, organic and inorganic chemical techniques showed micromorphological evidence of skin, hair fragments and micro-layering in the burial matrix as well as traces of cholesterol. Such results are entirely novel and provide a significant benchmark for future research.


Skeleton with chemistry sampling pointsSampling: Samples for analysis are collected from up to 17 specific points around the body, along with an additional 3 control samples taken from beyond the grave and the upper grave fill (a total of 20 sampling points).

Trace organic analysis:  Organic residues contained within the soils are solvent extracted and fractionated according to their polarity.  These fractions are analysed by gas chromatography (GC), combined gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) or high performance liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS).  In addition, pyrolysis GC-MS analysis is performed on extracted soils to characterise the organic matter that cannot be extracted.

Elemental analysis:  Soil samples are characterised by bulk elemental analysis, performed before and after solvent extraction, to determine the composition of (C, H, N, S and O) as well as total inorganic and total organic carbon (TOC). 


Prof. Don Brothwell: Principal Investigator, Department of Archaeology
Email: Telephone: +44(0)1904 433934

Annika Burns: Project Technician, Department of  Archaeology

Brendan Keely: Organic Chemistry, Department of Chemistry
Email: Telephone: +44(0)1904 432540

Carol Lang: Research Student, Department of Archaeology

Matt Pickering: Postdoctoral researcher, Department of Chemistry
Email: Telephone: +44(0)1904 434090

Kimberley Shackleton: Research student, Department of Chemistry

Helen Stokes: Research student, Department of Archaeology

M. Raimonda Usai: Soil Micromorphology, Department of Archaeology 
Email: Telephone: +44(0)1904 328806

Claire Wilson: SEM microprobe, University of Stirling
Email: Telephone: +44 (0)1786 467817