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Plants in pots: The molecular and isotopic identification of cereal residues in prehistoric pottery

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  • Full or part time
    Dr C Heron
    Prof O Craig
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About This PhD Project

Project Description

The British Museum, Department of Scientific Research and BioArCh, University of York

Applications are invited for a PhD studentship, to be undertaken at University of York (BioArCh, Department of Archaeology) and the British Museum (Department of Scientific Research). This studentship, funded by the Wellcome Trust, will be jointly supervised by Carl Heron and Caroline Cartwright at the British Museum and Professor Oliver Craig at the University of York with close collaboration of Professor Dorian Fuller (UCL). The studentship is for a three-year (full-time) project entitled ‘’Plants in pots: The molecular and isotopic identification of cereal residues in prehistoric pottery”, to commence at the earliest on the 1st October 2017. The student will need to spend concentrated periods of time both at the British Museum and the University of York.

Summary of Project

Organic residue analysis has made a significant impact on studies of pottery vessel use, resource exploitation and diet. More routine application of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and gas chromatography-combustion-isotope ratio mass spectrometry (GC-C-IRMS) during the 1990s led to the identification of a wider range of foods and other organic substances in diverse archaeological contexts. This includes the detection of ruminant and non-ruminant animal carcass fats, dairy products, fats from marine and freshwater organisms and so on. Routine detection of plant products has, hitherto, not been achieved although there are some notable exceptions, including the detection of maize and other occasionally-reported plant waxes and other tissues. Two Eurasian crops of major significance are rice and millet, yet their identification in association with archaeological artefacts, especially pottery vessels, has received very little attention. Both crops spread from one or more centres of domestication in East Asia. For example, broomcorn and foxtail millet cultivation spread westwards after domestication in northern China in the 6-7th millennia BC and appear in western Europe during the Bronze Age. Rice production began in the Lower and Middle Yangtze region of China from around 9,000 years ago and spread to central China around 6000 years ago and to Southeast Asia around 4500 years ago.

However, most of the evidence for the domestication and dispersal of these crops comes from botanical remains which rely on modern excavation techniques. Consequently there are large gaps in our knowledge for sites and regions that have not benefited from such approaches.. Linking early crop production directly with one of the most common forms of material culture recovered from archaeological sites (i.e. pottery) would have immense benefits for examining the dispersal of these important crops, circumventing this problem. Pottery also allows us to examine their culinary significance i.e the through the different types role of ceramic containers used to process these crops. As thousands of pots have already been excavated from well dated prehistoric Eurasian sites, they would provide an ideal material resource to examine crop dispersal as long the plant residues survive in such contexts.

This studentship will explore the detection of residues of cereals, focusing on millet and rice, using molecular and isotopic analysis of organic residues in pottery vessels. The student will design and execute an experimental study that investigates organic residue accumulation during different methods processing of cereals in pottery vessels and their preservation after accelerated decomposition experiments. Targeted analysis of pottery vessels in the British Museum collection and from recent excavations will test the promising results from a recent study where broomcorn millet (P. miliaceum) was detected in prehistoric pottery from Europe and South Korea (Heron et al. Scientific Reports 2016).


The full studentship award for students with UK residency* includes fees and a stipend of £14,553 per annum plus £550 p.a. additional stipend payment for Collaborative Doctoral students for 3 years. In addition, the Student Development Fund (equivalent to 0.5 years of stipend payments) is also available to support the cost of training, work placements, and other development opportunities. Students with EU residency are eligible for a fees-only studentship award. International applicants are normally not eligible to apply for this studentship. The British Museum will provide up to £1000 a year to cover travel and other costs the student incurs traveling to carry out research at the Museum and other locations. Both partners will provide opportunities for training and career development.

*UK residency means having settled status in the UK that is no restriction on how long you can stay in the UK; and having been “ordinarily resident” in the UK for 3 years prior to the start of the studentship that is you must have been normally residing in the UK apart from temporary or occasional absences; and not been residing in the UK wholly or mainly for the purposes of full-time education.

The student will be integrated into BioArCh (https://www.york.ac.uk/archaeology/centres-facilites/bioarch/), University of York, an interdisciplinary centre involving the Departments of Archaeology, Biology and Chemistry, designed to deliver research and training in bioarchaeology and the study of ancient biomolecules. The student will work in the BioArCh Light Stable Isotope Facility, with in-house instrumentation for both bulk and single-compound isotope analysis. The Department of Scientific Research at the British Museum has excellent facilities for sample preparation and molecular analysis by GC-MS and LC-MS. Additional facilities include optical and digital microscopy, and SEM.


Applicants must have a good first degree (usually a minimum 2:1) or a Masters degree (or other equivalent experience) in physics, archaeological science, conservation science, materials science, chemistry or a related physical science discipline. They should be highly motivated individuals with a keen interest in archaeology and/or analytical chemistry. The closing date for applications is 12:00 noon (UK time) on Monday 24th July.

Further Information and application

For informal enquiries, please contact the main supervisors Professor Carl Heron ([Email Address Removed]) or Professor Oliver Craig ([Email Address Removed]).

Application is by covering letter, CV and online application form, and should be made through the University of York online application system and copied to [Email Address Removed] and [Email Address Removed]

Please read the 'How to apply' tab before submitting your application:

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