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Award details

Assessing bio-cultural impacts on British biodiversity, AD 0 – 1000, NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship for 2022 Entry, PhD in Archaeology Ref: 4234

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Prof. Naomi Sykes, Department of Archaeology, University of Exeter, 

Additional Supervisors

Dr Richard Madgwick, Cardiff University

Dr Angela Lamb, British Geological Survey

Dr Alistair Barclay, Cotswold Archaeology

Location: Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter, Devon

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology,  the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,609 p.a. for 2021/22) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
  • Payment of university tuition fees;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses

Project details

Project Background

                        Fig 1. Answering questions about ancient biodiversity


 A series of UKRI-funded research projects have explored the deep-time history of particular British fauna (e.g. fallow deer, brown hares, rabbits, rats, chickens, domestic and wild cats). Together the results from these projects have highlighted that the ‘Dark Age’ Cool Period (~6th century AD) appears to represent a mass extinction event, whereby many species disappear from the Zooarchaeological record (see Fig 2). Genetic research has confirmed that some animals present in the Roman period became extinct and were later replaced with different populations around 1000 AD. The scale and drivers of these extinctions are unclear – many other species may have been impacted by climatic and/or cultural change.


Understanding the timing and circumstances of these ancient shifts in biodiversity provides an evidentiary baseline against which modern animal management issues (e.g. extinctions, rewilding and invasive species) can be examined. However, reconstructing the deep history of some of Britain’s most iconic extinct species (for instance wild boar, wolves and wild cat) is made difficult by problems of differentiating the archaeological remains of wild and domestic variants. Combined zooarchaeological and isotope analysis offers the possibility of identifying, and therefore tracking the dynamics of, these species.  


2. Modelling climatic, isotope and zooarchaeological data to understand the Dark Age extinction events.

Project Aims and Methods

This project will explore the scale of, and drivers responsible for, shifts in British animal biodiversity, focusing on the 1000-year period (AD 0-1000) which saw dramatic climatic, cultural and economic shifts akin to those being experienced in the present. It will do this at a multi-scalar level using the following approaches:

Synthesising existing zooarchaeological, palaeoclimatological and biomolecular data for British fauna (AD 0 – 1000) and selecting one or more species (e.g. wild cat, wild boar or wolves) as detailed case-studies.

Analysing newly excavated and archived material held by Cotswold Archaeology (and other commercial units and museums) to select and contextualise the remains of the case-study species.

Undertaking zooarchaeological and stable isotope analysis (carbon, nitrogen, sulphur) of the case-study species to differentiate wild and domestic animals (e.g. wild boar versus domestic pig) on the basis of skeletal morphology and dietary niche. 

Enamel-based isotope analysis (strontium and oxygen) to examine animal mobility and catchment. 

Model the multiscalar data to explore the bio-cultural factors most likely responsible for species presence/absence in the zooarchaeological record.  

The selected candidate will shape the project by leading on the selection of the case-study species.

Candidate requirements

The successful candidate will have completed relevant undergraduate and/or masters level modules in Archaeology and have a good working knowledge of animal remains analysis. Some experience of isotopic analysis is highly desirable but not essential as instruction will be provided during the course of the PhD.

Project partners 

During an 18-month placement at Cotswold Archaeology the student will undertake zooarchaeological research within a commercial setting, whilst accessing and sampling the materials that will form the basis of their isotope analysis. The student will spend a minimum of four weeks at both Cardiff University and the British Geological Survey (BGS) where they will access sample preparation and mass spectrometry labs. 


The student will receive comprehensive zooarchaeological training via the lead supervisor in Exeter and the CASE partner in Cotswold Archaeology, where they will also benefit from training in aspects of commercial archaeology (e.g. report writing, tendering, project management). Training in the sampling, pre-treatment and isotopic analysis of faunal bone and tooth enamel samples will be provided by co-supervisors Madgwick and Lamb covering a total of five isotope systems. After training the student will be expected to independently prepare samples and aid in the operation of analytical instrumentation. 

Background reading and references

Boivin, N. and Crowther, A., 2021. Mobilizing the past to shape a better Anthropocene. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 5(3), pp.273-284.

O’Connor, T. and Sykes, N.J. ed., 2010. Extinctions and invasions: a social history of British fauna. Windgather Press

Useful links

For information relating to the research project please contact the lead Supervisor via email


NERC GW4+ DTP studentships are open to UK and Irish nationals who, if successful in their applications, will receive a full studentship including payment of university tuition fees at the home fees rate.

A limited number of full studentships are also available to international students which are defined as EU (excluding Irish nationals), EEA, Swiss and all other non-UK nationals.  For further details please see the NERC GW4+ website.

Those not meeting the nationality and residency requirements to be treated as a ‘home’ student may apply for a limited number of full studentships for international students. Although international students are usually charged a higher tuition fee rate than ‘home’ students, those international students offered a NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership full studentship starting in 2022 will only be charged the ‘home’ tuition fee rate (which will be covered by the studentship). 

International applicants need to be aware that you will have to cover the cost of your student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD. More information on this is available from the universities you are applying to (contact details are provided in the project description that you are interested in.

The conditions for eligibility of home fees status are complex and you will need to seek advice if you have moved to or from the UK (or Republic of Ireland) within the past 3 years or have applied for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.

Entry requirements

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.   Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree.  Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

All applicants would need to meet our English language requirements by the start of the  project


How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

  • CV
  • Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project.
  • Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim transcript if you are still studying.
  • If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current proficiency in English, please see the entry requirements for details.
  • Two references

Reference information
You will be asked to submit two references as part of the application process.  If you are not able to upload  your reference documents with your application please ensure you provide details of your referees.  If you provide contact details of referees only, we will not expect receipt of references until after the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

If you are shortlisted for interview, please ensure that your two academic referees email their references to the, 7 days prior to the interview dates. Please note that we will not be contacting referees to request references, you must arrange for them to be submitted to us by the deadline.

References should be submitted by your referees to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

All application documents must be submitted in English. Certified translated copies of academic qualifications must also be provided.

The closing date for applications is 1600 hours GMT Friday 10 January 2022. Interviews will be held between 28 February and 4 March 2022.  For more information about the NERC GW4+ DPT please visit

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email  Project-specific queries should be directed to the lead supervisor.

Data Sharing
During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

  • the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;
  • administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.


Application deadline:10th January 2022
Value:£15,609 per annum for 2021-2022
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries