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Spring 2014 | Archaeology 1870

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Rhode Island Hall Room 008 | MWF 2:00-2:50

How are our lives shaped by the environment around us? And, as scientists argue about whether or not we've entered a new age called "The Anthropocene", how great an impact have humans really made on the environment, from prehistory right up until today? This course will consider the complexities of human-environment interactions using a diachronic and comparative perspective only possible through an archaeological lens. It will explore the ecological relationships between people, animals, and plants in the past and discuss the implications of these dynamic relationships an increasingly globalized world. 

Instructor: Suzanne Pilaar Birch
Office Phone: (401) 863-2306 
Office Hours: Rhode Island Hall Room 210, MW 3-4 


Document IconEnv Arch Final Syllabus.pdf

Required Textbook:

 Environmental Archaeology: Principles and Practice, Dena F. Dincauze (2000)

 All other readings will be posted on the course wiki [link] and should be completed before class on that day.

Grading and Assignments:

The course meets three times per week for 50 minutes. Usually, each week will consist of two lectures and one practical (during Part 2, Methods) or seminar (during Part 3, Interpretation). Attendance is important and practical worksheets and seminar presentations will form a substantial percentage (25%) of your final grade. 

Other graded components of the course include one short topical paper (4-5 pages, double spaced) and a longer research paper that synthesizes two or more types of environmental archaeology data (3,000 words for undergraduates, 8-10,000 words for graduate students); no late papers will be accepted without prior approval. There will be a final exam. Your final grade will be determined as follows: 

Participation (includes practical and seminar assignments): 25%

Short paper: 20%

Research paper: 35%

Final exam: 20%

This course may be taken as satisfactory/no credit (S/NC). Students requesting this grading option must complete all course requirements to receive a grade of satisfactory.

Additional Information

Student and Employee Accessibility Services Please inform me if you have a disability or other condition that might require some modification of any of these course procedures. You may speak with me after class or during office hours. For more information contact Student and Employee Accessibility Services (SEAS) at 401-863-9588 or

Libraries Our subject librarian is Ian Straughn ( You can contact him with any research or library-related questions.

Course Schedule

Part 1 Introduction

Week 1 Environmental Archaeology

01/22 Lecture People and environments: an introduction to environmental archaeology

01/24 Lecture Geography, climate, and ecology


Week 2

01/27 Lecture What is environmental archaeology?

01/29 Lecture Archaeological science: methods and techniques

01/31 Lecture Taphonomy and site formation processes


Part 2 Methods

Week 3 Geomorphology and geoarchaeology I

02/03 Lecture Soils

02/05 Lecture Landscapes

02/07 Practical Local geology


Week 4 Geomorphology and geoarchaeology II

02/10 Lecture Stratigraphy

02/12 Lecture Micromorphology

02/14 Practical From GIS to micromorph: applications of geoarchaeology


Week 5 Archaeobotany I

02/17 NO CLASS

02/19 Lecture Seeds and paleoethnobotany

02/21 Lecture The importance of charcoal


Week 6 Archaeobotany II

02/24 Lecture Pollen counts in archaeobotany

02/26 Lecture Making the invisible, visible: phytoliths and starch grains

02/28 Practical Applications of archaeobotany in the field and lab


Week 7 Zooarchaeology I

03/03 Lecture Animals and environments

03/05 Lecture Another story: the value of microfauna in zooarchaeologicalstudies

03/07 Practical Working with faunal remains


Week 8 Zooarchaeology II

03/10 Lecture “To Everything There is a Season”: The seasonal use of animals in prehistory its implications for environmental archaeology

03/12 Lecture The process of domestication and its consequences

03/14 Practical Faunal assemblages from recovery to interpretation


Week 9 Human Osteology and Molecular Studies

03/17 Lecture Human osteology and paleopathology

03/19 Lecture Stable isotopes and human diet

03/21 Practical Reconciling osteological and biomolecular data


Week 10


Part 3: Interpretation

Week 11 Climate and Environmental Change

03/31 Lecture Climate Change and Sea Level Rise

04/02 Lecture Environmental contexts and reconstruction

04/04 Seminar Case Study: The Younger Dryas and the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition


Week 12 Human Ecology and Mobility

04/07 Lecture Hunter-gathers, foraging ecology, and the Broad Spectrum Revolution

04/09 Lecture Forager, farmer, pastoralist, nomad: what’s in a name?

04/11 Seminar Case Study: Central Asia


Week 13 Agriculture

04/14 Lecture Human diet and agriculture

04/16 Lecture The effects of agriculture and land use

04/18 Seminar Case Study: Long-term landscape change in the Mediterranean


Week 14 The Future from the Past: Applications of Environmental Archaeology

04/21 Lecture Culture contact and the modern era

04/23 Lecture Implications of environmental archaeology for the future

04/25 Final Review



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