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PhD Opportunities

Human-environment dynamics through the Holocene in the Mourne region, Northern Ireland

School of Natural and Built Environment | PHD

Applications are now CLOSED
Reference Number
Application Deadline
30 April 2021
Start Date
1 October 2021


This project aims to examine human-environment relationships in the Mourne Mountains throughout the Holocene. The present landscape of the Mournes has been shaped by millennia of natural and human agency, but the processes, timing and inter-relationship of these factors are poorly understood.

Previous unpublished research in northern and eastern stretches of the Mournes indicate that a wooded landscape existed through the uplands in prehistoric times, representing an environment markedly different from the peat-covered slopes that feature today. A rich archaeological record attests human presence in the Mourne uplands during the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, while deserted farmsteads and booley huts are generally thought to reflect Medieval and post-Medieval activity. What attracted people to occupy the Mournes at these different times? Was occupation continuous or intermittent, permanent or transient? What were the roles of climate and demographic change in stimulating expansion or retraction of occupation in higher ground? To what extent is the current open character of the Mournes the product of climate or human impacts?

Using a multi-proxy palaeoenvironmental approach, this project will reconstruct the natural and cultural heritage of the Mournes with a view to informing public understanding of the complex history of the region. The project will explore questions of sustainable land-use, climate impacts, population pressure, and social and ecological vulnerability/resilience in an upland environment often regarded as economically and environmentally marginal. A focus on long-term records from deep peats within the western Mournes will provide a backdrop for establishing the vegetation and climate history of the region through the analysis of pollen and testate amoebae. Targeted palaeoenvironmental sampling will be conducted in the vicinity of archaeological and historical sites within the Mourne uplands, including occupation sites and quarries, to provide time-specific contextualisations of human activities and impacts on the immediate environment. Suitable sampling sites in the adjacent lowlands immediately to the north and along the coastal plain of the western Mournes will be sought to establish comparative records for settlement and land-use intensity in low-lying areas. The study will incorporate historical and local knowledge to ensure a deeper appreciation of the significance of the uplands to past, present and future populations.

The studentship will entail a work placement with the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI), the project collaborator.

Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 'Archaeology & Palaeoecology' at the School of Natural and Built Environment.
State name of the lead supervisor as ‘Dr Gill Plunkett’ on application form.
State ‘DfE funding’ as Intended Source of Funding.
To apply, visit

Please provide a research proposal in your own words, which sets out the research questions/problems; the research context and intellectual significance of the project; the research methods to be employed; the resources that will be used; a timeline; any safety or ethical considerations; and an indicative bibliography.

Please use the 'Research Proposal' section of the QUB Application form. Your proposal should be no longer than 1000 words (excluding references).

Funding Information

This DfE-funded 3-year studentship is open to UK candidates. The value of an award includes the cost of approved fees as well as maintenance support. In academic year 2020-2021 the basic rate of maintenance support for a Research Studentship is £15,285. The start date for this project will be 1 October 2021.

Project Summary

Dr Gill Plunkett

More Information

Research Profile

Mode of Study

Full-time: 3 years

Funding Body
Apply now Register your interest

Archaeology & Palaeoecology overview

By joining Archaeology & Palaeoecology you will become part of a dynamic group of researchers in one of two interdisciplinary Research Cells: PLANET for more environmentally-related projects, and PAST for more humanities-related Archaeology projects.

Projects involving Palaeoecology or Scientific Archaeology (PLANET and PAST Research Cells) 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 palaeoecology and restoration of bogs.

Research in the PAST Research Cell 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.

Archaeology & Palaeoecology Highlights
Career Development
  • Archaeology & Palaeoecology at Queen’s have a long-standing record of inter-disciplinary approaches to understanding the relationship between past humans and their environment. Our alumni are going on to successful careers in academia and beyond.
  • The University’s Graduate School provides postgraduate students with a state-of-the-art interdisciplinary hub to support their personal and professional development.
  • QUB’s Researcher Plus scheme provides PhD and MPhil students with an opportunity to develop skills which are transferable beyond their research degrees, and the Researcher Plus award provides them with official recognition for the skills acquired in addition to their research.
  • Archaeology & Palaeoecology at Queen’s have an established track record of attracting funding for student-led PhD studentships from the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and run by Queen’s University Belfast jointly with the Universities of Durham and Newcastle.
  • Funding for student-led PhD studentships specifically in Palaeoecology and Geoarchaeology is also available from the QUADRAT Doctoral Training Partnership, run jointly by Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Aberdeen.
World Class Facilities
  • The School boasts the internationally renowned 14CHRONO Centre for Climate, the Environment and Chronology that together with our Dendrochronology Laboratory, Stable Isotope Facility, Archaeomaterials Laboratory and other in-house laboratory facilities helps us understand past societal and environmental issues.
  • The Centre for Community Archaeology (CCA) bolsters the School’s capacity for conducting innovative field research, using the latest technology in geophysical prospection, remote sensing and 3D modelling of archaeological sites and artefacts.
  • The School’s Centre for Geographic Information Science and Geomatics provides cutting-edge infrastructure for research projects involving elements of geospatial analysis.
  • The Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis, likewise situated within the School, lends crucial technical support to research projects across the digital humanities and beyond.
  • The University's Core Technology Units (CTUs) provide researchers and graduate students in Archaeology & Palaeoecology with high-quality training in advanced laboratory techniques and access to state-of-the-art equipment for mass spectrometry, scanning electron microscopy, palaeogenomics and advanced imaging. The Advanced Informatics unit helps us to maintain a comprehensive and systematic data management framework for our research data.
  • The University’s McClay Library holds one of the most comprehensive collections of resources on Irish, British, European and World Archaeology in Ireland and the UK, and provides state-of-the-art study facilities.
Internationally Renowned Experts
  • Undertaking a research degree with Archaeology & Palaeoecology at Queen’s, you will work with and be supervised by world-leading experts in their respective fields.
Key Facts

Archaeology at Queens is in the Top 150 in the World QS Rankings (2022).

  • As a Russell Group university and ranked in the UK top 10 (Complete University Guide 2022), Queen’s is one of the best places in the UK to study Archaeology.
  • Office accommodation with access to computing facilities and support to attend conferences for full-time PhD students.

Course content

Research Information

Associated Research
Both the PLANET and PAST Research Cells are strongly interdisciplinary and incorporate researchers from other subject areas across the School (e.g. Human and Physical Geography, Planning, Architecture), working closely together to develop research that takes into consideration both the social and environmental context of human society. 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.

Both clusters conduct research in Ireland, Great Britain and abroad, in particular the Mediterranean region, territories of the former Soviet Union, the North Atlantic, West Africa and the Americas, where both staff and research students undertake collaborative projects.

Research students maintain their own research seminar series alongside the fortnightly seminars organised by the two research clusters, which routinely bring outstanding scholars from abroad as well as Great Britain and Ireland.

Being based in the purpose-built Archaeology & Palaeoecology Centre, jointly with the 14CHRONO Centre for Climate, the Environment and Chronology, expands our research facilities and has allowed us to extend our research agenda. Our 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.

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
• Religion, society and material culture in the ancient Mediterranean
• Settlement and economy of prehistoric, 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
• Populations and palaeodiet from Ireland to Eurasia
• Refinement of chronologies from selected regions of the world, using the facilities of the 14CHRONO labs
• The causes, timing and impacts of past climate change

Current postgraduates come from Ireland, Great Britain, the USA, France, Italy, Cyprus and the Netherlands.

Career Prospects

Many of our PhD alumni have moved into academic and research roles in Higher Education while others go on to play leading roles in educational practice, the public sector or within NGO’s. 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.

People teaching you

Dr Colm Donnelly
Senior Research Fellow
Natural & Built Environment
Medieval and post-medieval archaeology, geophysics and remote sensing, community archaeology.

Dr Dirk Brandherm
Natural & Built Environment
Later prehistoric archaeology of Europe and the Mediterranean, artefact studies, social archaeology, archaeometry of inorganic materials.

Dr Maarten Blaauw
Natural & Built Environment
Palaeoecology, chronology-building, other numerical approaches.

Dr Patrick Gleeson
Senior Lecturer
Natural & Built Environment
Medieval archaeology, funerary and ritual practice, landscape archaeology, geophysics and remote sensing.

Dr Ryan Rabett
Senior Lecturer
Natural & Built Environment
Southeast Asian prehistory, palaeolithic archaeology, early human adaptation and dispersal, zooarchaeology.

Dr William Megarry
Senior Lecturer
Natural & Built Environment
Geospatial techniques in archaeology, heritage management, landscape archaeology, archaeology of island cultures.

Prof Gill Plunkett
Natural & Built Environment
Cryptotephra palynology, mid- to late Holocene environmental change, prehistoric Ireland, past human-environment dynamics.

Professor Eileen Murphy
Natural & Built Environment
Bioarchaeology, burial practices, childhood in the past, archaeology of the Irish diaspora, community archaeology.

Learning Outcomes
A research degree offers students an opportunity to foster their capacity for independent research and critical thought. It also allows students to explore an area of interest and so understand and solve theoretical and practical problems within the field.

Undertaking a research degree also enhances a student’s written and oral communication skills, and a PhD is almost always a formal requirement for an academic post.
Course structure
You will carry out original research under the guidance of your supervisory team. There is no specific course content as such. This independent research is complemented by postgraduate skills training organised by Queen’s Graduate School, and other internal and external training courses organised through your supervisor.

You will normally register, in the first instance, as an ‘undifferentiated PhD student’ which means that you have satisfied staff that you are capable of undertaking a research degree. The decision as to whether you should undertake an MPhil or a PhD is delayed until you have completed ‘differentiation’.

Differentiation takes place about 9-12 months after registration for full time students and about 18-30 months for part time students: You are normally asked to submit work to a panel of up two academics and this is followed up with a formal meeting with the ‘Differentiation Panel’. The Panel then make a judgement about your capacity to continue with your study. Sometimes students are advised to revise their research objectives or to consider submitting their work for an MPhil qualification rather than a doctoral qualification.

To complete with a doctoral qualification you will be required to submit a thesis of no more than 80,000 words and you will be required to attend a viva voce [oral examination] with an external and internal examiner to defend your thesis.

A PhD programme runs for 3-4 years full-time or 6-8 years part-time. Students can apply for a writing up year should it be required.

The PhD is open to both full and part time candidates and is often a useful preparation for a career within academia or consultancy.

Full time students are often attracted to research degree programmes because they offer an opportunity to pursue in some depth an area of academic interest.

The part time route is a suitable option for those unable to study for a PhD full time. This may be due to family commitments or those already in employment. On the former, studying part time for a PhD can be very accommodating in juggling different responsibilities. On the latter, part time candidates often choose to research an area that is related to their professional responsibilities.

If you meet the Entry Requirements, the next step is to check whether we can supervise research in your chosen area. We only take students to whom we can offer expert research supervision from one of our academic staff. Therefore, your research question needs to engage with the research interests of one of our staff.

Application Process
Please review the eligibility criteria on the webpages. If you believe that you meet these criteria then follow the steps below:

Select ONE potential supervisor from our list of Academic Staff ( and send an email containing:

a brief CV (1-2 pages maximum)
a concise statement that you are interested in studying for a PhD, stating when you would start, and how you would plan to fund the research
a brief statement of the research question or interest, and how you think the question could be investigated

Our academic staff welcome approaches from prospective students; staff can liaise with applicants to develop a research proposal of mutual interest. The potential supervisor should get back to you within a couple of weeks. They may invite you to meet with them or they may invite you to apply formally.

If you have difficulty identifying or contacting an appropriate supervisor, please contact Catherine Boone (email: who will be happy to help.

For part-time study – the closing date for this option is 31st August each year.

For full-time study (self-funding) – for those full time candidates who do not wish to compete for a studentship or who are not eligible to compete for a studentship the closing date is 31st August each year.

For full-time study and application for a studentship/award; please be aware that awards are only available to full time students. Candidates wishing to apply for studentships available within the School must apply for full-time study at the same time. Available studentships and closing dates are detailed on the School's studentships web page:

Assessment processes for a research degree differ from taught degrees. Students will be expected to present drafts of their work at regular intervals to their supervisor who will provide written and oral feedback; a formal assessment process takes place annually.

This Annual Progress Review requires students to present their work in writing and orally to a panel of academics from within the School. Successful completion of this process will allow students to register for the next academic year.

The final assessment of the doctoral degree is both oral and written. Students will submit their thesis to an internal and external examining team who will review the written thesis before inviting the student to orally defend their work at a Viva Voce.


Supervisors will offer feedback on draft work at regular intervals throughout the period of registration on the degree.

Entrance requirements

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.

International Students

For information on international qualification equivalents, please check the specific information for your country.

English Language Requirements

For information on international qualification equivalents, please check the specific information for your country. ENGLISH LANGUAGE REQUIREMENTS Evidence of an IELTS* score of 6.5, with not less than 5.5 in any component, or an 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. For more information on English Language requirements for EEA and non-EEA nationals see: If you need to improve your English language skills before you enter this degree programme, INTO Queen's University Belfast offers a range of English language courses. These intensive and flexible courses are designed to improve your English ability for admission to this degree.

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.

For more information on English Language requirements for EEA and non-EEA nationals see:

If you need to improve your English language skills before you enter this degree programme, INTO Queen's University Belfast offers a range of English language courses. These intensive and flexible courses are designed to improve your English ability for admission to this degree.

Tuition Fees

Northern Ireland (NI) 1 TBC
Republic of Ireland (ROI) 2 TBC
England, Scotland or Wales (GB) 1 TBC
EU Other 3 £25,600
International £25,600

1 EU citizens in the EU Settlement Scheme, with settled or pre-settled status, are expected to be charged the NI or GB tuition fee based on where they are ordinarily resident, however this is provisional and subject to the publication of the Northern Ireland Assembly Student Fees Regulations. Students who are ROI nationals resident in GB are expected to be charged the GB fee, however this is provisional and subject to the publication of the Northern Ireland Assembly student fees Regulations.

2 It is expected that EU students who are ROI nationals resident in ROI will be eligible for NI tuition fees. The tuition fee set out above is provisional and subject to the publication of the Northern Ireland Assembly student fees Regulations.

3 EU Other students (excludes Republic of Ireland nationals living in GB, NI or ROI) are charged tuition fees in line with international fees.

All tuition fees quoted are for the academic year 2021-22, and relate to a single year of study unless stated otherwise. Tuition fees will be subject to an annual inflationary increase, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

More information on postgraduate tuition fees.

Archaeology & Palaeoecology costs

Additional course costs

All Students

Depending on the programme of study, there may also be other extra costs which are not covered by tuition fees, which students will need to consider when planning their studies . Students can borrow books and access online learning resources from any Queen's library. If students wish to purchase recommended texts, rather than borrow them from the University Library, prices per text can range from £30 to £100. Students should also budget between £30 to £100 per year for photocopying, memory sticks and printing charges. Students may wish to consider purchasing an electronic device; costs will vary depending on the specification of the model chosen. There are also additional charges for graduation ceremonies, and library fines. In undertaking a research project students may incur costs associated with transport and/or materials, and there will also be additional costs for printing and binding the thesis. There may also be individually tailored research project expenses and students should consult directly with the School for further information.

Bench fees

Some research programmes incur an additional annual charge on top of the tuition fees, often referred to as a bench fee. Bench fees are charged when a programme (or a specific project) incurs extra costs such as those involved with specialist laboratory or field work. If you are required to pay bench fees they will be detailed on your offer letter. If you have any questions about Bench Fees these should be raised with your School at the application stage. Please note that, if you are being funded you will need to ensure your sponsor is aware of and has agreed to fund these additional costs before accepting your place.

How do I fund my study?

1.PhD Opportunities

Find PhD opportunities and funded studentships by subject area.

2.Funded Doctoral Training Programmes

We offer numerous opportunities for funded doctoral study in a world-class research environment. Our centres and partnerships, aim to seek out and nurture outstanding postgraduate research students, and provide targeted training and skills development.

3.PhD loans

The Government offers doctoral loans of up to £26,445 for PhDs and equivalent postgraduate research programmes for English- or Welsh-resident UK and EU students.

4.International Scholarships

Information on Postgraduate Research scholarships for international students.

Funding and Scholarships

The Funding & Scholarship Finder helps prospective and current students find funding to help cover costs towards a whole range of study related expenses.

How to Apply

Apply using our online Postgraduate Applications Portal and follow the step-by-step instructions on how to apply.

Find a supervisor

If you're interested in a particular project, we suggest you contact the relevant academic before you apply, to introduce yourself and ask questions.

To find a potential supervisor aligned with your area of interest, or if you are unsure of who to contact, look through the staff profiles linked here.

You might be asked to provide a short outline of your proposal to help us identify potential supervisors.

Download Postgraduate Prospectus