MSc Bioarchaeology: Zooarchaeology

Duration Full time 1 year
Part time 2 years
  • Archaeology
LocationExeter (Streatham)
Start date September


This MSc combines traditional archaeology with branches of the natural sciences to examine animal remains and their importance in understanding a broad range of economic and cultural issues. You will study faunal evidence to develop an understanding of past human interactions with animals and learn how to interpret past patterns of hunting and husbandry within their environmental and social context.

Using our bioarchaeology lab and its faunal reference collections, you will learn to identify the bones of Britain’s most significant wild and domestic species. You will be taught the methods that zooarchaeologists use to examine faunal remains, through a mix of practical and theoretical sessions, and how the resulting data can be interpreted. You will also have the choice of a wide selection of optional archaeology modules, including the ability to also gain detailed knowledge of human osteoarchaeology.

Introduction to the department

The Archaeology department at the University of Exeter has dramatically up-scaled our zooarchaeological expertise and capability. Alongside new additions to the academic team, we have excellent reference collections of mammals, fish and birds, new in-house digital x-ray facilities and use of the Digital Humanities Lab which houses advanced scanning and photogrammetry equipment. With this step-change in capacity, we have redesigned our teaching and research programme to embody our ‘next generation’ zooarchaeology ethos.

For us, zooarchaeology is about more than just bones and reconstructing ancient diet. We believe that fats, isotopes, DNA, and proteins, whether recovered from skeletal material or residues, are all forms of zooarchaeological data. So too can zooarchaeological information be found in art, manuscripts, soils, landscapes and environments. In the 21st century, zooarchaeology has ever broadening power to enlighten us about humanity’s rich cultural behaviour and contribute to wider scientific endeavour. As well as informing research into big evolutionary questions, zooarchaeology helps us understand societies, their development and their impact over the longue durée in a way that has vital relevance for modern human-environmental wellbeing and sustainability.

To achieve such ambitions, zooarchaeology needs to be highly collaborative and, at Exeter, we are precisely this. Our team is active within a wide network of interdisciplinary and international research. The same is true at our Department level, where we work in partnership with our human osteology colleagues, palaeobotany specialists and period-based staff.

Programme structure

The modules we outline here provide examples of what you can expect to learn on this degree course based on recent academic teaching. The precise modules available to you in future years may vary depending on staff availability and research interests, new topics of study, timetabling and student demand.

Learning and teaching

We seek to educate students in stimulating ways so as to develop intellectual skills for life and employment in the contemporary world, and provide a sound appreciation of archaeology.

Most of the formal classes that you attend will be based on a mixture of lectures, seminars, and workshops. The precise mix will vary between modules. These aim to outline the principal issues of the module, to explore some detailed issues, and, where relevant, to give you experience of working with a particular technique or data set.

All members of staff are actively engaged in research, both in Britain and abroad, and regularly attend conferences, symposia and workshops. It is through this active engagement in the discipline that we are able to supply top quality teaching by experts in their field and as a result we have a 24/24 grading for our teaching from the Quality Assurance Agency.

In addition to our established palaeobotany, experimental archaeology, and microscopy laboratories, we have a new bioarchaeology lab dedicated to the study of anatomical variation, palaeopathological conditions, and the funerary context of human and animal remains. The laboratory, accompanied by a designated store for the Department's collection of human remains, provides facilities for use by researchers and students for examining skeletal remains recovered from archaeological sites. Equipment includes anatomical casts and demographic reference standards used to determine the sex, age-at-death, stature and body proportions from human remains.

The assessment for the MSc Bioarchaeology: Zooarchaeology is through a combination of essays, other written reports and projects, oral or electronic presentations, visual presentations, and a dissertation. The dissertation of up to 15,000 words is an original piece of research on a topic of your choice, subject to the approval of your supervisor.

Teaching staff

Your primary teachers for the next academic year will be:

  • Professor Naomi Sykes: (integrated arts-science approaches to explore bio-cultural histories of single species, to model human-animal-environment relationships over the last 10k years, and to consider implications for the present)
  • Professor Alan K. Outram: (prehistoric zooarchaeology, horse domestication, early pastoralism, origins of milking, bone fracture and fragmentation, bone fat exploitation, lipid residue and genetic applications in zooarchaeology)
  • Dr Alex Pryor: (Palaeolithic animal exploitation, isotopic approaches to animal mobility, mammoths)

Other key staff include:


The Archaeology programmes at Exeter are designed to develop your skills of analysis, assessment and interpretation as well as the production of written and oral reports. The broad-based nature of the subject and the skills it provides give a strong grounding for a wide range of careers, not only those related to archaeology but also in the wider fields of teaching, administration and business. Some graduates combine their initial job with voluntary archaeological work or with further part time study of the subject.

Some destinations of graduates from Archaeology programmes are:

  • Archaeological Assistant
  • Experimental Archaeologist
  • Field Archaeologist
  • Learning Resources Coordinator
  • Museum Curator
  • PhD in Archaeology
  • Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Press Executive
  • Teacher
  • Time Team Archaeologist/Community Archaeologist
  • Web Developer

Research areas

Bioarchaeological research at Exeter combines the study of archaeology with branches of the natural and physical sciences to address questions of health and well-being, diet, ecology, subsistence strategies and natural and human-induced environmental impacts in the past.

Our approach is holistic and inter-disciplinary, drawing its inspiration from both definitions of ‘bioarchaeology’: as a study applied to human remains (human osteoarchaeology) and, as originally defined by Grahame Clark, as related to the integration of environmental archaeology, floral and faunal evidence – archaeobotany and zooarchaeology – in archaeological research.

Active field research programmes in North and South America and Eurasia link with extensive laboratory research to address questions of social structure and social organisation, the process of animal and plant domestication, the development of social inequality and power relations, violence and warfare, the rise of élites and craft specialists, and division of labour.

Our current research covers a range of themes:

  • the origins and development of social inequality, violence and warfare
  • morphological alteration in response to physical activity and labour in the rise of craft specialists and elites across political, social and economic transitions
  • changing patterns of resource exploitation of plants and animals
  • human – environment relations, in particular the early domestication of plants and animals, and the legacy of past human impact on modern environments
  • how social relationships in the past contribute to funerary patterning in the archaeological record and how these relate to social processes amongst the living.

Some of the current major zooarchaeological research projects we are involved with include:

Pegasus: The Makeup of the Modern Horse: a History of the Biological Changes Introduced by Human Management

Alan is engaged as the senior zooarchaeologist on a project led by Prof. Ludovic Orlando (CNRS Toulouse). The horse provided us with rapid transportation, an almost unrivalled secondary product that tremendously impacted the politico-economical trajectory of our societies, revolutionizing the circulation of ideas, people, languages, religions and communication. In this project, we are building on the latest advances in DNA analysis to gather new genomic, epigenomic and metagenomic information from ancient horses. This is being integrated with zooarchaeological, isotopic and historical data to enhance our understanding of the multiple processes underlying the transformation of the animal that perhaps most impacted human history.

Visit the project website

Exploring the Easter - Shifting Baselines and Changing Perceptions of Cultural and Biological "Aliens"

Naomi is Principal Investigator of an AHRC project investigating the bio-cultural origins of Easter. Easter is the most important event in the Christian calendar, yet little is known about the festival’s genesis, when it first appeared in Britain, the origins of its component customs (such as hunting for eggs left by the Easter ‘bunny’) or how they coalesced to form modern traditions. We also know less than we think about the animals most commonly associated with Easter: brown hares, rabbits and chickens. The project’s cross-disciplinary team are integrating evidence from anthropology, (zoo)archaeology, (art) history, evolutionary biology, law, historical linguistics, natural history and religious studies. Together, they are questioning the accepted truths of the origins of Easter and more generally, the team are providing insights into the shifting nature of attitudes to religion, conservation, and nationalism.

Visit the project website

Late Gravettian ecological diversity in Central Europe

Alex is isotopic specialist on this five-year project led by Dr Jarosław Wilczyński of the Institute of Systematics and Evolution of Animals in Krakow, Poland. This project seeks to test the hypothesis that hunters in the latter half of the Gravettian period in Central Europe adapted to the harsher climates by developing seasonally diverse subsistence strategies involving long distance mobility between distinct hunting regions, making different tools to hunt different animals at different times of the year. Alex will use isotopic analysis to investigate the seasonal mobility of hunters and the prey species they targeted, focusing on woolly mammoth, horse and reindeer. These data will be integrated with results from lithic and zooarchaeological analyses (e.g. dental cementum data) to understand the seasonal subsistence strategies employed in Central Europe at the height of the last ice age.


We have outstanding facilities that include:

  • dedicated bioarchaeology lab
  • experimental archaeology laboratories
  • clean lab and fume cupboards for preparing stable isotope samples
  • landscape archaeology project office, complete with giant scanner for maps and plans
  • microscope room equipped with high specification microscopes and image processing facilities
  • kiln room for ceramics and other experimental purposes
  • wet labs for artefact and environmental sample processing
  • sets of high and low-power teaching microscopes
  • state-of-the-art surveying equipment (including resistivity equipment, magnetometer, differential and hand-held GPS and total station theodolite).

We also have extensive reference collections of artefacts, animal bones and plant remains. Find out more about our facilities on the Archaeology website.

In addition, we have recently invested £1.2 million into Digital Humanities to create a new lab and research space for the examination and preservation of important historical, literary and visual artefacts. The lab will enable you to use high-tech equipment to find out more about our cultural heritage, examine items in greater detail and share discoveries with the public. For more information, view our Digital Humanities Lab page.

Entry requirements

Normally a minimum 2:1 Honours degree in Archaeology or a related subject (for example, Anthropology, Biology, Geography or Environmental Science). Applicants with non-standard qualifications should contact us to discuss admission.

Requirements for international students

If you are an international student, please visit our international equivalency pages to enable you to see if your existing academic qualifications meet our entry requirements.

English language requirements

IELTS (Academic)

Overall score 6.5. No less than 6.0 in any section.


Overall score 90 with minimum scores of 21 for writing, 21 for listening, 22 for reading and 23 for speaking.

Pearson Test of English (Academic)

58 with no less than 55 in all communicative skills.

Other accepted tests

Information about other acceptable tests of linguistic ability can be found on our English language requirements page.

Pre-sessional English

Applicants with lower English language test scores may be able to take pre-sessional English at INTO University of Exeter prior to commencing their programme. See our English language requirements page for more information.

Fees and funding

Tuition fees per year 2020/21

  • UK/EU: £8,750 full-time; £4,375 part-time
  • International: £18,500 full-time

Fee information

Fees can normally be paid by two termly instalments and may be paid online. You will also be required to pay a tuition fee deposit to secure your offer of a place, unless you qualify for exemption. For further information about paying fees see our Student Fees pages.

UK government postgraduate loan scheme

Postgraduate loans of up to £10,609 are now available for Masters degrees. Find out more about eligibility and how to apply.

Scholarships and other funding

Find out about funding opportunities available to students on our taught Masters programmes in Archaeology.

Global Excellence Scholarship

We are delighted to offer Global Excellence Scholarships for students of outstanding academic quality applying to postgraduate Taught programmes starting in autumn 2020.
Please note that this scholarship isn't offered for all our masters programmes.

Contact us

Admissions Office - Exeter

Web: Enquire online

Phone: 0300 555 6060 (UK callers)
+44 (0)1392 723044 (EU/International callers)

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Fieldwork at Ipplepen

In 2010 the University of Exeter, the British Museum and Devon County Council started a survey and excavation that aimed to explore the nature of this Roman and early medieval British site. In this short video, Danielle Wootton explains the origins of the dig, and the unique features of Ipplepen.

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