Academic Year 2020-2021
Institution Queen's University, Belfast


School: School of Natural and Built Environment

Project: Medical Geology: The Impact of the Natural Environment on Health in Past Populations from Ireland and Scotland

Supervisors: Professor Eileen Murphy and Dr Rebecca Crozier 

Undergraduate Education: Joint BA Archaeology & History, Queen’s University Belfast

Postgraduate Education: MSc Forensic Anthropology, University of Dundee

Research: For the past few decades, Medical Geology has emerged as a discipline and a science which focuses on the “relationship between natural geological factors and health in man and animals, understanding the influence of ordinary environmental factors on the geographical distribution of such health problems” (Selinus 2004). Naturally occurring elements in the sediment as well as environmental changes can lead to poor crop and animal growth as well as to reproductive disorders in animals and serious health problems. Ongoing research has focused largely modern case studies of elements involved in environmental toxicity (e.g. modern health in the north of Ireland in relation to the underlying geology (McKinley et al. 2013); Arsenic contamination of well water in Taiwan and India, Selenium deficiency in China; see Selinus 2004).

Throughout periods of environmental stress or elemental imbalance, the humans interacting with the environmental will be impacted by the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they consume. Negative consequences of these kinds of physiological stress include a decreased level of health, a reduced ability to undertake work, a suppressed reproductive capacity and general socio-cultural disruption. The main health indicators sensitive to environmental change include stress lesions (cribra orbitalia, porotic hyperostosis and linear enamel hypoplasia (LEH)), stature and demographic parameters related to fertility, growth and maternal mortality.

My QUADRAT DTP project will examine these aspects of selected Medieval skeletal populations from Scotland and the north of Ireland, with reference to the underlying geology to investigate whether differing patterns of health status might be related. Environmental and geochemical data generated as part of the Tellus and Tellus Border projects will be used to examine the environmental health which could correlate to periods of physiological stress in Medieval human skeletons. This research could help shine a light on how periods of environmental stress can have a detrimental effect on human health. I will be applying newly developed techniques for the palaeodemographic aspects and recording of LEH and my data set will be comprised of over 3,000 human skeletons spanning the entirety of the Medieval period.

Relevant articles:

  • Cares Henriquez, A., Oxenham, M.F. (2017) ’An alternative microscopic method for the identification of linear enamel hypoplasia (LEH) in the absence of visible perikymata’ in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 14: 76-84
  • Khandare, H.W. (2012) ‘Medical geology: an emerging field of interdisciplinary research on geology and human health’ in International Journal of ChemTech Research 4(4): 1792-1796
  • McKinley, J. M., Ofterdinger, U., Young, M., Barsby, A. and Gavin, A. 2013. Investigating local relationships between trace elements in soil and cancer data. SS 5, 25-41
  • Selinus, O. (2004) ‘Medical Geology: an emerging specialty’ in Terræ 1(1): 8-15
  • Young, M. E., Knights, K. V., Smyth, D., Glennon, M. M., Scanlon, R. P. and Gallagher, V. 2016. The Tellus geochemical surveys, results and applications, pp. 33-52 in Young, M. E. (ed.), Unearthed: Impacts of the Tellus Surveys of the North of Ireland. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy