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Disentangling palaeodiet: Modern and archaeological case studies in compound-specific nitrogen isotope analysis - QUADRAT

Project Description

The nitrogen isotope analysis of individual amino acids represents a potentially powerful tool for estimating trophic positions and the source of dietary protein in archaeological case studies. While nitrogen isotope data from ‘bulk’ analyses of bone collagen can provide useful indications of past human diet and food webs, ecological and palaeoecological research has demonstrated the enhanced capacity of compound-specific approaches especially in aquatic and more complex ecosystems. However, compound-specific approaches pose specific analytical and interpretational challenges. More research – particularly involving controlled feeding experiments and case studies from a wide range of natural ecosystems – is required to fully understand the potential of these approaches for reconstructing past human diets. In this joint University of Aberdeen – Queen’s University Belfast project, the power and potential of compound-specific nitrogen isotope analysis will be explored.

Research will combine two specific areas. In the first phase, samples from modern animals fed known diets will be analysed, along with their dietary components. This project will utilise previously collected materials (e.g. feed, hair) from unrelated studies to trace individual amino acids from diet to tissue. While controlled feeding experiments will not be undertaken directly by the student, they will be trained in the processing and preparing of samples from such studies by additional collaborating experts at the University of Aberdeen (Dr. Catherine Hambly, Prof. John Speakman), who will also provide expert guidance in nutritional biology.

The second phase will include archaeological applications from two very different ecosystems/contexts: precontact Alaska and late Iron Age Scotland. Both case studies will focus specifically on the contribution of aquatic foods to the diet and involve the analysis of human, animal and fish archaeological remains, linking life on the land to life under the water in the past. Data generated will complement previously-generated ‘bulk’ isotope data, providing more nuanced insights into food webs, animal-human-environmental interactions, and human dietary choice in two different ancient ecosystems.

Advanced training will be given in sample preparation, isotope mass spectrometry and compound-specific isotope analysis by experts at Queen’s University Belfast (Dr. Neil Ogle). Archaeological research, including case studies and palaeodietary reconstruction, will be supported by lead supervisor, Dr. Kate Britton (University of Aberdeen).

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject.


• Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Archaeology
• State name of the lead supervisor as the Name of Proposed Supervisor
• State ‘QUADRAT DTP’ as Intended Source of Funding
• State the exact project title on the application form

Application closing date is 12:00pm (GMT) on 31 January 2019. Applications received after this time will NOT be considered. Additionally, incomplete applications will NOT be considered. When applying please ensure all required documents are attached:
• All degree certificates and transcripts (Undergraduate AND Postgraduate MSc-officially translated into English where necessary)
• CV
• 2 References (Academic, where possible)

Informal inquiries can be made to Dr K Britton () with a copy of your curriculum vitae and cover letter. All general enquiries should be directed to the Postgraduate Research School ()

The start date of the project is 1 October 2019.

Funding Notes

To be eligible to apply for a fully-funded DTP studentship, you must:

1. be a UK or EU citizen or a non-EU citizen with permanent settled status in the UK (known as ‘indefinite leave to remain’)


2. have been ordinarily resident in the UK for at least 3 years prior to the start of the studentship (this applies to all citizen categories)

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