What is Archaeology?

Student field trip to Stonehenge


Archaeology covers a huge range of topics, spanning the evolution of humans from their origins through to the development of farming, ancient civilisations and world empires, as well as the role of material culture in human life and of heritage in modern societies. Students can follow several streams: Archaeology (covering all world cultures), Biological Anthropology, Egyptology and Assyriology.

With the Division of Archaeology, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research  and Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, Cambridge is one of the largest centres of archaeological research in Britain. Recently we were awarded top place in the Good University Guide for Archaeology in the UK. Furthermore, with the Division of Biological Anthropology, Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies and Duckworth Collection, Cambridge is one of the few places in Britain where you can study the evolutionary biology of what makes us human.

Archaeology students at Cambridge benefit from direct, hands-on access to world-class collections in Cambridge’s many museums, libraries and research centres. As well as being taught through Cambridge’s outstanding mix of lectures, practicals, seminars and supervisions, Archaeology students are trained in fieldwork techniques. Excavations and field trips are key components of the course and students spend at least seven weeks in the field. Every summer, students doing dissertations go to the field, with a choice of field sites from all over the world.


Cambridge undergraduates studying human skulls Cambridge undergraduates studying human skulls

Laboratory work in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research Laboratory work in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research

Small-group practical teaching in Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology Small-group practical teaching in Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology

William McGrew and Cambridge undergraduate cleaning recovered monkey bones in Semliki Reserve, Uganda Prof William McGrew and Cambridge undergraduate cleaning recovered monkey bones in Semliki Reserve, Uganda

Chimpanzee stone tool use: cracking palm oil nuts in Bossou, Guinea Chimpanzee stone tool use: cracking palm oil nuts in Bossou, Guinea


Fieldwork close to Farafa Oasis, Egypt Fieldwork close to Farafa Oasis, Egypt


The new Archaeology degree programme

From 2017, Cambridge will launch a new and exciting undergraduate degree programme in single honours Archaeology (including Biological Anthropology, Egyptology and Assyriology). For more information on the course, please see

Why study Archaeology at Corpus?

Corpus has a strong tradition in Archaeology and Biological Anthropology. We have Fellows and supervisors across the broad range of papers that are offered, which makes for an exceptional learning environment.

Archaeology and Biological Anthropology have a long and distinguished history at Corpus, extending back to the time of William Stukeley, who is generally regarded as the first major ‘field archaeologist’, in the seventeenth century. Over the past thirty years, the College has developed a particularly strong interest in these subjects, with a succession of Fellows working in many different areas of the world (Europe, Africa, South America and Asia). Corpus is unusual amongst Colleges in having several senior members of staff from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology: Dr Philip R. Nigst (Archaeology), Prof William McGrew (Biological Anthropology), and Prof Sir Paul Mellars (Archaeology).

Prof Sir Paul Mellarspaulmellars (Fellow) Archaeology Sir Paul’s recent research has concentrated on the behaviour of Neanderthals in Europe and their replacement by Homo sapiens c. 40,000 years ago.
Prof William McGrewwcm (Fellow) Biological Anthropology, especially Evolutionary PrimatologyProf McGrew’s research involves field studies of ecology and the ethology of non-human primates, concentrating on chimpanzee technology and culture. He is one of the founders of primate archaeology, in which the methods and theory of archaeology are applied to recovering the lithic artefacts of monkeys and apes, with hopes of modelling the origins of hominin elementary technology.
Dr Philip R. Nigstnigst (Preceptor) Archaeology, especially Palaeolithic Archaeology and Human EvolutionDr Nigst’s current research focuses on why Neanderthals died out and why we modern humans were so successful in colonising the entire planet. You may find out further details of his current research here and here.

To get a flavour for the intellectual life at Cambridge and Corpus, you can listen to Prof. McGrew deliver a fascinating lecture on chimpanzee behaviour and hominin origins below:

Course requirements

Archaeology spans a very broad range of subjects, and the course allows the study of topics ranging across the humanities, the social sciences and the sciences. Students with almost any combination of subjects can apply, as there are no specific required or recommended courses. We welcome applications from students studying humanistic fields such as History, English, Classics, and ancient languages; social sciences such as Geography, Sociology, Psychology, or Anthropology; and sciences such as Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics. Applicants for Egyptology and Assyriology are strongly encouraged to study an ancient or modern language.

The application process

Candidates should usually expect two interviews. Applicants need not have a standard background in archaeology – as the field is highly varied, there are many relevant backgrounds and the subject is not often taught in school. However, they should be prepared to discuss their relevant interests and potential directions they may wish to follow. All applicants will take a written assessment in College, based on the reading of material that will be supplied in advance. This hour-long assessment is designed to provide evidence of a candidate’s ability to interpret texts and analyse them. No special preparation or prior knowledge is required.

Here you can find a list of general readings on the subject that are at an appropriate level for a year 12 or year 13 student. None of these is required, but they may give you a good sense of what the academic study of archaeology is all about.

Typical conditional offers

Our typical conditional offer for Archaeology is A*AA at A-level. IB offers usually require at least 40 points, with at least 776 at Higher Level.

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