MSc Geoarchaeology

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  • Objectives
    The MSc Geoarchaeology aims to provide a thorough grounding in the principles and methods of earth science with reference to their application in archaeology and palaeoenvironmental studies. It develops a comprehensive understanding of the main field and laboratory techniques in geoarchaeology. The course equips students with the practical field and laboratory skills, and the critical, writing and presentational skills, for future independent work in the field of professional geoarchaeology or doctoral research. There is a particular emphasis on the application of multidisciplinary approaches to the archaeological assessment and interpretation of ancient landscapes buried within sediment sequences. The course is designed to meet the growing needs of commercial and heritage organisations in relation to environmental assessments, management, and field projects, and to equip students with a range of key research skills that can be developed further at doctoral level. The interdisciplinary character of the course means that students from a wide range of backgrounds, including archaeology, earth science, geography, plant science, Quaternary science and soil science, can use it as a conversion course to move into the field of geoarchaeology.
  • Academic title
    MSc Geoarchaeology
  • Course description
    The MSc Geoarchaeology programme

    The MSc Geoarchaeology is a 12-month programme (24 months part time), comprising both
    ‘core’ and ‘optional’ modules. Each module is assigned a credit value, and the total number
    of credits in the programme is 180. Each credit equates approximately to 10 hours of work
    (including all contact hours such as lectures or classes, as well as further reading and any
    assessments) for the average student.

    Summary of programme aims

    Geoarchaeology: Principles and Practice
    Provides an introduction to, and overview of, the principles and practice of earth science
    approaches to archaeology. Key aspects include the geological basis of landscape, and
    natural and anthropogenic processes of sediment formation. There is discussion of a wide
    range of sedimentary contexts in which archaeological evidence may be found (including
    coastal, fluvial, lacustrine, and colluvial contexts), and issues of preservation and
    management of the archaeological resource within such contexts. Practical applications of
    geoarchaeological approaches are illustrated by case studies in which earth science methods
    have been used to address archaeological questions, and archaeological evidence has
    contributed to understanding of timescales and causes of environmental change. A full day
    visit to English Heritage at Fort Cumberland provides the opportunity for students to see
    how geoarchaeology is employed by the Government’s lead heritage organisation.

    Teaching methods: Lectures (14 hours), seminars (4 hours), study visit (1 day).

    Assessment: Examination (100%).

    Laboratory Methods in Geoarchaeology
    Introduces a range of laboratory-based methods for analysis of archaeological samples. Key
    topics covered are stable isotope analysis, dating methods (radiocarbon, dendrochronology,
    amino acid racemisation, palaeomagnetism, uranium series dating, thermoluminescence
    and electron spin resonance), X-ray fluorescence and X-ray diffraction, provenancing (of
    stone, pottery and metal ores, fuels and smelting residues) and bioarchaeological analyses
    (pollen, charcoal and mollusca).
    Teaching methods: Practical classes (25 hours) and lectures (5 hours).
    Assessment: Coursework - laboratory reports (50%) - and examination (50%).

    Field Methods and Experimentation in Geoarchaeology
    Techniques used in assessing the geoarchaeological potential of sites as part of the planning
    and development process are reviewed. These include key issues such as heritage
    management, coastal zone management, alluvial sequences and their relationship to
    aggregate extraction. The contribution of experimental methods to the understanding of
    formation processes is considered, leading to discussion of site monitoring, effects of land
    use and erosion, and issues of the in situ preservation of sites. Practical field skills are
    developed using key techniques such as coring, test-pitting, and surveying, with particular
    reference to alluvial geoarchaeology. Other topics covered include use of air photography,
    geophysical survey and sediment description. Students also learn how to contribute to
    writing an assessment report and research design, and how to undertake a fieldwork risk
    assessment. There is a visit to Butser Ancient Farm, an experimental reconstruction of an
    Iron Age Farm and Roman villa, where students investigate formation processes of the
    archaeological record, including the effects of agriculture and erosion.
    Teaching methods: Lectures (4 hours), fieldwork (17 hours), lab work (6 hours), Butser
    (1 day).
    Assessment: Coursework - fieldwork report (100%).

    Applications of Micromorphological Analysis
    Provides practical and critical understanding of micromorphological approaches to the
    study of soils and sediments. Key issues include formation processes of the archaeological
    record and conditions leading to preservation of archaeological artefacts and sites, with
    emphasis on implications for in situ preservation and management of sites. Techniques of
    field sampling, sample preparation, optical microscopy and micro-analysis are discussed
    with reference to various on- and off-site contexts. Students learn to identify and record
    microscopic characteristics of: rocks and minerals, biological components, artefacts and
    architectural materials, and micro-stratigraphic indicators of depositional and postdepositional
    processes. A range of case studies from temperate and semi-arid environments
    are reviewed, including use of micromorphology to reconstruct spatial and temporal
    variations in use of space in buildings, buried land surfaces, and impacts of agriculture and
    land management strategies on soils.
    Teaching methods: Lectures (5 hours), laboratory work (25 hours).
    Assessment: Coursework - laboratory reports (90%) and laboratory test (10%).

    Soils in Archaeology
    Introduces students to the study of soil science in the field and laboratory, so that they
    understand and can investigate the potential of soil evidence as part of an archaeological
    field project. Key topics include soil formation, classification, soil survey, soil constituents
    and processes, and the early origins of soil contaminants. There is a half-day in the field to
    enable students to gain experience of interpreting soil profiles, and simple field tests of
    soils, and to collect samples for subsequent laboratory analysis.
    Teaching methods: Lectures (8 hours), laboratory work (28 hours), fieldwork (4 hours).
    Assessment: Coursework - field and laboratory reports (30%) - and examination (70%).
    Field Course
    An 8-day conducted field class in north Norfolk and the Fenland provides the opportunity to
    visit a wide range of types of archaeological site (Palaeolithic to post-medieval), examine
    many types of soil and sediment (including wetland and coastal deposits, and aggregate
    extraction sites) and consider diverse geomorphological contexts. Field investigations are
    conducted at key sites and the implications of the observations for landscape management
    and planning issues are reviewed. There is a particular focus on coastal geoarchaeology, and
    environmental and heritage management and their relationship to nature conservation. As
    part of the course students make a rapid geoarchaeological assessment of a transect of
    landscape in the context of a hypothetical planning application. The module develops skills
    in field observation, recording and data analysis, much of it requiring work as part of a
    team, and practice in the recognition of archaeological sites and artefacts in a field context.
    Students present their results and recommendations to the group. There is also a visit to
    Peterborough Museum for a talk on creation of a GIS-based Sites and Monuments Record
    that integrates the environmental history of the fens with archaeological information from
    the area.
    Teaching methods: Lectures (4 hours), fieldwork and field visits (66 hours).
    Assessment: Coursework - field notebook (100%)

    Research Resources and Skills
    Provides students with a comprehensive knowledge of the resources, techniques and skills
    for conducting independent research, and critical analytical writing, at Masters level.
    Enables students to gain practical experience of a range of IT applications (including
    spreadsheets, databases, statistics and graphics) and data sources, and to evaluate the
    application of these techniques and resources in their own research. There are sessions on
    health and safety issues and ethics. The module is also aimed at developing personal
    responsibility and initiative in both academic tasks and problem solving, and addresses
    continuing professional development, and future applications for employment and funding.
    Teaching methods: Lectures (6 hours), seminars (10 hours), practicals (14 hours).
    Students also undertake independent IT training through the resources of the
    University’s IT Services department (up to 30 hours).
    Assessment: Coursework – critique and IT task (100%).

    This module comprises a taught component (in the Spring Term), followed by full-time
    independent research for, and writing of, the dissertation (from early May to mid
    September). The taught component of the module begins with an introduction to the skills
    necessary to write a Masters dissertation, after which students critique a previous
    dissertation, design their own project, and get feedback first on the research design, and
    then on an oral presentation of the proposal at the Masters’ Conference. The dissertation
    can be on any subject within the range of expertise of staff, and is expected to develop field
    and/or laboratory skills. Students are assigned one or two supervisors (two if one is
    external) to advise and offer specialist assistance, and also receive considerable support and
    guidance from technical staff in relation to use of particular items of equipment and
    techniques. The dissertation (10,000 words) is written in the form of a paper for a scientific
    journal. Students also produce a poster for display at the end of the course, encouraging
    them to develop the ability to present their results in a summarised and accessible format.
    Teaching methods: Lectures (3 hours), seminars (10 hours) and conference (1 day), plus
    individual discussions with supervisor and training in specific techniques as required
    Assessment: Coursework - oral dissertation presentation (5%), poster (5%), dissertation


    Students take 1 (20 credit) or 2 (10 credit) options (to a total of 20 credits) from a list of c. 12
    offered by departments in the School of Human and Environmental Sciences. The choice
    offered varies annually, but examples include:
    · The Lower Palaeolithic of North-West Europe
    · Environmental Archaeology and the Cultural Landscapes of Prehistory
    · Environment and Landscape in Historical Periods
    · Coastal and Maritime Archaeology
    · Geophysics for Archaeology
    · Geographical Information Systems
    · Palaeopathology
    · Reconstructing Ancient Diet
    · Biomolecular Archaeology
    · Archaeological Graphics
    · Emergence of Civilisation in Mesopotamia
    · Ancient Aegean Landscapes
    Teaching methods: These vary, but most involve a mixture of lectures and student-led
    Assessment: Coursework (100%) – usually an essay and seminar presentation.

    Career opportunities
    The MSc Geoarchaeology enables those with training in environmental science or geoscience to move into archaeology, and those with training in the scientific aspects of archaeology to develop their knowledge of geoscience. This interdisciplinary training prepares MSc graduates for a wide range of careers in archaeological units and consultancies, heritage organisations, environmental consultancies, local authorities, and research laboratories and organisations. The MSc also provides an excellent training for research at doctoral level

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