Project Description

Farming in Europe originated in the Levant around 12,000 years ago, reaching Europe several millennia later. Northern climates and environments, thin soils, and limited growing seasons represent significant challenges, and in the past required unique adaptations (e.g., soil improvement; over-wintering animals in byres; sea-weed foddering; silvopasture; agroforestry; etc). The study of agricultural and animal husbandry practices, and animal-human-environmental interactions, in archaeology provides important evidence for past economic, social and cultural practices. However, an understanding past practices, developed in northern ecologies through human-animal-environment interdependency and adaptation, can also contribute important new perspectives on current debates surrounding contemporary shifts towards ecologically-sustainable agriculture and food systems.

The aim of this project is to shed new light on the importance of pastoralism at the periphery of Late Iron Age and Early Medieval Europe, and to explore impact of animal husbandry and management practices on wider society. The northern fringesThe of Late Iron Age and Early Medieval Europe have traditionally been perceived as isolated and peripheral with little impact on the developments we see elsewhere in Europe at this time. Recently, the importance of the extreme north is starting to be revaluated in European archaeology (e.g., Hillerdal and Ilves 2020). However, much focus has been on these areas as centres for the extraction and export of raw materials, such as Iron and tar, and little emphasis has been placed on the practices or products of northern agriculture and pastoralism. Understanding pastoralism on the periphery is critical to recentring these areas as ‘productive’ rather than ‘extractive’. The selection of certain characteristics and economic benefits in northern breeds of cattle and sheep through animal husbandry, for example, may have led to important pastoral contributions to Late Iron Age and Early Medieval economies, such as dairy products and textiles. The reconsideration of past pastoral practices is also key to understanding human-animal-environmental relationships in the north. Foddering and over-wintering animals, for example, represented specific economic and practical challenges, but also reflects (and interacts with) the reciprocal dependencies between humans, animals, and environments in the north. Untangling the long-term pastoral traditions and practice of embedded ecological knowledge representative for these will provide new insights into the Late Iron Age/Early Medieval Northern Society, and the results from this research also has the potential to inform current practices in demands for more sustainable agriculture and forestry.

Essential and desirable candidate skills:

Essential: The successful applicant should be familiar with, and preferably have experience working with, Iron Age and Early Medieval archaeology and/or environmental archaeology/or the application of palaeoecological approaches to archaeological sites. Specialisms could include, but are not limited to, use-wear analysis, zooarchaeology, palynology, archaeological and paleoenvironmental chemistry, ecological modelling ad GIS approaches.  

Desirable: Practice-based knowledge related to land management and conservation, agriculture or animal husbandry, or manufacture of agricultural products. 


Primary Supervisor:

Dr Charlotta Hillerdal 

University of Aberdeen, School of Geosciences, Archaeology



Patrick Gleeson

Secondary Supervisor:

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

Kate Britton

Additional Supervisor:

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


Hillerdal, C., and Ilves, K. (eds) 2020. Re-imagining Periphery. Archaeology and Text in Northern Europe from Iron Age to Viking and Early Medieval Periods. Oxford: Oxbow Books.  

Research Methods

Focused on a series of case studies drawn from the archaeology of the peripheral north, the project will combine traditional archaeological methods with scientific analyses. Approaches could include, but are not restricted to, zooarchaeology, stable isotope analysis, materials analysis (include micro- analysis, and use-wear), GIS approaches or modelling, depending on the skill-base and experience of applicants. We encourage applicants with a practical knowledgebase and/or interest in an experimental archaeology approach.

Candidates could potentially have access to the archaeological chemistry and human palaeoecology laboratories in Aberdeen, the ancient DNA laboratories in Aberdeen, the CHRONO lab and the new Imaging lab with XRF and X-Ray at Queens, and the zooarchaeology labs and reference collections at the University of Aberdeen and Queens University Belfast. 


The northern margins of settled agriculturalists in the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval times are both under researched and often dismissed as peripheral and of little consequence. Current research is starting to question this consensus, but the far north is still massively underrepresented in northern research. Focusing on this area and highlighting the importance of pastoral agriculture from a social as well as an economic and environmental perspective, will make an important contribution to our general knowledge of Late Iron Age and Early Medieval societies in Northern Europe, and has the potential to alter our understanding of the north-south relationship at this time. There are many indications in the archaeological material that the north has been much more integrated and influential on European society at large, but this is yet to be taken into consideration by most Iron Age/Early Medieval researchers. Utilising both scientific and humanistic perspectives, the project aims towards a more holistic and integrated research outcome. Paleoenvironmental and sociocultural data produced in this project could make an important contribution to agronomic policies. Understanding the adaptations of agricultural practices to northern ecologies and the human-animal-environmental relationships that upheld these long-term traditions will be crucial in the necessary restructuring of industrial agriculture and the development of regenerative agricultural practices.  

Proposed Supervision

The supervisory team has significant experience working across disciplines and integrating research in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Between them they cover wide expertise and can offer flexibility in approach and methodology depending on the successful candidate’s research interest. The research project would align with Dr Charlotta Hillerdal’s ongoing research focus on northern peripheral geographies in Iron Age and Early Medieval Northern Europe, especially Fennoscandia and the Scandinavian diaspora. Dr Patrick Gleeson’s will provide expertise on Iron Age and Early Medieval landscapes in Ireland and Europe, large scale landscape analysis, GIS and remote sensing. Professor Kate Britton provides expertise in human paleoecology, and human-animal-environmental relationships in archaeology, as well as expertise in bioarchaeological science methods.    

Proposed Timetable

Months 1-6: University and Quadrat inductions; deciding on specific geographical focus and identifying archaeological material to centre on; identifying specific methodological specialisms of project related to material and in line with student’s interest and previous experience; initiating training in workflows and laboratory techniques in Aberdeen. The student should also outline a comprehensive review on their methods of choice and previous research done in the area. Attend training courses.  

Months 6-12: Placement at QUB, training in laboratory techniques. Literature studies and data collection. Attending training courses.  

Months 12-18: Undertaking lab work/generating data. Finalise and write up literature review chapter.  

Months 18-24: Finalise data collection and data analysis. Begin writing up the results.  

Months 24-30: Extended data analysis, and synthesis of results. Write up data and analysis chapters. Integrate results with previous research. Generating any remaining data required following preliminary analysis.  

Months 30-42: Writing and editing.  


  • biodiversity
  • environmental-management


Not applicable at this time.

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