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Current Projects

Current Projects

 Please note that this page is under construction.


After the Plague: Health and History in Medieval CambridgeDivinity School during excavation

The Plague of 1348-1350, known as the Black Death, is estimated to have killed up to half of the European population, yet we still do not fully understand the social and biological effects of this devastating event. Unanswered questions include: how did standards of living change after the Black Death? What were the biological consequences of the Black Death? Were these changes minor and short-term or did they have lasting consequences? To address these questions, the collaborative ‘After the Plague’ project, funded by the Wellcome Trust and led by Professor John Robb, utilises multiple lines of evidence to compare health and lifestyle before and after the Plague. The project is focussed on Medieval Cambridge, where skeletons from the Hospital of St John, dating from c.1200-1511, form the core sample. As part of the project, Alice Rose, supervised by Dr Tamsin O’Connell and Dr Susanne Hakenbeck, is using isotopic analysis of archaeological skeletal material from Cambridge to understand how diet and mobility changed through time, particularly during the 14th century.


The Chemistry of Christianisation: A Multi-Factorial Study of Conversion Period Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries

This project’s main aim is to investigate changes in diet and burial practice during the 7th century Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity. It will compare several Anglo-Saxon cemeteries utilizing C & N stable isotope analysis alongside funerary archaeology.


Coastal Origins: Earliest Human Occupation of the Shoreline

Coastal Origins
Collecting modern limpet shells for stable isotope analysis

The exploitation of predictable, defendable coastal resources, particularly molluscs, by early humans has recently been linked to the development of highly cooperative behaviours that define our species. Yet, we currently lack direct evidence demonstrating a unique evolutionary significance of coastal environments for early Homo sapiens. The coastlines of southern- and northernmost Africa boast the earliest and longest archaeological records of coastal hunter-gatherer life in the world. The Leverhulme Trust supported project, Coastal Origins, will develop matched records of climatic conditions and subsistence behaviours from key regions along these coasts, offering hitherto-impossible understandings of the role of a specifically coastal adaptation for later human evolution. This project involves the a) development of seasonal sea surface temperature proxy archives from modern marine mollusc shells, using high-resolution sampling and oxygen isotope analyses, b) reconstruction of late Pleistocene and Holocene seasonal climates and, c) assessments of the annual scheduling of shellfishing by Later and Middle Stone Age hunter-gatherers.


The Effects of Endemic Warfare on the Health of Historic Period Populations from Croatia

Skull with peri-mortem traumaWarfare has afflicted humankind throughout its history, and is a phenomenon that still fundamentally affects the modern world. Despite the fact that violence-related mortality is profoundly undercounted, violent conflict represents a worryingly high source of mortality around the world. Recent history has seen a fundamental change in the nature of war with a marked shift from external to internal wars, a type of war characterized by low-intensity, endemic warfare that the international community is still struggling to develop the strategies and mechanisms to deal with effectively. Exactly this type of warfare is present in Croatia from 1400-1700 when the territorially aggressive Ottoman Empire establishes itself on Croatia's eastern borders. Analyzing the effects that war had on health through the deep time perspective that archaeological investigations afford can provide unique data on the interactions between warfare, health and the environment and provided conclusions that are particularly relevant to disadvantaged communities throughout the developing world where most wars are currently being fought. As part of this project, led by Prof. dr. sc. Mario Slaus (Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts), Dr Emma Lightfoot is comparing diet and mobility of individuals dating from the Late Medieval period (1100-1400 AD, a period of relative prosperity and peace prior to the arrival of Ottoman Turks) to individuals dating to the Historic period (1400-1700 AD, during which time the Ottoman Empire gradually expanded into East and Central Europe) in order to consider the effect of endemic violence on the everyday lives of the inhabitants of the region.


TwoRains: Winter Rain, Summer Rain: Adaptation, Climate Change, Resilience and the Indus Civilisation

Rainfall systems are complex and inherently variable, yet they are of fundamental importance for Indus Riverunderstanding the past and planning for the future due to their potential for direct impact on food security and hence the sustainability of human settlement in particular areas. Given that human populations can adapt their behaviour to a wide range of climatic and environmental conditions, it is essential that we understand the degree to which human choices in the past, present and future are resilient and sustainable in the face of variable weather conditions, and when confronted with abrupt events of climate change. As part of this Cambridge-based project led by Dr Cameron Petrie, Dr Emma Lightfoot and Dr M. Cemre Ustunkaya are using stable isotope analysis of animal and plant remains to investigate the resilience and sustainability of South Asia’s first complex society, the Indus Civilisation (c.3000-1500 BC with an urban phase spanning c.2500-1900 BC). The Indus was unique amongst early civilisations in that it developed across a range of distinctive environmental and ecological zones, where the distribution of westerly winter rains overlapped with the rains of the Indian Summer Monsoon (ISM).


Understanding the impacts of whaling on foraging ecology, genetic diversity and connectivity of baleen whale populations in the South Atlantic

Danni and a whale bone

For centuries, whales have been commercially exploited for their blubber, vast amounts of oil, food and numerous other provisions. During the 20th Century, humans invented the exploding harpoon which meant all whale species could now be targeted. This innovation alongside the invention of factory ships meant we could target and harvest whales across the globe at an enormous and unsustainable rate. By 1986 over 2 million whales were killed in the Southern Hemisphere alone and many populations declined by up to 90%. The SouthWest Atlantic was the epicentre of 20th Century whaling, with 8.6% of all Southern Hemisphere catches made within a day’s sailing of one sub-Antarctic island.

Understanding the impacts of 20th Century whaling on population structure and diversity is vital to provide accurate baselines for current conservation measures.

This research focuses on using population genetics and stable isotopes to understand pre-whaling ecology, connectivity and diversity of baleen whale populations in the South Atlantic.