Bioarchaeology

Our research in bioarchaeology spans from the lower-Palaeolithic to the early modern era and is conducted by a vibrant community of doctoral students, post-doctoral researchers and permanent staff members.

A human and a goat skull in the lab
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Bioarchaeology research has a long history at Sheffield and is one of our core strengths which is reflected in the vibrancy of our postgraduate teaching, along with our sizeable community of doctoral students, post-doctoral researchers and permanent staff members with expertise in zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, human osteology and palaeoanthropology. 

The cluster benefits from excellent facilities, including dedicated teaching and research laboratories as well as internationally renowned reference collections. Our research and teaching also regularly integrate archaeological evidence with other strands of analysis particularly biochemistry, stable isotope analysis, ethnography, and history.

Some of the key themes investigated by this cluster include-

  • primate behaviour
  • early hominid evolution
  • domestication of plants and animals
  • human and livestock mobility
  • ritual and funerary practices
  • cultural transmission and identity

View our staff and research students


Research specialisms and facilities

Zooarchaeology Laboratory

The Department of Archaeology owns substantial laboratories for zooarchaeological research and teaching. In addition to the facilities and equipment, the zooarchaeology lab houses an extensive modern reference collection that greatly facilitates all the activities undertaken by members of the lab, whether those involve research, teaching, or consulting.

The staff of the zooarchaeology laboratory are much involved in teaching activities. One part of our reference collection is specifically dedicated to teaching and consists of a collection of modern and archaeological specimens, organised by body part, taxon, and other characteristics (butchery marks, gnawing, pathology etc.). A collection specifically focussed on a user-friendly layout of individual teeth is currently available. Tooth identification, a difficult task for inexperienced students, becomes much easier with the aid of a clearly labelled and laid out collection of isolated teeth of the most common species found in archaeological sites. The teaching collection represents an essential tool for our lectures and practical sessions for both undergraduates and postgraduate students. Besides the routine use of the collection for teaching, every year the teaching and research collections are extensively used by students who undertake undergraduate, master, or PhD dissertations in zooarchaeology.

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SCALE - Sheffield Centre for Archaeobotany and ancient Land usE

The Sheffield Centre for Archaeobotany and ancient Land-usE (SCALE) is an internationally renowned centre for research into ancient plant economies and land use. Research within the centre integrates archaeology with ecology, botany, agronomy, earth sciences, genetics and ethnobotany. Pioneering innovative research with a strong ecological and ethnoarchaeological focus, SCALE members specialise in Western Asian, Mediterranean and British archaeobotany and land use. The centre has strong collaborative links with Animal and Plant Sciences, Geography and the Department of Probability and Statistics within the University of Sheffield. Within the centre, we have reference collections for wood charcoal, pollen, phytolith and starch and a large seed reference collection. We have facilities for the study of charred and waterlogged seeds, wood charcoal, pollen, phytoliths and starch.

The centre is composed of several permanent members of academic staff, research assistants, technicians and a strong team of PhD students. Training in archaeobotany and geoarchaeology is provided through our taught Masters programmes.

In particular, the centre is focused on investigating

  • the origins of agriculture
  • the early dispersal of crops, genes, and agricultural practices
  • the role of agriculture in the development and collapse of complex societies
  • the relationship between human migration and the use of plant foods
  • production of crops and their consumption by humans and animals
  • landscape and human land-use interactions (agriculture, pastoralism etc.)
Osteology Laboratory

Research and teaching in osteology has been a key strength of the Department of Archaeology for over 40 years. Our research drives forward understanding of primate and human anatomy across time and space, and the importance of situating these in a broader context through archaeological and multidisciplinary study of topics such as funerary practice, palaeoenvironment and palaeoeconomy. Sheffield has a long heritage of contributing to fundamental questions and cutting-edge issues within the field. Past and present staff and students have made significant contributions to

  • the development of methods for the assessment of age at death in humans and the inference of subsistence patterns from primate teeth
  • the study of skeletal remains to address themes such as health, disease and disability and primate mating strategies
  • fieldwork projects across the world

We champion multidisciplinary engagement at all levels, providing teaching in areas such as evolutionary and human anatomy and funerary archaeology, alongside fundamental training in subject-specific method and theory.

Paleoanthropology

Research in palaeoanthropology at the University of Sheffield builds on the department’s unique combination of strengths in palaeolithic archaeology, biological anthropology, human and comparative anatomy, primatology and hominid palaeontology. The expertise amongst our staff ranges from behavioural and morphological studies of primates and fossil hominids to the study of palaeolithic culture and Pleistocene environmental evidence. Department staff have active palaeoanthropological field research projects in Britain, Europe and Africa, and there are well-developed links between the department and the museum and education centre at Creswell Crags, one of Britain’s most important Ice Age archaeological sites.

Academic Staff

  • Kevin Kuykendall
  • Pia Nystrom

Research Training Programmes

  • MSc Palaeoanthropology

External Links

Current and recent research 

Evolutionary Origins of Agriculture

funded by European Research Council

This project aims to improve understanding of the selective pressures acting on early crop domestication in Western Asia, combining elements of experimental plant ecology, molecular biology, archaeobotany and GIS analysis.

Origins of Agriculture

funded by Natural Environment Research Council

This project, in collaboration with the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences (University of Sheffield), aims to develop a new ecological model for crop domestication, integrating the roles of environmental change, plant traits, and human agency, under the constraints of the archaeological record.

Pig Ethnography

funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council and British Academy

The aim of this project is to study surviving traditional systems of pig keeping in Sardinia and Corsica, which can help our understanding of the archaeological evidence for pig domestication and husbandry.

South African Palaeocave Survey

One of the well-known features of Plio-Pleistocene early hominid sites in South Africa is that they are all associated with historic lime mines. The main objective of our project is to locate historic mining sites, and to evaluate whether they contain deposits and other features that are useful to palaeoanthropologists.

The role of animal husbandry in late Iron Age and Roman societies

funded by Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowships

Building on past research of the three main investigators – Umberto Albarella (project coordinator) Claudia Minniti and Silvia Valenzuela Lamas (Intra-European Marie Curie Fellows) – the project investigates changes in animal husbandry at the Iron Age-Roman transition, as part of our wider understanding of the mechanisms of cultural transmission and contact during this momentous phase of human history.

The Role of Weaning History in Medieval Infant Identities

funded by University of Sheffield Early Career Researcher Scheme

This project is applying a new dental isotope analysis method to test the hypothesis that infants buried in special locations around the walls of early medieval churches were yet to be weaned. Findings will investigate the role of breast-feeding in past communities and thus contextualise contemporary dialogues concerning infant health, nutrition and mortality.

The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project

The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project is a multidisciplinary, community-led archaeological investigation of the 13th-century charnel chapel situated beneath Rothwell Parish Church, Northants. The chapel still contains the bones of hundreds of people, who and died between the 13th and 19th centuries.

Visit the Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project website.

The St Patrick’s Chapel Excavation Project

funded by Cadw, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, the Nineveh Trust, the British Academy and the University of Sheffield

A collaborative project between Dr Katie Hemer, University of Sheffield and Dyfed Archaeological Trust. This early medieval Christian cemetary has been at significant risk from coastal erosian since the 1920s. Following severe winter storms in 2013/2014, human remains became visible from the beach below and there was an urgent need for excavation to preserve this important part of Pembrokeshire's coastel heritage.

The excavated human remains are now undergoing osteological analysis at the University of Sheffield to establish the demographic profile and health status of the population.

Welland Bank Quarry

Welland Bank Quarry, Lincolnshire, is the site of a Bronze Age settlement and associated field systems. Faunal assemblages of this date are relatively rare and the diversity of animals represented, coupled with the excellent preservation conditions across much of the site, makes it an extra

Zooarchaeology of Central England

funded by English Heritage

Undertaken by Professors Umberto Albarella and Tessa Pirnie, this project aims to produce a review of animal bone evidence for Central England from Mesolithic to Modern times. The project is structured to facilitate inter-site comparison to find evidence to discuss major archaeological questions, such as the beginning of domestication, agricultural intensification, extinctions and introductions and other zooarchaeological themes.