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Human-environment dynamics through the Holocene in the Mourne region, Northern Ireland

School of Natural and Built Environment

Belfast United Kingdom Archaeology Environmental Geography Geoscience Environmental Sciences

About the Project

This project aims to examine human-environment relationships in the Mourne Mountains throughout the Holocene. The present landscape of the Mournes has been shaped by millennia of natural and human agency, but the processes, timing and inter-relationship of these factors are poorly understood. Previous unpublished research in northern and eastern stretches of the Mournes indicate that a wooded landscape existed through the uplands in prehistoric times, representing an environment markedly different from the peat-covered slopes that feature today. A rich archaeological record attests human presence in the Mourne uplands during the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, while deserted farmsteads and booley huts are generally thought to reflect Medieval and post-Medieval activity. What attracted people to occupy the Mournes at these different times? Was occupation continuous or intermittent, permanent or transient? What were the roles of climate and demographic change in stimulating expansion or retraction of occupation in higher ground? To what extent is the current open character of the Mournes the product of climate or human impacts? 

Using a multi-proxy palaeoenvironmental approach, this project will reconstruct the natural and cultural heritage of the Mournes with a view to informing public understanding of the complex history of the region. The project will explore questions of sustainable land-use, climate impacts, population pressure, and social and ecological vulnerability/resilience in an upland environment often regarded as economically and environmentally marginal. A focus on long-term records from deep peats within the western Mournes will provide a backdrop for establishing the vegetation and climate history of the region through the analysis of pollen and testate amoebae. Targeted palaeoenvironmental sampling will be conducted in the vicinity of archaeological and historical sites within the Mourne uplands, including occupation sites and quarries, to provide time-specific contextualisations of human activities and impacts on the immediate environment. Suitable sampling sites in the adjacent lowlands immediately to the north and along the coastal plain of the western Mournes will be sought to establish comparative records for settlement and land-use intensity in low-lying areas. The study will incorporate historical and local knowledge to ensure a deeper appreciation of the significance of the uplands to past, present and future populations.

The studentship will entail a work placement with the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI), the project collaborator.


  • Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 'Archaeology & Palaeoecology' at the School of Natural and Built Environment.
  • State name of the lead supervisor as ‘Dr Gill Plunkett’ on application form.
  • State ‘DfE funding’ as Intended Source of Funding.
  • To apply, visit


Please provide a research proposal in your own words, which sets out the research questions/problems; the research context and intellectual significance of the project; the research methods to be employed; the resources that will be used; a timeline; any safety or ethical considerations; and an indicative bibliography.

Please use the 'Research Proposal' section of the QUB Application form. Your proposal should be no longer than 1000 words (excluding references).

Funding Notes

This DfE-funded 3-year studentship is open to UK candidates. The value of an award includes the cost of approved fees as well as maintenance support. In academic year 2020-2021 the basic rate of maintenance support for a Research Studentship is £15,285. The start date for this project will be 1 October 2021.

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