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QUADRAT DTP: Exploring the potential of multi-tissue sulphur and strontium isotope analysis and isoscape modelling to reconstruct past faunal movements

Project Description

The reconstruction of the lifetime movements of archaeological animals can provide us with unique perspectives on past human societies and – when involving wild species – can also provide valuable insights into ancient ecosystems. Obtaining direct evidence of movement patterns in archaeofaunas can illuminate human hunting behaviours and landscape use, and changes in animal husbandry and subsistence practices, but can also be used to explore conservation and plasticity in behaviour through time and – significantly – advance our understanding of the impact of environmental change on faunal communities (Britton, 2018).

Strontium isotope analysis is increasingly being used in archaeology and palaeoecology to better understand animal migratory behaviours in the past (e.g. Gigleux et al., 2019), and the active integration of intra-tooth strontium approaches with spatial modelling (‘isoscapes’) may provide higher resolution insights. Sulphur isotopes also have great potential to help us better understand faunal movements but are comparatively underused, and sulphur isotope variability across landscapes is poorly understood and characterised (Nehlich, 2015).

Through a series of modern and archaeological case studies and utilising the sampling of environmental materials (soils, plants), teeth (incremental enamel and dentinal collagen) and bone (bulk collagen), this project will advance the application of these methodologies in archaeology and palaeoecology by providing important proof-of-concept and application data exploring the complementary of these approaches to reconstructing the life-time and intra-annual movements of ungulates.

Research will be two phased and will initially comprise of modern experimental research in North America and Scotland, including the generating of new sulphur isotope data from diverse environmental and faunal samples, and isoscape modelling. The use of faunal materials of known lifetime movement, such as migratory caribou, will permit an enhanced understanding of the relationship between these movements and isotope data, and the testing of methodologies. Archaeological and palaeontological applications will focus on early Pleistocene South Africa, late Pleistocene France and late Pleistocene-Holocene Scotland.

The project will be supervised primarily by Dr Kate Britton, whose expertise lies in the application of isotope analysis to the reconstruction of human and faunal movements. Co-supervision will be provided by Dr Neil Ogle, an expert in geochemistry and mass spectrometry. Additional support will be provided through scientific and archaeological collaborators. Applicants will be expected to have some background in zooarchaeology, palaeoecology and/ or stable isotope analysis. The project will include training in all necessary skills including environmental sampling techniques, stable isotope analysis (including sample preparation, data generation and analysis), isoscape modelling and data handling. Isotope analyses will be undertaken at QUB and Aberdeen, and with additional project partners (e.g. the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen).


Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered providing they have a Distinction at Master’s level.


• Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Geosciences
• State name of the lead supervisor as ‘Name of Proposed Supervisor’ on application
• State ‘QUADRAT DTP’ as Intended Source of Funding
• Select the to apply now

Funding Notes

This project is funded by the NERC QUADRAT-DTP and is available to UK/EU nationals who meet the UKRI eligibility criteria. Please visit View Website for more information.

The studentship provides funding for tuition fees, stipend and a research training and support grant subject to eligibility.


Britton, K., 2018. Prey species movements and migrations in ecocultural landscapes: reconstructing late Pleistocene herbivore seasonal spatial behaviours, in: Pilaar-Birch, S. (Ed.), Multi-Species Archaeology. Routledge, London, pp. 347-367.

Gigleux, C. et al. , 2019. Reconstructing caribou seasonal biogeography in Little Ice Age (late Holocene) Western Alaska using intra-tooth strontium and oxygen isotope analysis. J. Archaeol. Sci. Rep. 23: 1043-1054.

Nehlich, O., 2015. The application of sulphur isotope analyses in archaeological research: A review. Earth-Science Reviews 142, 1-17.

How good is research at Aberdeen University in Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 13.40

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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