Bioarchaeology is the study of human skeletal remains and other biological materials - such as animal bones, insects and pollen - found on archaeological sites. We strive to understand all aspects of past human behaviour, including their health, diet and their living environment. We carry out detailed analysis of human and animal remains using macroscopic, microscopic, and chemical analyses within dedicated laboratory spaces, using a suite of advanced analytical equipment.
human osteoarchaeology and palaeopathology
In human bioarchaeology, we use digital, radiographic, thin-sectioning and microscopic imaging to explore aspects of health such as the nature and timing of fractures, underlying pathological processes, and the diagnosis of bone cancer. Our laboratories encompass digital X-ray facilities (Carestream, Faxitron), high-powered microscopy and thin-sectioning facilities. Our research reference collection includes a Clinical Radiograph Archive, extensive pathological examples, anatomical and osteological reference material, and measuring equipment.
We curate over 700 adult and non-adult skeletons from archaeological sites including: 19th century St John’s church, Redhill in Surrey; the multi-period site of St Oswald’s Priory, Gloucester, early medieval Bishopstone, Sussex and later medieval Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire.
In zooarchaeology, we examine animal bones for information on past husbandry regimes and the health of domesticated populations, hunting practices, diet, butchery technology and human impact on local and regional ecosystems. When combined with isotopic analysis, this can be used to shed light on fodder and animal diets, as well as questions relating to mobility and trade.
Sample preparation takes place in the Archaeology Department’s laboratories, with sample analysis carried out at Reading's state-of-the-art Chemical Analysis Facility (CAF). Archaeology researchers frequently use CAF facilities, for example NMR spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, X-Ray diffraction and scattering, optical spectroscopy, thermal analysis and electron microscopy. Many of these facilities are available to colleagues from across the university, offering scope for interdisciplinary collaboration.
stable isotope analysis
Our fully equipped sampling laboratory is used for preparing samples of bone, teeth and other biological materials for isotope analysis (i.e. carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen) to reconstruct diet, mobility and ancient environments.
radiogenic isotope and trace element analysis
We have a fully-equipped clean laboratory to measure low-level trace elements and radiogenic isotopes (Pb) with applications in archaeology, forensic science and the food and beverage industry.
Geoarchaeology helps us to understand the sedimentary history of landscapes and sites, and the materials and technology used in buildings and artefacts, through the application of geological, soil and earth science techniques. It allows a deep-time perspective on interactions between humans and the environment, the sustainability of settlements and resource use, and living conditions and health.
Settlement histories can be unravelled by identifying activity areas and examining site formation processes and preservation conditions. We have expertise in high-resolution micromorphological analysis of undisturbed sequences of soils and settlement deposits and materials in large resin-impregnated thin-sections. This strengthens our understanding of their composition, deposition and preservation conditions.
sedimentology and micromorphology
Our sedimentology, micromorphology and materials analysis laboratories enable us to undertake in-depth high-resolution sediment description, soil micromorphology, particle size analysis, peat humification and organic matter determinations. With this information we can create deposit models (using Rockworks; ArcGIS). We can prepare soil micromorphology, geology and materials (e.g. pottery, stone, metal, shell, bone, pigment) thin-sections (small and large format up to 14 x 7 cm), including resin-impregnation, precision cutting, grinding and polishing (Logitech and Brot systems).
We have dedicated laboratories for the extraction of macro- and microfossils from archaeological features (e.g. pits, ditches, hearths) and landscapes (e.g. bogs, lakes, caves).
- Macrofossils provide key information on past economy and diet, as well as climate and environmental change, and the facilities permit extraction by flotation, wet sieving or dry sieving of charred and waterlogged plant remains, charcoal, insects, mollusca and animal bone.
- Microfossils provide important information on past climate and environmental change, as well as land-use histories, and the facilities permit extraction of pollen grains and spores, non-pollen palynomorphs (fungal spores), diatoms, phytoliths, Cladocera and testate amoebae.
We have an extensive range of field equipment including peat corers, column, bulk and Kubiena sampling, all suitable for subsequent laboratory assessment and analysis. To retrieve deeply buried sediments and soils we use portable deep drilling equipment (Atlas Copco 2-stroke percussion engine and Eijkelkamp window/windowless sampler) for continuous quality core samples up to 15m in depth.
We have an extensive range of high-quality microscopes and modern and fossil reference specimen collections for the analysis of these remains, housed in three dedicated laboratories. The labs have computing and photographic facilities that permit image capture and analysis, and graphical representation and statistical analysis of data.
Our wide range of facilities have enabled us to develop new Integrated Archaeobotanical approaches, as they permit recovery and in-situ analysis and identification of an exceptionally diverse range of plant remains and parts.
Documenting past climate change and understanding how this has impacted humans is a fundamental part of our research at Reading, in collaboration with the departments of Geography, Environmental Science and Meteorology. Researchers come together at our Centre for Past Climate Change. Our contribution focuses on the last 11,700 years, with palaeoecological approaches being complemented by work such as data from the analysis of calcite deposited in stalactites in caves, or from shells and teeth in archaeological deposits, and through tree ring analysis in our dendrochronology laboratory.
We have a dedicated laboratory to drill calcite materials (e.g., stalagmites, shells and teeth) using a micro-mill (Sherline 5410), where samples can be collected at a resolution of 50 micrometres (0.050 mm). We have developed a preparation line and workflow for the extraction of stalagmite fluid inclusion water, which can then be analysed using our Picarro CRDS.
The University of Reading's Chemical Analysis Facility supports our research in archaeology, chemistry, pharmacy, food biosciences, soil sciences and agriculture. Facilities include nuclear magnetic resonance, thermal analysis, molecular spectroscopy, X-ray diffraction and scattering, optical spectroscopy and mass spectrometry equipment and an electron microscopy laboratory. Access to the facility’s expertise and instruments is available to external collaborators as well as staff. Find out more.
Microwave Plasma - Atomic Emission Spectrometer (MP-AES)
The main function of the MP-AES is to produce very high quality chemical analysis, to improve the ability to understand ancient materials for example by analysing bronze, brass and other mixtures to a high degree of accuracy.
The machine uses microwaves to create nitrogen plasma, this heats up a liquid sample to several thousand degrees. At that temperature the sample gives out light at specific wavelengths depending on what elements were in the sample, detecting these can calculate the chemical composition.
As well as the potential to be involved in student projects the machine also provides the potential to undertake commercial work and do chemical surveys for archaeological units and other clients.
Quest (Quaternary Scientific) is a commercial enterprise within our School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science (SAGES). It provides an expert Archaeological and Environmental Science service to archaeological units, environmental consultancies and government organisations. The specialist Quest team can manage pre-development investigation projects from initial set-up and design through to publication. The enterprise also has a network of specialist and technical staff that service all aspects of archaeological and environmental science contract work. Find out more
Professor Mary Lewis, Lead for Archaeological Science
School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science (SAGES)
University of Reading