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Current Projects

Current Projects


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.


Coastal Origins: Earliest Human Occupation of the Shoreline

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.


From Conversion to Conquest: A Multi-Tissue and Multi-Scalar Study of Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries

Sam Leggett photographing dental samplesThe conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity has long been assumed to be the cause of the changes archaeologists observe in burial practices from the seventh century onwards. There has been much debate both archaeologically and historically about over what timescale the conversion and Christianisation of Early Medieval England took place, and what impact this would have had on all members of society, as well as the politics and economics of the British Isles. The impacts of the arrival and withdrawal of the Romans from Britain, and Scandinavian settlement are relatively well understood, with these shifts being previously studied both through material culture and stable isotope analysis. However a large meta-analysis of the whole period up to the Norman Conquest, incorporating other understudied parts of the Early Medieval period in England, to look at these changes in context is needed. Therefore this project is investigating diet and mobility across 15+ sites in Early Medieval England, with over 350 human individuals and additional fauna. By incorporating this with published stable isotope studies this project aims to better understand the material culture changes across the Anglo-Saxon period, and test if this is visible and using stable isotope analysis.

Tooth enamel, dentine and postcranial collagen samples will give insights into diet through an individual’s life course, as well as large scale views of diet in both childhood and adulthood at a population level. Oxygen stable isotope analysis is also being used to look at mobility in Early Medieval England and Continental connections. Together these datasets will shed light on diet, economy, trade and migration at local and regional levels, providing the first large multi-scalar and multi-tissue study for Early Medieval England. This work is supervised by Dr Susanne Hakenbeck and Dr Tamsin O’Connell, and is funded by the Cambridge Trust and Newnham College.


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.


MARBAL: Mortuary Archaeology of the Râmeț Bronze Age Landscape

MARBAL integrates human osteology with isotopic analyses of diet and mobility, osteoarchaeological reconstructions of the lives of prehistoric individuals, and archaeological analyses of material  culture. The project aims to investigate how Early Bronze Age (2700-2200 BC) mortuary practices shaped, and were shaped by, emerging regional trade networks and the establishment and negotiation of community identities in the Apuseni mountain region of Romania. The research objectives are: 1) To understand the social factors that made individuals eligible for kinds of mortuary treatment, to ascertain whether eligibility for burial was affected by aspects of social identity; 2) To investigate the intersection of social and bioarchaeological inequalities, and 3) To reconstruct community social interactions. MARBAL thus contributes to our understanding of the ways in which mortuary practices can be used to shape community and individual identities and dampen or enhance living social inequalities.


Los Melgarejos Bioarchaeological Project

Los Melgarejos is an enclosure settlement from Madrid, Spain, broadly dated to the Copper Age (c. 3250-2200 cal BC). The site was fully excavated in 2017–2018 and contains multiple mortuary features incorporating over forty distinct burials or deposits of human remains, as well as deposits of human bones dispersed throughout the site in non-funerary contexts. In addition to skeletal and mortuary investigations of the human burials, the Los Melgarejos Osteoarchaeological Project is focused on analyses of human and faunal diet through isotopic analysis carbon and nitrogen from bone collagen, as well as analyses of human diet and mobility through isotopic analysis of carbon and oxygen in human tooth carbonate. Los Melgarejos provides a unique opportunity to better understand Copper Age settlements, as it presents a smaller-scale yet fully-excavated comparison to the larger mega-sites that appear in Iberia during this period. Understanding the lived experiences of inhabitants at Los Melgarejos, particularly focusing on diet, disease, and mobility, will thus help to understand the costs, benefits, and incentives related to ‘scaling up’ or ‘scaling
down’ the size of aggregations during the Iberian Copper Age. 


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.