MSc Bioarchaeology: Zooarchaeology

The Zooarchaeology pathway of our Bioarchaeology 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, though 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.

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 recently opened 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.

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:

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

NeoMilk: The Milking Revolution in Temperate Neolithic Europe

Alan is a senior researcher on major interdisciplinary European Research Council project led by Professor Richard P. Evershed (School of Chemistry, Bristol). It explores the introduction and spread of cattle-based agriculture by early Neolithic Linearbandkeramik (LBK) farmers and its implications for modelling the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Northern and Central Europe during the 6th millennium BC. There is a particular focus on the origins of dairying as a major component of economy. The Exeter work package particularly addresses variation in taphonomy, butchery patterns and animal fat use across time and space within the LBK.

Visit the project website

The Chicken Project (x 3)

Naomi has been PI/Co-I on three Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded projects investigating the origins, spread and bio-cultural impact of the chicken. This species is native to South East Asia and their modern worldwide distribution is almost entirely due to human-assisted transportation. As such, their natural history is a reflection of human history.

The overarching aims of the Chicken Project are threefold:

1. To bring together expertise from across the Arts, Humanities and Sciences and create a new mutually transformative paradigm for research
2. To work together to explore human culture and how cultural attitudes to the natural world have changed over millennia
3. To consider the implications of our research for addressing modern Global Challenges.

Visit the project website

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 tests 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.