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Matthew Lee

Postgraduate Research Student

Postgraduate Research Student in the Department of Archaeology


Research Topic

Investigating Early Medieval Northumbrian Mobility and Kinship using Dental Morphology and Archaeological Science


The Early Medieval Period (c. AD 450-1066) has been argued by scholars to provide the roots for modern England's geography, language, and culture. However, the lack of primary historical sources from the beginning of the period occurring alongside a far-reaching change in the material culture of the time has led to much debate as to what caused this change. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. AD 731) states that several Germanic tribes invaded Britain and settled there. Theories of mass migration/invasion, a migration of elites, and simply the migration of ideas have all been offered by scholars as explanations for this change in material culture. Previous scientific investigations of this area have relied on the study of oxygen and strontium isotopes to identify migrants within a cemetery and/or the use of genetics to examine similarities between modern and ancient individuals. However, these destructive methods cannot guarantee the generation of viable data and are often limited to small numbers of individuals as they are costly to perform at a large scale. These studies have typically also worked in a theoretical framework that is focused on homogenous native populations vs homogenous migrants without considering more nuanced views of population or cultural variation. The Early Medieval kingdom of Northumbria was a frontier zone during the Roman occupation of Britain, was formed from two minor Germanic kingdoms, Deira and Bernicia, and experienced Germanic, British, and Pictish influences throughout its existence. As such it does not fit this neat homogenous view of either the native or migrant populations.

Dental anthropology may be able to provide some of the nuance needed to examine this kingdom. Dental anthropology concerns itself with the anatomical structures, size, and shape of teeth within modern humans and other hominins. Researchers can use morphological data describing variations seen in dental shape can be used alongside biodistance analysis to statistically assess how (dis)similar individuals or populations are from each other, with this data being shown to be a reliable proxy for genetic data. However, this methodology has seen limited use in the British archaeological record. The primary aim of this project is to apply dental morphological analysis to individuals from Early Medieval Northumbrian cemeteries. Many of these individuals were recently re-examined as part Durham University’s Leverhulme funded project People and Place: The Creation of the Kingdom of Northumbria which included scientific dating and isotope analysis to look at mobility. Combining the results of the dental morphological analysis with the previously obtained mobility isotopes and scientific dating will refine our understanding of population movements and relationships, and social versus biological identity within central Britain during the Early Medieval period. It will also highlight the benefits of applying dental anthropological methods to the British archaeological record.

Academic Background

  • MSc Forensic Anthropology, Bournemouth University (2015-2016)
  • BSc Archaeology, Cardiff University (2012-2015)

Research interests

  • Human Osteology
  • Dental Morphology
  • Archaeological Applications of Isotopes
  • 'Race', Migration and Kinship
  • Palaeopathology

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