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Debates in Archaeological Science


Module leader: Jessica Hendy


This seminar series aims to provide detailed analysis of some of the current "hot topics" in bioarchaeology. Development of new biomolecular methods is currently opening up new sources of information and controversy about a wide range of archaeological issues across the whole prehistoric and historical time span of archaeological interest. Methods currently under active development and debate include analysis of modern and ancient DNA, stable isotope and trace-element analysis in human bone and analysis of lipids on ceramics and other artefacts. Currently topical issues include the evolution and dispersal of anatomically modern humans, the origins and spread of domestic animals and plants, reconstructions of human diet and disease, and the diagnosis of the functions of stone tools and pottery.

The most interesting issues are those where different scientific methods produce contradictory results or where the scientific results are in conflict with other sources of archaeological information or established preconceptions. Often the reliability of the scientific analyses depends on the quality of the primary data gathered in the field. The science itself often turns out to be based on untested assumptions or incomplete knowledge, and you should not presuppose that it is always the conventional archaeological data that are at fault. All of this makes for a lively and rapidly developing field of study with a growing number of case studies.

Whether you decide to choose stable isotopes and palaeodietary analysis or the most recent advances in research in ancient DNA, you will be expected to explore the ways in which science-based and archaeological investigations can be evaluated and integrated, to understand the current debates, and to assess critically the claims that are being made.


The aim of the module is to raise awareness of the pace of advance in the archaeological sciences and the major route to publication via articles in peer reviewed journals.  Students will be made aware of the progressive nature of archaeological science, with research building upon previous investigations, and the extent of discourse between scholars.  Topics will highlight the role of scientific methods within archaeology and the potential (or otherwise) for broadening archaeological discourse.  Students will be expected to select research articles published in the previous five years, but may include histographic overview within their chosen theme.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students should be able to:

  • Demonstrate that they are familiar with the archaeological science literature and the degree of controversy within the field
  • Exhibit a firm understanding of the theoretical, methodological and ethical issues related to the study of archaeological science
  • Show familiarity with a wide range of case studies
  • Demonstrate in depth knowledge of a topic of their choosing
  • Pick out the key issues in their chosen topic
  • Prepare a worksheet which sets out key reading and issues for presentation, debate and discussion, and support the group in the preparation of the seminar
  • Chair a seminar, engage interest in the topic, stimulate debate and structure discussion
  • Have a critical awareness of the process of collective debate on a specific topic
  • Be able to judge the general 'success' of the seminar, and to be able to reflect on this, through a written summary of a seminar
  • Present PowerPoint or Prezi presentations on other subjects within the general theme and contribute informed ideas and information to the other seminars


In this module you will develop key skills in presentation and chairing which should be of immense value in your future careers:
  • Self management: in this module you need to develop the ability to take initiative and you will need the will to succeed! There will be a lot of self management required whilst you plan your topic through the spring term- you should be spending about 3-4 days a week on this module and balancing this with finalising your dissertation (and any other commitments)
  • Communication: communication skills are vital and they will be assessed- through the previous 2 years you will should have practised and developed these skills in order to present clear and succinct PowerPoints. Your writing skills will be tested further in your self assessment document. Most importantly, you will have the chance to chair a seminar and you will need to be able to judge when to listen to your team mates, and how to encourage and stimulate debate, particularly from quieter members of the group
  • Team working: it is essential you can bring the team together to tackle your topic in depth and to create a stimulating and enlightening debate. It may be a wise move to set up your own study groups.
  • Problem solving: you will be faced with a lot of reading and it is essential that you develop the skills for retrieving information from relevant sources as well as critical evaluation
  • Creativity and innovation: this module enables you to be creative in your ideas of what topic to develop and how you plan to run the seminar
  • World of work awareness: this module will set you up for similar situations in the world of work where you might need to chair a meeting and will have to keep the team to the point and to time- you should understand the pressures of such meetings and think about ways of coping with them
  • Social, cultural and global awareness: many of you will be considering the international dimensions of your chosen subject, and in many cases you might want to think about the diversity of issues from other cultures and countries, as well as ethical issues related to your research
  • Application of IT: you will be tested on your effective use of PowerPoint as well as word processsing skills. You will also be expected to use the internet effectively with your research