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QUADRAT DTP: Investigating the timing and causes of nitrogen cycle changes in Bronze Age Ireland

School of Natural and Built Environment | PHD

Applications are now CLOSED
Reference Number
Application Deadline
22 January 2020
Start Date
1 October 2020


A fundamental alteration in the nitrogen cycle during the Bronze Age in Ireland has been identified through isotope analysis of wild and domesticated faunal remains and attributed to intensified land management during this time (Guiry et al. 2018). The timing of the shift broadly coincides with palynological evidence for widespread land clearance in the Middle Bronze Age (~1600 BCE) and Late Bronze Age (~1000 BCE) that supports an anthropogenic explanation for the environmental shift (Plunkett 2009) but a climate driver cannot be ruled out. This project will investigate the timing, extent and potential causes of the nitrogen fractionation shift through a palaeoenvironmental analysis of sedimentary sequences and an examination of dietary evidence spanning the Bronze Age.

Specific research questions include:

1) Is a nitrogen shift detectable in sedimentary sequences, including peatlands which were unlikely to have been directly impacted by intensified farming?
2) Does the archaeological record accurately reflect the extent of Bronze Age land-use, and can intensification be detected during the period of interest?
3) How do changes in land-use manifest in the subsistence record, determined from multi-proxy palaeodietary information from the archaeological record?
4) What was the relationship of land-use and/or nitrogen shifts, if any, to climate change during this period?

1) Palaeoenvironmental sequences will be collected from suitable lake and peatland sites in areas demonstrating contrasting densities of Bronze Age activity in Ireland (determined from Sites and Monuments Records in the two jurisdictions of the island). Tephrochronology and 14C dating will be used to isolate the Bronze Age levels of the sequences, which will then be investigated at centennial-scale resolution for land-use history (pollen analysis), palaeoclimate (pollen influx; testate amoebae – peatlands only) and δ15N analysis. Higher resolution analysis will be conducted across periods of major transitions to enable the timing of those events to be refined.

2) The relationship between land-use changes, subsistence and diet will be investigated using stable isotope analysis of archaeobotanical, archaeofaunal and human remains from a selection of Bronze Age archaeological sites in Ireland. Previously published data will be integrated into the study alongside newly generated data.

This multi-proxy approach will comprise the first integrated investigation of land-use changes, diet and environmental impacts in Irish prehistory and will enable a deeper understanding of the role of humans in driving systemic ecosystem change.

Research training: Applicants will be expected to have some background in palaeoecology and/ or stable isotope analysis. The project will include training in necessary skills including fieldwork, palaeoenvironmental techniques, stable isotope analysis (including sample preparation, data generation and analysis), age-modelling and data handling. Palaeoenvironmental studies will be undertaken at QUB. Stable isotope data will be generated in Aberdeen and QUB.

Guiry, E. et al. 2018. Anthropogenic changes to the Holocene nitrogen cycle in Ireland. Science Advances 4, p.eaas9383.

Plunkett, G. 2009. Land-use patterns and cultural change in the Middle to Late Bronze Age in Ireland: inferences from pollen records. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 18, 273-295.

Funding Information

This project is in competition for funding.

This project is funded by the NERC QUADRAT-DTP and is available to UK/EU nationals who meet the UKRI eligibility criteria. Please visit for more information.

The studentship provides funding for tuition fees, stipend and a research training and support grant subject to eligibility.

Project Summary
Dr Gill Plunkett
Mode of Study

Full-time: 3.5 years

Funding Body
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Archaeology & Palaeoecology overview

The research undertaken within Archaeology & Palaeoecology largely falls under two interdisciplinary Research Clusters; Environmental Change & Resilience (ECR) for more environmentally-related projects, and Culture & Society (C&S) for more humanities-related Archaeology projects.

Projects involving Palaeoecology or Scientific Archaeology focus on themes such as long-term changes and resilience in ecosystems, humans, environments and climate, using approaches such as pollen analysis, tephra dating, dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating. Much of our research spans several disciplines – for example projects on the hydrogeology and restoration of bogs.

Research in the C&S cluster explores the material manifestations of culture through time and space. We combine innovative scientific methods with theoretically-informed analyses to understand past human experience, bringing together the humanities and the sciences.

The combination of environmental archaeology, and especially bio-archaeology, with more traditional approaches to the past, helps to differentiate Queen's from most other Archaeology departments and is seen as both a strength and stimulus to future developments. Thematically, we have identified eight areas of particular specialist interest and especially welcome applications from potential PhD students interested in these areas though projects are not limited to these themes:

Development of agriculture and the cultural landscape in Europe, Eurasia and its associated economic, chronological and environmental backdrop
Organisation of domestic and ritual space (including landscapes) from prehistory through the post-medieval period in the North Atlantic region
Populations and palaeodiet from Ireland to Eurasia
Refinement of chronologies from selected regions of the world, using the facilities of the 14CHRONO labs
Religion, society and material culture in the central and western Mediterranean
Settlement and economy of medieval and post-medieval Ireland; connections with the New World
Social and bio-archaeological approaches to death, involving the study of mortuary data from Ireland across Eurasia
The causes, timing and impacts of past climate change

Mode of study / duration
Registration is on a full-time or part-time basis, under the direction of a supervisory team appointed by the University. You will be expected to submit your thesis at the end of three years for a PhD (or part-time equivalent).

Archaeology & Palaeoecology Highlights
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  • Long-standing record of inter-disciplinary approaches to understanding the relationship between past humans and their environment.
World Class Facilities
  • World-leading centre in multiple dating techniques that help us understand past societal and environmental issues.
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Research Information

Associated Research
Members of the C&S and the ECR research clusters work closely to develop research that takes into consideration both the social and environmental context of human society (see also Geography and Palaeoecology: Environmental Change). Integrated within C&S is the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork, a financially self-supporting excavation unit with an exceptional record of publication and a high media profile, reflecting a strong commitment to community engagement.
The cluster undertakes research in Ireland, Great Britain and abroad, in particular, the Mediterranean region, territories of the former Soviet Union, the North Atlantic, west Africa and North America, where both staff and research students undertake collaborative projects.
Students maintain their own research seminar series and attend the fortnightly seminars of the Archaeology and Palaeoecology research clusters, which routinely bring outstanding scholars from abroad as well as Great Britain and Ireland.
Being based in the recently built 14CHRONO Centre has expanded our research facilities and allowed us to extend our research agenda.
Facilities include an AMS 14C dating facility, an NEC accelerator mass spectrometer, cold storage for biological materials, drawing office, laboratories for post-excavation, human bone analysis, palynology, plant, snail and insect macrofossils, dendrochronology and animal bone analysis.
Current postgraduates come from Ireland, Great Britain, the USA, France, and the Netherlands.

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For further information on career opportunities at PhD level please contact the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences Student Recruitment Team on Our advisors - in consultation with the School - will be happy to provide further information on your research area, possible career prospects and your research application.

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The minimum academic requirement for admission to a research degree programme is normally an Upper Second Class Honours degree from a UK or ROI HE provider, or an equivalent qualification acceptable to the University. Further information can be obtained by contacting the School.

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Evidence of an IELTS* score of 6.5, with not less than 5.5 in any component, or equivalent qualification acceptable to the University is required (*taken within the last 2 years).

International students wishing to apply to Queen's University Belfast (and for whom English is not their first language), must be able to demonstrate their proficiency in English in order to benefit fully from their course of study or research. Non-EEA nationals must also satisfy UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) immigration requirements for English language for visa purposes.

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Tuition Fees

Northern Ireland (NI) £4,407
England, Scotland or Wales (GB) £4,407
Other (non-UK) EU £4,407
International £21,300

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