Institute of Archaeology

Prof Stephen Shennan

Prof Stephen Shennan

Professor of Theoretical Archaeology

Institute of Archaeology Gordon Square

Institute of Archaeology

Joined UCL
1st Jul 1996

Research summary

I have long-standing interests in the Neolithic and Bronze Age prehistory of Europe but since the late 1980s my research has been mainly focussed on exploring the use of method and theory from the study of biological evolution to understand cultural stability and change as an evolutionary process, taking up an agenda initially set by the work of Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman and Boyd and Richerson. In 2000, together with a group of colleagues, I was successful in obtaining funding to set up a Centre for the Evolutionary Analysis of Cultural Behaviour at UCL, funded by the UK Art and Humanities of which I was Director 2001-2005; the Centre produced a major body of work on various aspects of cultural evolution. I was a co-applicant and member of the second phase AHRC Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity (2006-2010), which was also very productive. In my own publications I have addressed a variety of different topics, including the use of neutral models of cultural change, applications of cladistic methods in archaeology and anthropology, the role of demography in relation to cultural evolution, and human behavioural ecology approaches to social institutions (see publication list).

I have held an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council for the project ‘Cultural Evolution of Neolithic Europe’. The aim of this project is to bring the different sub-fields of cultural evolutionary theory and method together in an integrated fashion and apply them to a large-scale case-study in prehistory, the European Neolithic, to address specific questions concerning the links between demographic, economic, social and cultural patterns and processes. In doing so, it will provide the basis for a new account of the role of farming in transforming early European societies, c.6000-2000 calBC. It is focussed on the western half of temperate Europe, where the available data are best, and aims to integrate culture historical patterns, for example in monuments, with demographic, economic and social processes. At the same time it is hoped that the project will have a major impact on the field of cultural evolution by providing a model example for cultural evolutionary studies of early societies in other parts of the world. In order to achieve these aims the project will extract from the existing literature a standardised set of data, and conceptualise and analyse it, in a framework which transcends the local investigatory traditions across the study area, which constrain any large-scale research.  The databases resulting from it will be unique – in that they will allow a scale and scope of historical and regional analysis not presently possible.

My earlier publications include Quantifying Archaeology (2nd ed. 1997), Genes, Memes and Human History: Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural Evolution (2002), and Pattern and Process in Cultural Evolution (edited, 2009).


  • AHRC Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity with colleagues in UCL Anthropology and Biology, and the Universities of British Columbia, Durham, Edinburgh, Sheffield, and St Andrews.
  • BEAN- Bridging the European and Anatolian Neolithic (Marie Curie Initial Training Network 2011-2015) with colleagues in France, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Serbia and Turkey.

Teaching summary

  • Degree Programme Co-ordinator: MA in Archaeology
  • Degree Programme Co-ordinator: MA in Research Methods for Archaeology
  • Course Co-ordinator: ARCL0008 Introduction to European Prehistory
  • Course Co-ordinator: ARCL0134 Themes, Thought and Theory in World Archaeology: Current Topics
Research students:

Proposals are welcomed from prospective doctoral students interested in the application of biological evolutionary theory and methods to archaeology.

Current students:

Christina Alam Adopting a new technology in the Bronze Age - Examining the transmission and adoption of the potter's wheel in Western Anatolia and the Aegean using a cultural evolutionary framework (joint supervision with Mark Lake)
Michael D'Aprix Archaeological Theory, Philosophy, and Scientific Methodology (joint supervision with Dominic Perring)
Hannah Bullmore The development of domestic architecture in Britain and Ireland, 4000-1000BC (principal supervisor Mike Parker Pearson)

Recently completed students:

  • Eugenio Bortolini An evolutionary and quantitive analysis of construction variation in prehistoric monumental burials of eastern Arabia (joint principal supervision with Mark Lake)
  • Gareth Brereton The social life of human remains: Burial rites and the accumulation of capital during the transition from Neolithic to urban societies in the Near East (principal supervisor David Wengrow)

  • Andy Brown The Ends of the Earth: Culture change in East Polynesia (joint supervision with Andy Bevan)

  • Beatrijs De Groot Ceramic assemblages as evidence of social interaction in Neolithic Anatolia and the Balkans (second supervisor Ulrike Sommer)
  • Jill Goulder Changing techniques of transportation and traction in Mesopotamia and the Levant in the early 5th - early 3rd millennia BC (second supervisor Louise Martin)
  • Sarah Hoile Death, time and commerce: innovation and conservatism in styles of funerary material culture in 18th-19th century London (principal supervisor Mike Parker Pearson)
  • Renata Franco Peters Redressing misrepresentation: The role of conservation(joint second supervisor with Elizabeth Pye, principal supervisor Tim Schadla-Hall)
  • Miljana Radivojevic On the origins of metallurgy in Europe: Metal production in the Vinča culture (principal supervisor Thilo Rehren)


University of Cambridge
Other higher degree, Master of Arts |
University of Cambridge
Doctorate, Doctor of Philosophy | 1977


Employment History
1996-present: Professor of Theoretical Archaeology, University College London
2005-14: Director, UCL Institute of Archaeology
2003-05: Deputy Director, UCL Institute of Archaeology
2001-05: Director of the AHRB Centre for the Evolutionary Analysis of Cultural Behaviour

Awards and distinctions

  • PI, Supply and Demand in Prehistory? Economics of Neolithic Mining in NW Europe (Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant, 2015-18)
    PI, EUROEVOL Project (European Research Council Advanced Grant, 2010-14)
    PI, The Origins and Spread of Stock-Keeping in the Near East and Europe (AHRC Research Grant, 2007-10)
  • Member, International Scientific Advisory Board of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig (2016-2020)
  • Shanghai Archaeology Forum (SAF) Research Award (2015)
  • Member of the Academia Europaea (September 2013)
  • Rivers Memorial Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (2010)
  • Li Ching Visiting Professor, University of Shandong (2006-07)
  • Fellow of the British Academy (2006). The Academy stated: “He is one of Europe’s leading theoretical and prehistoric archaeologists. From an initial focus on the Copper and Bronze Ages in central Europe, he moved on to pioneer statistical methods in archaeology. He is internationally renowned not only as a European prehistorian but as a highly innovative thinker who has introduced evolutionary models into the study of later prehistory.”
  • Kulturpreis of St Johann im Pongau, Austria, for services to local archaeology (1989)
  • Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries (1980)

1971-75: PhD research, Cambridge University. Completed and awarded 1977.
1968-71: BA Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge University. Part II Archaeology: 1st.