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QUADRAT DTP: Precious metals of the Anthropocene

Project Description

Understanding the consequences of metal pollution is of increasing importance given the ever-growing consumption of resources and the increasing sophistication of metallic products, creating new and different types of waste, which is often discarded into the environment (Nriagu, 1990). Geochemical records preserved in bogs and/or lake sediments can be used to date, quantify and source the release of these metals into the environment during the last four millennia and thus act as a proxy for mining, metallurgy and pollution, and to provide spatial and temporal perspectives for modern-day pollution, as well as establishing natural environmental baselines. Even though the use of metals has been a key transition within human society, little is known about the impact of pollution of many common metals on the pre-industrial environment. Whilst records for copper, lead and mercury are well known, other precious metals, such as gold, silver and tin, have not been studied despite their undoubted importance to society. This PhD studentship aims to reconstruct pollution histories for these precious metals and those associated with mining and metallurgy along the western Atlantic seaboard. This will allow us to (i) reconstruct deposition records for gold, silver, tin and associated elements through time; (ii) track the development of metallurgy from the early Copper Age onwards; (iii) re-assess the significance of the environmental impact of mining and metal production; (iv) challenge and refine previously common narratives concerning the (pre)history of atmospheric metal deposition.

To achieve this, palaeoenvironmental archives extending back into the early Holocene will be targeted. Ombrotrophic (rainfed-only) bogs are ideal for this purpose as they receive all of their inputs from the atmosphere and therefore preserve long records of atmospheric metal deposition. Sites will be selected from NW Iberia, Ireland and the Britain, close to known/suspected early mining and/or metal-producing areas. These areas have rich archaeological and historical records of mining and metallurgy and thus have been long-considered pollution source areas. Multi-element geochemistry by inductively coupled plasma-sector field mass spectrometry will be used to determine fine solution downcore metal concentrations indicative of metalworking and lead isotope ratios, (e.g. Meharg et al., 2012; Pontevedera-Pombal et al., 2013). The chronology of each peat cores will be established through radiocarbon and 210Pb dating and tephrochronology.

Where possible, metal objects and mould residues will also be analysed using portable XRF from each study area to trace the development of metal use through time using their chemical fingerprint. Therefore, combined, this new dataset will provide important insights into emergence, significance and demise of this metalworking tradition and the resultant pollution.

Such research is well aligned with the global Goals for Sustainable development, 3 (Good Health and Well-Being) and 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production).

Doctors G. Plunkett (QUB) and Ed Schofield (Aberdeen) will also act as co-supervisors.


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 https://www.abdn.ac.uk/pgap/login.php 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.


Meharg, A.A., Edwards, K.J., Schofield, J.E., Raab, A., Feldmann, J., Moran, A., Bryant, C.L., Thornton, B. and Dawson, J.J., 2012. First comprehensive peat depositional records for tin, lead and copper associated with the antiquity of Europe's largest cassiterite deposits. Journal of Archaeological Science, 39(3), pp.717-727.

Nriagu, J.O., 1990. Global metal pollution: poisoning the biosphere? Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 32(7), pp.7-33.

Pontevedra-Pombal, X., Mighall, T.M., Novoa-Munoz, J.C., Peiteado-Varela, E., Rodriguez-Racedo, J., Garci¬a-Rodeja, E. and Marti¬nez-Cortizas, A., 2013. Five thousand years of atmospheric Ni, Zn, As, and Cd deposition recorded in bogs from NW Iberia: prehistoric and historic anthropogenic contributions. Journal of Archaeological Science, 40(1), pp.764-777

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