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Practical: Biomolecular Archaeology - ARC00028I

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  • Department: Archaeology
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Michelle Alexander
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: I
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23

Module summary

Bioarchaeology is one of the most exciting areas of archaeological science and biomolecules (e.g. DNA, proteins, lipids) are at the forefront of this research. This module provides hands-on practical experience in the collection, analysis and interpretation of biomolecular data (stable isotopes, proteins) to understand diet in past societies using collagen extracted from archaeological bones. Students have said how much they enjoy this module for its varied classes, especially the lab work with real archaeological material, and the enthusiasm of the module leader.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Spring Term 2022-23

Module aims

The Practical Skills modules seek to introduce you to a range of skills in various diverse areas of archaeological practice and are designed to allow you to gain experience in a 'hands-on' manner.

This specific module aims to:

  • To introduce the intellectual context and working methods of the study of biomolecules from archaeological deposits such as bones and pottery residues.

  • To provide an introduction to good laboratory practice

  • To provide laboratory experience in collagen extraction for stable isotope analysis and ZooMS

  • To introduce how we analyse and interpret results from stable isotope analysis and ZooMS

  • To encourage a questioning approach to the collection and analysis of a specific class of archaeological data

Module learning outcomes

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

  • Discuss the range of research questions that might be addressed by studying ancient biomolecules
  • Be aware of the principles of GLP (Good Laboratory Practice)
  • Learn how to maintain a Lab Book to an adequate standard
  • Be aware of how to read and write Standard Operating Procedures
  • Appreciate the importance of consistency, time-keeping, and good record-keeping in practical work
  • Perform a range of practical, analytical techniques involved in data collection
  • Perform an analysis on biomolecular data, specifically protein mass spectrometry (ZooMS) and stable isotope analysis
  • Critically evaluate research articles

Module content

This is an optional module, part of the suite of Spring Term practical modules. It has a companion Team Project which will run in the Summer Term.

In this module, students learn how to extract and analyse collagen from archaeological bones safely in the laboratory using GLP (Good Laboratory Practice). Two different biomolecular techniques are applied - ZooMS to determine the species of the bone and carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis to investigate diet. This module will be taught through lectures (including an introductory lecture on pottery residue analysis) and practical sessions in a wet chemistry lab (collagen extraction) and a computer lab (data analysis and interpretation).

Through the term, students will be also expected to develop their skills in critiquing recent papers in biomolecular archaeology, and begin to explore data (students will conduct their own data analysis in the co-requisite module the following term so it is important that they understand good practice). Students keep a lab notebook during term and a computer practical test will assess their laboratory skills in addition to their understanding of collagen extraction, stable isotopes and zooms.


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 50
Practical Class Test
N/A 50

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
N/A 50
Practical Class Test
N/A 50

Module feedback

Formative: The marker will share written feedback with you in a timetabled one-to-one meeting and you will have the opportunity to ask further questions about how to improve your work before your summative assessment. If you are unable to attend the feedback session, your tutor will share the formative feedback with you digitally.

Summative: Written feedback sheets will be uploaded to your e:vision account (your personal University of York online services account) within 20 working days of the submission deadline, along with your overall mark for the module. If you have any questions about your mark and/or your written feedback, you will be able to sign up for office hours with the marker.

Indicative reading

Brown, T. A., and Brown, Keri. Biomolecular Archaeology. Malden, MA ; Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Richards, M. P. (2020) “Isotope Analysis for Diet Studies,” in Richards, M. P. and Britton, K. (eds) Archaeological Science: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Hendy, J., van Doorn, N. and Collins, M. (2020) “Proteomics,” in Richards, M. P. and Britton, K. (eds) Archaeological Science: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 35–69. doi: 10.1017/9781139013826.003.

Detailed reading for the module will be available via YorkShare (the University's virtual learning environment). When you have enrolled on a module, you will be able to access the full reading list.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.