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Revealing ancient and modern manuring practices on Icelandic coastal farms using organic and inorganic biomarkers

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  • Full or part time
    Dr K Milek
    Prof J Feldmann
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round
  • Self-Funded PhD Students Only
    Self-Funded PhD Students Only

Project Description

Understanding human ecodynamics, especially the impacts of soil management practices on the long term improvement, degradation, or pollution of agricultural soils, are issues of key interest to environmental researchers throughout the world. Using Iceland as a case study, this PhD aims to identify and quantify manuring practices at the farms of Þaravellir, Siglunes, Vatnsfjörður and Hegranes, all of which have a history that dates back to the original settlement of the country, and have been occupied since at least the 10th century AD. These coastal farms provide the opportunity to obtain unprecedented temporal resolution of soil analyses due to periodic volcanic tephra deposition over the Icelandic landscape, which results in datable chronomarkers in soil profiles.

Targeting ruminant (cattle, sheep), porcine and human excreta alongside plant-derived manures (e.g. seaweed, fuel residues) and fish processing waste, the PhD will search for inorganic and organic markers in the datable agricultural soils on each of these farms, which we know to have been cultivated right from the beginning of Viking landnám around 900 AD until the early modern period. Phytostanols (5β stigmastanol, 5β-campestanol, 5β-coprostanol) and bile acids (hyodeoxycholic acid, desoxycholic acid, lithocholic acid and hyocholic acid) may be applied to the detection of the former, while fuel residues and fish-based waste – due to their specific inorganic content – will be examined by multi-elemental analyses of K, Th, Rb, Cs; Sr, Ba, La, Cr, Pr and Cu, Mn, Pb, Zn. However, special emphasis will be put on tracing seaweed manuring, which is documented to have been of potential importance in Iceland ever since Viking colonisation. Because of its extraordinarily high arsenic content of up to 100 mg/kg (dry weight) of which 5-20% are commonly arsenolipids, in addition to the soil’s remarkable retention behaviour, the PhD will aim to demonstrate the effectiveness of this method to detect anthropogenically spread seaweed, with important implications for understanding long-term arsenic pollution of agricultural soils.

Essential Background: Equivalent of 2.1 Honours Degree in BSc in Chemistry, Environmental Chemistry or Analytical Chemistry

Knowledge of: Archaeology, especially environmental archaeology and/or geoarchaeology.
Instrumental and structural analytics of organic and inorganic molecules.
How environmental chemistry can be used to answer archaeological questions.

Funding Notes

The successful applicant will be expected to provide the funding for Tuition fees, living expenses and maintenance. Details of the cost of study can be found by visiting There is NO funding attached to this project. You can find details of living costs and the like by visiting


This project is advertised in relation to the research areas of the discipline of Archaeology.

Formal applications can be completed online: You should apply for PhD in Archaeology, to ensure that your application is passed to the correct College for processing. Please ensure that you quote the project title and supervisor on the application form.

Informal inquiries can be made to Dr K Milek ([email protected]) with a copy of your curriculum vitae and cover letter. All general enquiries should be directed to the Graduate School Admissions Unit ([email protected]).

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