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Isotopes in archaeology

Graduate School, Arts at Aarhus University


Over the last few decades, isotope analyses have opened new, exciting avenues for understanding the past.  From reconstructing changing climate and people’s diet to tracing trading networks, new dimensions of the past are emerging from archaeological isotope studies. Such an impact is rooted in the wide range of materials storing isotopes and technological advances to extract and measure past records at atomic and molecular scale. Isotopes occur in different ratios and sources but they all provide important records on what people and animals ate in the past, types and conditions of crops, land uses, provenance and processing of materials and resources. From these records, we can infer information on past environmental and climatic conditions, subsistence strategies, cultural practices, and choices. This research-led course will provide an introduction to the applications of isotope analyses in archaeology and a forum to discuss and reflect on how isotope studies are transforming approaches to the past.

Introduction and aims:

The course will offer research-led teaching on the concepts and methods of isotope analyses in archaeology and will focus on two main objectives:

  • To develop knowledge on isotope analyses in archaeology. The course will equip students with basic conceptual and analytical tools to assess the nature, significance and application of isotopic records in archaeology.  
  • To understand the physical and chemical processes that result in isotopic absorption in organic and inorganic resources, and what isotopic signatures can tell us about the past.

The course has a deliberately twin focus on key topics of contemporary archaeological, historical, environmental and material science studies: climate and diet; and, time and sourcing. The aim is to encourage students from archaeology and related disciplines from the humanities and geosciences to consider and discuss the potential of isotopic applications to their research questions by building of the latest analytical advances.


The course will offer three main modules specifically designed to provide conceptual and analytical background to the applications of isotope analyses to key research topic of contemporary archaeology and related disciplines.

Module 1:  Isotopes and archaeology

The first module will offer an introduction and an overview on the principles of isotope analyses: what isotopes are? What can they tell us about the past? This module will address these fundamental questions and set the background for discussing isotopic signatures of specific topics as part of modules 2 and 3. Lectures will be provided by Marcello Mannino (Archaeology, Aarhus University) and Tamsin O’Connell (University of Cambridge).

Module 2: Climate and diet

The second module will illustrate different ways in which isotope analyses are applied to reconstructing past climate, environments and food resources in relation to human settlement and subsistence practices. What can isotopes tell about past climate and environments? What did people eat, and why? The lectures will draw on tailored case studies to illustrate how the isotopic compositions of bones, teeth, shells, plants, and soils can inform on climate and diet. Lectures will be provided by Rebecca Fraser (Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel), Genevieve Holdridge (Centre for Urban Network Evolutions, Aarhus University), Marcello Mannino (Archaeology, Aarhus University), and Tamsin O’Connell (University of Cambridge).

Module 3: Time and sourcing

The third module deals with the relations between people, materials and the inorganic world. An introductory lecture will illustrate the basics of isotope studies applied in archaeological dating. Then, a series of themed lectures will discuss isotopic signatures of pottery, metals and glass, and how these relate to sourcing and provenance. Lectures will be provided by Gry Barfod (Geoscience, Aarhus University), Thomas Birch (Centre for Urban Network Evolution, Aarhus University), and Jesper Olsen (Geoscience and AMS Laboratory, Aarhus University).

Learning outcomes:

By the end of the course, the participants should be able to:

  • describe key principles of isotopic records and extraction methods;
  • consider and assess the application of isotope analyses in their own work;
  • reflect on, analyse, and critically discuss interpretations of the past based on isotope analyses.


The course will offer a mixture of lectures, exercises and workshops where active participation will be expected. Each module consists of two parts: the first one will provide an overview on the main topic, followed by lectures discussing specific themes and applications. The second part will engage students and lecturers in group exercises and Q&A sessions related to the lectures. In addition, two themed workshops will be held on the last day of the course. The language of the course is English.

Case studies

Each participant is required to submit a case study or abstract of 1-2 pages beforehand, which deals with one or more of the subthemes of the course: climate, diet, time and sourcing. The cases can relate to an own project, previous experiences, or a case inspired by academic literature. These will be reviewed by the course organising team and discussed during the workshops.


The exercises will consist of group discussions related to the lecture and the student case studies.


On the second day, there will be two workshop session where we go back to the cases illustrated by the lectures, the solutions applied, and new questions emerging from those.


ECTS credits and successful completion requirements

The course will count 3 ECTS credits. PhD students are required to submit a case study (1-2 pages) related to one or more of the subthemes addressed by the course, to discuss this at the course, and to engage actively in class discussions and activities. 

Organisation and contacts:

Prof Rubina Raja (

Dr Federica Sulas (


Rubina Raja (

Federica Sulas (

Marcello Mannino (

Tamsin O’Connell (

Genevieve Holdridge (

Rebecca Fraser (

Jesper Olsen (

Thomas Birch (

Gry Barfod (

Dates and time:

Wednesday, 17 May

MODULE 1: Isotopes and molecular archaeology



Federica Sulas (UrbNet)


Introduction to the course

Rubina Raja (UrbNet)


Lecture 2: What are isotopes and why are they useful?

Marcello Mannino (Archaeology, AU) and Tamsin O’Connell (University of Cambridge)


Lunch break


MODULE 2: Climate and Diet


Lecture 3: Isotope analysis and faunal remains

Marcello Mannino (Aarhus University)


Lecture 4: TBA

Tamsin O’Connell (University of Cambridge)


Lecture 5: Soil isotopic archives

Genevieve Holdridge (UrbNet, AU)


Coffee break


Lecture 6: Plant stable isotopes in archaeology: understanding the processes and impacts from the ‘base of the food chain’

Rebecca Fraser (Kiel University)


Group exercise


Q&A and discussion

Chair: Rubina Raja (UrbNet, AU)


Thursday, 18 May

MODULE 3: Time and Sourcing


Coffees and buns



Lecture 7: Radiocarbon and stable isotopes

Jesper Olsen (Geoscience, AU)


Lecture 8: The quest for provenance: isotope analysis of metals

Thomas Birch (UrbNet, AU)


Coffee break


Lecture 9: Provenance of ancient glass and pigment using isotopes.

Gry Barfod (Geoscience, AU)


Lecture 10: Pottery

Thomas Birch (UrbNet, AU)


Lunch break


Group exercise


Workshop 1: Climate and Diet

Chair: Marcello Mannino (Archaeology, AU) and Tamsin O’Connell (University of Cambridge)


Coffee break


Workshop 2: Sourcing and time

Chair: Thomas Birch


Q&A and final discussion

Chair: Rubina Raja.


The course will be held at:

Centre for Urban Network Evolutions, building 4230, room 232, Aarhus University

Moesgård Allé 20, 8270 Højbjerg



Please apply for a spot on the course via no later than 23 April 2017.


Course dates
17 May 2017 - 18 May 2017
See posting
Centre for Urban Network Evolutions, Moesgård Allé 20
building 4230, room 232
3 points

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