Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2020-2021 (archived)

Module ARCH41530: Isotopic and Biomolecular Archaeology

Department: Archaeology

ARCH41530: Isotopic and Biomolecular Archaeology

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Not available in 2020/21 Module Cap None.


  • None


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • The primary aim of this module is to enable students to acquire a theoretical and practical understanding of the principles and practice of elemental, isotopic and DNA analysis in bioarchaeology, and the key archaeological questions that these methods can address. Students will be encouraged to identify gaps in current knowledge and new avenues for research. As this is a rapidly developing and challenging area of bioarchaeology, emphasis will be placed on recently published research, ethics, evolving methods and applications and data analysis and interpretation.


  • This module will explore the principles, application and interpretation of biomolecular methods such as DNA, trace element analysis, and stable and radiogenic isotope analysis to modern and archaeological humans, animals and plants. It will focus principally upon human and animal diets, domestication and migrations in the past and relatedness at individual and population levels with appropriate case studies.
  • Aspects covered will include: fundamental theory; effective study design; restrictions posed by diagenesis, cost, ethics and access to samples; practical sampling; instrumental skills; data analysis; and interpretation and integration of multiple forms of evidence to solve larger scale questions of past peoples and their environments.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • On successful completion of the module students should be able to demonstrate:
  • Advanced practical understanding of trace element and isotopic methods and data analysis.
  • Familiarity with the main features of DNA analysis from modern populations.
  • Critical awareness and appreciation of current theories concerning the interpretation of trace element, isotopic and DNA data.
  • Advanced understanding of how sampling constraints, ethical issues and the limitations of the current state of knowledge impact on the questions that can be addressed and the interpretations that can be proposed with isotope and DNA analysis.
  • A general understanding of the archaeological contexts within which different techniques can be applied and their relative efficacy.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Ability to identify appropriate isotopic and biomolecular methods and samples to address an archaeological question.
  • Practical laboratory skills in sample choice and preparation for trace element, isotope and DNA analysis.
  • Knowledge of how to take samples on site/in the field, in museums etc., as well as how to store and preserve the archaeological material in the best possible way for DNA analysis.
  • Ability to test theories of human or animal history produced through application of isotope and/or DNA analysis. Ability to integrate multiple forms of biomolecular evidence to reconstruct prehistoric or historic human dispersals and society.
Key Skills:
  • Ability to analyse, interpret and present large and often complex and diverse data sets including familiarity with numerical methods and statistical software.
  • Ability to present complex data and concepts to a variety of audiences effectively, i.e. specialist and non-specialist.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Practical classes will involve choosing, preparing and measuring organic samples for trace element, isotope and DNA analysis, numerical and statistical data analysis and interpretation.
  • The module will consist of lectures and practical classes. Students will be required to keep a reflective laboratory notebook of their practical work which will be discussed in tutorials.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 10 1 1 10
Practicals 15 1 3 45
Tutorials 8 1 2 16
Self-directed learning 257
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Data Analysis and Interpretation - Specialist Report Component Weighting: 50%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Data Analysis and Interpretation - Specialist Report 2500 words 100% Yes
Component: Data Analysis and Interpretation - Conference Poster and non-specialist summary Component Weighting: 30%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Data Analysis and Interpretation - Conference Poster and non-specialist summary A1 poster 100% Yes
Component: Data Analysis and Interpretation - non-specialist summary Component Weighting: 20%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Data Analysis and Interpretation - non-specialist summary 500 words 100% Yes

Formative Assessment:

Students will keep a reflective Laboratory Notebook which will be brought to lectures, practicals and tutorials for note-taking, discussion and feedback. The notebook will contain short summaries of each lecture, notes taken in practical classes and reflection on student's learning and understanding.

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University