Institute of Archaeology


Laboratory and instrumental skills in archaeological science

This course is designed to provide students with a critical understanding of some of the main laboratory based techniques employed for archaeological research.

Scientific techniques are increasingly used to characterise archaeological materials. This information may then be used to address questions related to technological transfer, trade and exchange, innovation and identity - as well as aiding conservation planning. This course is designed to provide students with a critical understanding of some of the main laboratory based techniques employed for archaeological research -  their potentials, limitations, and protocols of best practice.

Combining class-based introductions with extensive practical sessions in the laboratory, it aims to introduce students to the necessary research skills to design, implement and report instrumental analyses of archaeological materials. It has a focus on the most common inorganic artefacts (ceramics, metals, glass and lithics), while the instrumental skills may be transferable to other archaeological and environmental materials.

The course includes practical training in sample preparation for microscopic, chemical and isotopic analyses, as well as use of optical microscopy, SEM-EDS, XRF, FTIR and XRD, in addition to critical discussion of several other techniques.

Aims and Objectives of the course

This course aims to bridge the gap between archaeology and science by equipping students with the necessary skills to design and carry out lab-based archaeological projects, and to engage critically with the work of others.

More specifically, the course aims:

  • To introduce students to the principles and practice of the instrumental analysis of archaeological materials, including issues of sampling, calibration and data quality, reporting and interpretation, as well as practical training in the use of some of the most common analytical instruments.
  • To provide a wide-ranging and challenging introduction to the role of artefact studies and materials analysis in modern archaeology.
  • To engage with current debates about the collection, analysis, interpretation, reporting and curation of archaeological materials. 

Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of this course, students will:

  • Have the basic skills necessary to acquire, process, report and interpret archaeometric data from a number of techniques, including sample preparation and analysis by optical microscopy, SEM-EDS, XRF, FTIR and XRD.
  • Have an overview of practical approaches to the study of materials in relation to wider archaeological research questions.
  • Be able to debate the role of science-based studies in archaeology, including the potential advantages and constraints inherent within different approaches.
  • Have the ability to critically assess reports and publications deriving from archaeometric work, as well as to propose analytical projects with archaeological relevance. 

Teaching Methods

The course is taught through a combination of formal lectures, practical demonstrations and practical exercises at the Wolfson Archaeological Science Laboratories. In general, discussion of a particular technique in the class will be followed by a demonstration and subsequent training sessions so that individual students can develop the autonomy to carry out their own analytical work under the supervision of staff.

In addition to formative assessment throughout the course, formal assessment is based on one scientific investigation report (1500 words, 25% of the final mark) and one lab-based analytical report (2500 words, 75%).

Course information

For registered students


  • Running in 2020-21