MSc in Archaeological Science:  Technology and Materials


Co-ordinator: Marcos Martinón-Torres

What is the degree about?

This degree is focused upon artefacts and how scientific techniques can be used to understand their technologies and origins. This information may then be used to address questions about early societies, for example technological transfer, trade and exchange, innovation and identity. 

Combining class-based overviews 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. The degree has a focus on inorganic materials – ceramics, metals, glass and lithics –, which are those most commonly recovered from archaeological excavations, while the instrumental and research skills may be transferable to other archaeological and environmental materials.

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

While all students in this degree are expected to become competent in laboratory-based analyses, they are allowed to undergo further training on anthropological approaches to science-based archaeology and/or computing and data science, as well as chosing from a range of option courses on specific materials, methods, regions and periods.

Who is the degree for?

The course is designed to allow students to cross over from either a humanities background or a scientific background into scientific archaeology, hence no specific background is preferred. We tailor our training to build on and expand your own strengths.

  • If you have an archaeology degree you will receive user-friendly training in scientific principles and methods directly related to the analysis of archaeological materials and artefacts.  You will experience a wide range of laboratory work.
  • If you have a science degree you will be able to apply your scientific knowledge to the investigation of archaeological materials, with a context provided by material-specific courses which provide the appropriate archaeological background.
  • If you have a conservation degree you will learn the research skills and techniques needed to understand the technologies and materials of the objects that you conserve.

The MSc provides an excellent background in the research skills needed to undertake a PhD in the fields of archaeological science, conservation science or heritage science.

Why is this degree different and unique?

  • You will be taught by staff who each have extensive experience in archaeological science.  This is not a degree taught by scientists for archaeologists or vice versa. 
  • Each member of staff teaches their specialist area, so that you are taught about metals, for example, by a specialist archaeometallurgist. 
  • You will work in the Wolfson Archaeological Science Laboratories, one of the best equipped university laboratories in the world specifically dedicated to the investigation of archaeological materials.
  • You will have an exceptional level of access to laboratory equipment.
  • You will join the largest critical mass of international researchers on archaeological science in a single building, interacting regularly with PhD students and researchers at all levels.
  • Your training and research will be integrated in broader archaeological teaching and agendas, within the largest and most diverse archaeology department in the UK.
  • Your dissertation will constitute an original research contribution that may lead to an academic publication.
  • What facilities are available?

The Institute’s laboratories house an electron microprobe with wavelength dispersive X-ray analysis, three scanning electron microscopes, each equipped with an energy dispersive X-ray analyser, an X-ray diffractometer, Fourier transform infra-red spectrometer with ATR attachment, two portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometers, and multiple research microscopes for petrography and metallography.  There is an extensive sample preparation suite for microscopic, chemical and isotopic analyses, as well as kilns and furnaces for high-temperature experiments. In addition, we can arrange access to other facilities for demonstrations and specific research needs, within UCL and beyond.

How much experience of laboratory work will I get?

In the first term you receive foundations in the techniques of analysis and introductory training sessions in sample preparation and analytical techniques on a weekly basis.  By Christmas, you will have been assigned your first artefact for analysis and will spend time analysing this over January and February.  By Easter you will have selected your dissertation topic in discussion with your supervisor. For the next five months you will analyse, interpret and report upon your archaeological assemblage.  Some of the taught option courses may also involve laboratory work, for example Ceramic Analysis and Archaeometallurgy. You are able to book your own instrument time, and all students receive the time they need to analyse their dissertation assemblage to the required level.

Who are the staff?

The core teaching staff comprise internationally recognised experts in archaeological science, with extensive experience in the field and the laboratory, and projects spanning a wide range of materials and methods across the world. These include, among others, Ian Freestone (recepient of the Pomerance Medal for Archaeological Science), Thilo Rehren (Editor of the Journal of Archaeological Science), Marcos Martinón-Torres (UK Director of the British Academy Terracotta Army Project) and Patrick Quinn (co-ordinator of a renowned course on ceramic petrography). Their innovative, research-oriented and cross-disciplinary teaching is consistently praised in student feedback, and has attracted several awards. They are supported by dedicated technical staff at the Wolfson Archaeological Science laboratories.

Depending on your choice of option courses, you will also be taught by experts in fields such as artefact studies and the anthropology of archaeological technologies (Bill Sillar, Ulrike Sommer), archaeological computing (Andrew Bevan, Mark Lake, Mark Altaweel), and a wide range of regional and topic specialists.

Funding opportunities

  • For details of Departmental funding opportunities please click here
  • A list of the funding opportunities available for students taking taught Masters programmes is provided by the Student Funding Office.

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