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The Pitt-Rivers Laboratory for Archaeological Science supports a wide range of researchers working on past materials, technologies and environments, and it aims to serve as a hub to promote synergies among specialists. 

Researchers at the Pitt-Rivers Laboratory most conspicuously include archaeobotanists and archaeometallurgists, but we welcome a broader range of environmental archaeologists, biomolecular archaeologists, materials scientists, material culture specialists and archaeogeneticists. Our projects include studies of macrofossils, phytoliths, pollen, fibres, lithics, metals, ceramics and pigments, among other materials.

With ample bench space and both wet and dry spaces, it is ideally suited for laying out, photography and initial characterisation of any kinds of materials, followed by microscopic study. The laboratory houses a Zeiss Axio research microscope with AxioVision and Zen advanced imaging software that is used for all kinds of materials, from pollen and fibres to archaeometallurgical samples, besides a wider range of optical and digital microscopes. Additional facilities include a fume cupboard for chemicals, an oven and cold storage. The laboratory is renowned for its extensive reference collections for archaeobotanical analysis, with over 4000 samples of seeds, fruits, wood and phytoliths from across the world. It also has environment-controlled desiccators for the storage of reference materials, metallographic specimens and other materials science samples.

Users of the Pitt-Rivers laboratory often take advantage additional resources for advanced microscopy, SEM and XRF available in-house at the adjacent Glyn Daniel Laboratory; they may also use the FTIR at the Charles McBurney Laboratory, and the sample preparation laboratory. Those employing 3D scanning and advanced imaging and data analysis also take advantage of the Computational and Digital Archaeology Laboratory. Archaeobotanists also have a long tradition of engaging with DNA analyses of ancient and modern plant remains, taking advantage of our excellent reference collection and facilities at the Biomolecular Laboratory in the Henry Welcome Building. Furthermore, we have access to WD-XRF, LA-ICP-MS and ICP-OES for trace element analysis for materials characterisation and provenance through ongoing collaborations with colleagues in Geography and Earth Sciences, and we are currently exploring protocols for isotopic analyses of metals and glass. The Pitt-Rivers Laboratory is also used by members of the Material Culture Research Hub who work at the intersection between archaeological theory and archaeological science.



History of the Pitt-Rivers Laboratory

History of the Lab

The Lab was established in 1990, and slightly predates the current buildings housing the McDonald Institute. Early work in the lab included Delwen Samuel’s pioneering research into the archaeobotanical and chemical evidence for brewing in ancient Egypt, and pioneering work of Alex Power-Jones and Marco Madella on phytolith analysis, now continued and expanded by Marco at his own lab in Barcelona.

Our extensive plant reference collection was built up through the formidable energies of Dr Lila Janik, and used to support important work in early agriculture in Europe, India, Africa and Asia. Many of the lab members from that period now run their own research groups, including Dorian Fuller at London and Manon Savard in Quebec.

Under the direction of Prof Martin Jones, the lab team led pioneer explorations of interconnections between archaeobotany, genetics and palaeodietary isotope studies, and a number of our projects have explored those boundaries, from early work with Terry Brown (Manchester) and Robin Allaby (Warwick) on ancient plant DNA, through to more recent research on historic crop DNA and isotopic analyses of plants. Since the appointment of Prof Marcos Martinon-Torres in 2018, the laboratory has expanded further to cover materials analysis and ancient technologies, and their connections with environment and culture, across the world.

Contact Us

Pitt-Rivers Laboratory
Department of Archaeology
Courtyard Building
Downing Street 
Cambridge CB2 3ER 

Director Prof Marcos Martinon-Torres 
Research Technician Catherine Kneale