Project Description

The aim of the project is to apply a multi-proxy approach that combines zooarchaeological and multi-isotope analytical techniques, to provide a more nuanced understanding of the human-animal-environment interactions that enabled key religious houses to function in Late Medieval Ulster. 

The Church in Medieval Ireland underwent a period of reorganisation in the 12th century, with the introduction of a diocesan structure across the island and new reformed religious orders such as the Cistercians at Mellifont Abbey, Co. Louth, in 1142. This reform process received amplification in the last decades of the century with the arrival of Anglo-Norman adventurers in the east and south of Ireland in the years after 1169 and a range of new orders became established with cloister-based complexes becoming the primary form of monasticism across the island. Five of the main monastic orders present in Late Medieval Ireland will be included in the project and selected sites will include St. Mary’s, Devenish Island, Co. Fermanagh (Augustinian); Cathedral Hill, Downpatrick, Co. Down (Benedictine); Newry Abbey, Co. Down (Cistercian); Bishopsgate Priory, Coleraine, Co. L’Derry (Dominican) and Massereene Friary, Co. Antrim (Franciscan). 

Substantial zooarchaeological assemblages from these sites are curated within the Historic Environment Division, Department of Communities, but many have either never been analysed or were studied during the 1950s when techniques were only developing. Understanding of human-animal-environment interactions is often forgotten in archaeological narratives for this reason but yet would have been crucial for ensuring the survival and sustainability of these communities. The local environment of each of these establishments would have provided the resources necessary for survival but is also directly connected to the main stressors faced by a population and by extension their animals. 

Zooarchaeological analysis will enable the profile of animals exploited at each foundation to be determined in relation to composition of the main domestic herds which will have been directly related to the associated environment. Analysis of sex and age ratios will ascertain how the animals were being utilised and whether the focus of livestock farming practices was for meat, milk and/or additional secondary products. Investigation of animal palaeopathology will provide further information on human-animal interactions and potential environmental stressors. The study of Strontium, Oxygen, Sulphur, Carbon and Nitrogen isotopes from the faunal assemblages will enable an investigation of livestock mobility in addition to assessment of the husbandry methods used at the different foundations. 

The project will enrich archaeological narratives by bringing understanding of human-animal-environment interactions at these high-profile archaeological sites to the fore. It will also feed into current debates concerning the impact of livestock husbandry on the environment and climate in addition to sustainable farming practices. 

The student will be fully integrated into the research environment of the School of Natural and Built Environment (SNBE) at QUB as a member of the ‘Past’ research cell, with affiliation to the ‘Planet’ research cell. The research environment for this project is excellent in terms of facilities, staff support and access to materials, space and opportunities in training and networking. The School of Natural and Built Environment is a focus for interdisciplinary research and provides a dynamic venue for postgraduate work.

Archaeology and Palaeoecology run a high-profile seminar series of invited external speakers (suggested by staff and postgraduate students) that further promotes interdisciplinarity and scholarly debate. The vibrant postgraduate community have dedicated shared office spaces and a Common Room. In conjunction with postdoctoral researchers, they run an internal seminar series where staff and students present their research. Research presentations to the School are a compulsory part of postgraduate research training and development. Since the project focuses on Medieval livestock husbandry and environment the student will also be encouraged to join the Medieval History group coordinated by academics in the School of History, Anthropology and Politics as well as the Institute of Irish Studies. 

Essential & desirable candidate skills

Essential: Practical experience of zooarchaeological analysis on mammal bones. Knowledge of Irish Medieval archaeology. Understanding of isotopic analysis.

Desirable: Practical experience of processing samples for isotopic analysis. Experience of undertaking isotopic analysis on zooarchaeological material.


Eileen Murphy

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Eileen Murphy
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Natural and Built Environment

Kate Britton

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Kate Britton
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Geosciences

Additional Supervisor:

Dr Colm Donnelly 

Queen’s University Belfast, School of Natural & Built Environment

Staff Profile: 


Additional Supervisor:

Ms Jacqueline McDowell, Historic Monuments Division, Department for Communities – Jackie will assist the student with gaining access to pertinent collections in the HED stores. She will also provide access to excavation archives. 

Research Methods

Archaeology and Palaeoecology is very well equipped with all the facilities that the applicant will require in relation to the Medieval archaeological (extensive library resources; numerous staff with expertise in this period) components of the project. The applicant will be able to avail of our zooarchaeological reference collection as well as the radiocarbon dating and isotope facilities within the 14CHRONO Centre where they will gain practical experience of sample processing. They will be working within the main centre of research on Irish archaeology in a UK institution and will be able to develop their knowledge of Irish archaeology more broadly through connections with our Centre for Community Archaeology. 


Substantial zooarchaeological assemblages from key religious sites in Ulster are curated within the Historic Environment Division but many have either never been analysed or were analysed during the 1950s when techniques were only developing. Understanding of human-animal-environment interactions is often forgotten in archaeological narratives for this reason. The project will enrich archaeological narratives by enabling this critical strand of evidence to come to the fore in publications, exhibitions and signage relating to these sites. It will also feed into current narratives concerning the impact of livestock husbandry on the environment and climate and sustainable farming practices. 

Proposed Supervision

The student would be supported by a supervisory team that combines expertise in zooarchaeology, stable isotope analysis and medieval Ireland. Professor Eileen Murphy has extensive experience of undertaking zooarchaeological analysis of assemblages of Irish faunal remains. She has also been involved in numerous studies that have included the use of multiproxy isotope studies to address issues of past diet, health status and migration. Professor Kate Britton from the School of Geosciences, University of Aberdeen, is a leading expert in the use of multiproxy isotope research on Medieval zooarchaeological assemblages amongst others. Dr Colm Donnelly is a leading expert in Late Medieval Ireland and his research has focused particularly on the secular and ecclesiastical architecture of the period in both Gaelic and Anglo-Irish lordships. The student will also be able to seek support from specialists in palaeoecology within SNBE regarding broader environmental aspects of the project. 

Proposed Timetable

The first year of the project would focus on the zooarchaeological analysis of the faunal assemblages since this will enable suitable samples to be identified for the isotopic analysis. Radiocarbon dating will also be undertaken on selected material in cases where the chronology requires refinement. The student would process the osteological samples in the 14CHRONO Centre. They would also spend time developing an understanding of the history and archaeology of the religious orders included in the project. The student would be required to undertake an initial progress review at 3 months and the differentiation to PhD at 9 months into the project. 

Year 2 would concentrate on isotope analysis and the processing of samples and interpretation of results. The student would also focus on gaining a solid understanding of the environment in the vicinity of the religious houses so they can contextualise their findings. An Annual Progress Review would be undertaken in May. 

Year 3 would focus on combining the results and writing the bulk of the thesis. The findings of the zooarchaeological, isotopic, environmental, archaeological and historical analysis would be combined to construct a narrative with an emphasis on human-animal-environmental interactions. The findings will be scrutinised with a view to their implications for modern debates on livestock husbandry and climate change, sustainable farming practices and the carrying capacity of the land. An Annual Progress Review would be undertaken in May. 


  • earth-systems
  • environmental-management


Not applicable at this time.

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