Alison Atkin Alison Atkin

Supervisor: Prof Dawn Hadley


PhD Title:

Profiling the dead: demographic characterisation of mass fatality incidents in the past and the present

PhD Abstract:

The aim of this project is to apply new theory and methods recently developed in palaeodemography to gain a deeper understanding of mass fatality incidents. Most of our evidence concerning past population structure is obtained from cemeteries representing the time-averaged attritional deaths in local populations, in which deaths occur incrementally and result in normative, individual funerary rites.

However, deaths resulting from catastrophic mortality may also have contributed substantially to mortality in past populations, although the social disruption caused by such events may militate against structured burial of the dead, and as a consequence, deaths from catastrophic mortality are likely to be much less salient in the archaeological record.

Studies using historical demographic data have identified the distinctive demographic signatures of episodes of pandemic disease, natural disasters, and civilian and combatant victims of armed conflict. This research project will build on these findings by recording and analysing demographic data from archaeological examples in order to distinguish the natural and social factors determining mortality profiles in ancient mass fatality events.

The current focus of this project is identifying the ‘lost’ plague victims from Medieval England. During the 1348-49 winter outbreak of the Black Death in England, and through subsequent outbreaks during the later 14th and 15th centuries, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of individuals died. The sheer number of the dead, relative to those who survived, would have had an impact on burial practices. The discovery of mass graves, such as those at the Royal Mint site in London, attests to this eventuality. Yet, for all of those dead, to date we have identified very few of them in the archaeological record.

It is theorised that in addition to the use of mass graves, the structured burial of the dead with normative burial practices also occurred following episodes of mass mortality. This led to mixed-mortality assemblages (attritional and catastrophic) that to date have been un- or mis-identified in the archaeological record. By combining demographic data from archaeological examples, along with evidence from contemporary documentary sources, and a multi-disciplinary approach, this research will aim to identify episodes of mass mortality as a result of the Black Death in Medieval England and discuss changes to burial practices and funerary rights during and after the Black Death.


Research Interests:

I am interested in many aspects of osteoarchaeology, but particularly demography, pathology, and epidemiology - including the utilisation of statistical methods and modelling in demography. I am currently focused on a multidisciplinary approach in the application of both established and novel methods and theories to previously under-studied areas of research in the above subject areas.



BA (Hons) Anthropology; concentrations in Biological Anthropology and Archaeology: summa cum laude (Saint Mary’s University 2008)
Dissertation: Edward Jordan’s Skull: A Case Study on the Political and Ethical Issues Surrounding the Exhibition of Mortuary Artefacts and Remains

MSc Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology: Distinction (The University of Sheffield 2009)
Thesis: The Current State of Forensic Archaeology in a Human Rights Context

Awards and Scholarships:

Awards and Scholarships:

2005, 2006, 2007 Academic Achievement Scholarship: BA (Saint Mary’s University)
2008 Postgraduate Merit Scholarship: MSc (The University of Sheffield)
2008 Canada Sheffield Scholarship: MSc (The University of Sheffield)
2011 Faculty Postgraduate Research Scholarship: PhD (The University of Sheffield
2013 British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology Conference Bursary

Conferences and Papers:

Conferences and Papers:

2007 Expressing Taste and Style in Historic Halifax: A Case Study in Historical Archaeology, Atlantic University Undergraduate History and Classics Conference (Acadia University, February 2007)

2012 Profiling the Dead: a Re-interpretation of the ‘Executioner’s Trench’, BABAO Conference (Bournemouth University, September 2012) [POSTER]

2012 Profiling the Dead: identifying episodes of mass mortality from the archaeological record, TAG (University of Liverpool, December 2012)

2013 Identifying the ‘Lost’ Plague Victims in Medieval England, YAPG (The University of Bradford, June 2013)*

2013 Identifying the ‘Lost’ Plague Victims in Medieval England, Arts and Humanities Postgraduate Forum Conference (The University of Sheffield, June 2013)*

2013 Identifying the ‘Lost’ Plague Victims in Medieval England, EAA Conference (The University of West Bohemia, Septmeber 2013)*

2013 Identifying the ‘Lost’ Plague Victims in Medieval England, BABAO Conference (York University, September 2013)*

*Same title, different papers.

Teaching Experience:

Teaching Experience:

2005-2008 Forensic Anthropology, Teaching/Lab Assistant, Saint Mary’s University (Undergraduate)

2005-2008 Archaeology, Teaching/Lab/Field Assistant, Saint Mary’s University (Undergraduate)

2011-12 World Civilisations (AAP108), Discoverers and Discoveries (AAP111), Tutor, University of Sheffield (Undergraduate)

2012-13 Biological Anthropology I, Demonstrator, University of Sheffield (Masters)

2013 Human Osteology: An Introduction (Short Course)*


Student Roles:

Student Roles:

2011-12 Co-organiser of Postgraduate Lunchtime Lecture Series, First Year PGR Representative (Graduate Liaison Committee), Postgraduate Student Representative (Staff Meetings), Student Representative (Faculty Meetings), Department Representative (PGR Faculty Forum)

2012-13 Co-organiser of Postgraduate Lunchtime Lecture Series, Continuing Lab-Based PGR Representative (Graduate Liaison Committee), PGR Representative (50th Anniversary Committee)



Member of British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO), British Association of Human Identification (BAHID), Institute for Field Archaeologists (IfA), Council for British Archaeology (CBA) North West, and Sheffield Death Group.

For more information on Alison's outreach activities please visit her website: Deathsplanation

Penny University