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Professor in the Department of Archaeology+44 (0) 191 33 41145
Member of the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies 


Professor Robin Coningham holds UNESCO's 2014 Chair on Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage, the Chair of Early Medieval Archaeology and is Associate Director (World Heritage) in Durham's Institute of Mediaeval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS) and Co-Director of Durham's MA International Cultural Heritage Management programme.


I studied Archaeology and Anthropology at King's College, Cambridge and, after six-months as Graduate Scholar at the British Institute in Eastern Africa, returned to King's as a College Scholar to complete a PhD under the supervision of the late F.R. Allchin, FBA. I then joined the Department of Archaeological Sciences at Bradford as a Lecturer in 1994, becoming Professor of South Asian Archaeology and Head of Department in 2004. I moved to a Chair at Durham in 2005, and was Head of the Department of Archaeology between 2007 and 2008, before becoming Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Head of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Health, a post which I held until 2015. I was appointed the inaugural holder of UNESCO’s Chair on Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage in 2014.


  • Cities and Landscapes of Ancient Southern Asia

I am committed to archaeological field research and, with colleagues from across South Asia and beyond, have conducted fieldwork in Bangladesh, India, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka aimed at enhancing our understanding of the developmental sequences of urbanization in Southern Asia, both within cities but also across their hinterlands. Applying science-based archaeology, this has resulted in the generation of the first chronometrically-dated sequences for a number of key ancient city sites, including Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka's earliest capital, and the Bala Hisar of Charsadda in the Vale of Peshawar, one of the great sites on Pakistan's portion of the Silk Road. The artefact typologies from these excavations have, in turn, shed new light on the antiquity and changing character of Indian Ocean trade. Our UNESCO Chair team has also started to focus on the sequences of Medieval cities in South Asia, including at Pashupati in Kathmandu and Polonnaruva, Anuradhapura's successor in Sri Lanka. More recently in Nepal, our team has undertaken a geophysical survey of the site of Tilaurakot-Kapilavastu, followed up by targeted excavation. This programme of investigation has resulted in the compilation of the most complete plan of an Early Historic city in South Asia, complete with streets, buildings, a reservoir and central walled palatial compound.

Aware of the intimate relationship between cities and their hinterlands, we have also studied the impact of urbanization on extra-mural settlements and sites across the broader landscape. In Sri Lanka, this led to the reassessment of our understanding of the centralizing role played by Buddhist monasteries within Anuradhapura’s hinterland as well as the role of irrigation in sustaining colonization in the island’s Dry Zone. More broadly, research with colleagues there has led to recognition of the presence of what we termed in an article in the journal Antiquitylow-density, dispersed agrarian urbanism’, with distinct similarities shared with other tropical forest settings in Southeast Asia and Central America. As shrines and pilgrimage centres can also present their own centralizing forces and their own developmental trajectories, we are studying the emergence of Lumbini, Birthplace of the Buddha, and its landscape of pilgrimage with UNESCO and colleagues from the Government of Nepal. Drawing these threads together in a critical synthesis of the archaeology of South Asia from the Neolithic period (c.6500 BCE), when domestication began, to the spread of Buddhism accompanying the Mauryan Emperor Asoka's reign (third century BCE), my Cambridge University Press book 'The Archaeology of South Asia: From the Indus to Asoka c.6500 BCE - 200 CE' with Ruth Young explores how narratives of increasing urban complexity, continuity and transformation have been formulated.

  • Archaeological Practice, International Cultural Heritage Management, Heritage Protection, Community Engagement and the UN's SDGs

Heritage and archaeology are drivers for Creative Economies and UNESCO recognises that their protection contributes to sustainable development. There is awareness that they play a unifying role in post-conflict responses but also that unethical or unbalanced promotion may alienate communities, generate conflict and the destruction of heritage. Recognising threats to heritage from accelerated development, I started working with UNESCO in 1997 and, since then, have participated in over 30 UNESCO missions. These have included the refreshing of the Government of Pakistan’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites and participation in the Second Scientific Committee on the nomination of the Qhapaq Nau (Inka Highway). I serve as Advisor in Archaeology for UNESCO’s International Scientific Committee for Lumbini, the Birthplace of Lord Buddha and have co-directed its archaeological programme in southern Nepal since 2010, helping to delicately balance the develop needs of residents and pilgrims with the protection of sites and monuments. This is not a unique situation, as similar challenges have been identified with colleagues at World Heritage Sites in India. During this time, we have co-produced methods to enhance the long-term protection of heritage sites as well as reflecting on the nature of their threats, and ways in which resident communities and stakeholders can be better engaged through the synchronisation of programmes of archaeological activities alongside active community engagement, with the co-production of museum displays and heritage festivals. These themes are further explored in the book 'Archaeology, Cultural Heritage Protection and Community Engagement in South Asia', which was co-produced with Nick Lewer and colleagues. 

Sadly, in addition to the threats identified above, heritage is also threatened by natural disasters and by conscious targeting during conflict. While archaeologists have traditionally played a secondary role in post-disaster interventions within South Asia, we were mobilized by UNESCO and the Government of Nepal after the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake in Nepal. A human and cultural disaster, our team worked with colleagues to develop practical field training with non-academic collaborators to focus on learning from the evaluation of foundations of collapsed structures as well as on salvaging material to assist post-earthquake plans for its reconstruction. In Kathmandu, we co-produced methods to enhance the long-term protection of heritage sites as well as disseminating post-disaster subsurface heritage protocols within post-earthquake contexts. While working at a number of sites across the Valley, our focused study of the ancient Kasthamandap with engineers and architects has contributed to its reconstruction as discussed in our paper 'Reducing Disaster Risk to Life and Livelihoods by Evaluating the Seismic Safety of Kathmandu’s Historic Urban Infrastructure: enabling an interdisciplinary pilot' in the Journal of the British Academy in 2019. With colleagues, we then successfully adapted and applied these methodologies to Jaffna Fort, a Sri Lankan heritage monument, badly damaged during the Civil War. 

Published in a special 'Climate, disaster and Risk' issue of the Journal of the British Academy to accompany the COP26 Summit in Glasgow , Lisa Lucero and I explore three examples of ruined and "lost cities" – Kathmandu in Nepal, Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka and Classic Mayan cities of Central America – to reflect on the lessons they bear for strengthening modern cities' disaster resilience and the important role that archaeologists and historians can play in future sustainable urban planning, contributing towards UN Sustainable Development Goal 11.

Following an invitation to participate in the ICOMOS-UNESCO-IPCC International Co-Sponsored Meeting on Culture, Heritage, and Climate Change in December 2021, our case study featured as only one of 13 selected for their scientific output 'Global Research and Action Agenda on Culture, Heritage, and Climate Change'; in it, we argue that "...archaeology and heritage science, although infrequently mobilised, are uniquely placed to assist in providing a fuller understanding of the impact of climate change on urban infrastructure in the past; they also facilitate reflection on lessons of adaptation and resilience for modern cities and their inhabitants..." and that "..In the process we reframe how archaeology and heritage science can play a greater role in future sustainable urban planning – and in the move of practitioners from observation to action.....".

Reflecting on the relevance of the discipline of Archaeology to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals in a 2022 Editorial in Antiquity with Robert Witcher, we argue that if archaeology engages fully with the SDGs, it "can move beyond the assertion of its relevance, in order to realise its full potential to contribute to some of the most pressing global issues through its teaching, research and practice". 

Closer to home, I am also the Associate Director of Durham's Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS) with a portfolio which includes Durham's own UNESCO World Heritage Site and co-founded the Centre for the Ethics and Cultural Heritage (CECH) in Durham with the Philospher Geoffrey Scarre; jointing publishing 'Appropriating the Past: Philosophical Perspectives on the Practice of Archaeology' with Cambridge University Press in 2013.

With partners across County Durham, the UNESCO Chair Team and colleagues in Durham University are currently implementing a project funded by Research England's Policy Support Fund to scope and pilot a shared regional approach for the collection, analysis and sharing of the social and economic impact of cultural and natural heritage in County Durham. This includes the co-design and trialing of the UN's Sustainable Development Goal framework as a shared approach for recognising and framing impact within County Durham.

I believe strongly in bridging the gap between theory and practice teaching, and co-direct Durham's MA International Cultural Heritage Management programme.


In addition to these activities, I am a member of the National Academies’ Resilient Futures Steering Group, UNESCO's Scientific Committee for Lumbini, the UK National Commission for UNESCO's Expert Network, Durham's World Heritage Site Coordinating Committee and chair the Antiquity Trust. 

Former posts include membership of AHRC’s GCRF Strategic Advisory Group, the British Academy's Sponsored Institutes and Society’s Committee (BASIS), the British Academy's International Engagement Committe, Honorary Secretary of the British Institute of Persian Studies, and Trustee of the Ancient India and Iran Trust (Cambridge). I acted as a QAA Specialist in Archaeology for seven Departmental reviews and was a QAA Review Chair for a further five reviews.


I would be pleased to supervise postgraduate students interested in the archaeological visibility of Buddhism; caste and the development of craft specialisation; Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea trade; international cultural resource management; world heritage protection, the Later Prehistory and Early Historic archaeology of Southern Asia (from Iran to Myanmar); politics, identity and archaeology; Urbanisation; the Prehistory of Iran; post-conflict archaeology; post-disaster archaeology; sustainable pilgrimage; and UNESCO and World Heritage. Please email me about potential topics.


Jiajing Mo, M.A.,The Changing Landscape in Western Nepal Terai in the Second Half of the First Millennium

K. Weise, MArch., When the Shaking Stops: an evaluation of post-earthquake rehabilitation of the Kasthamandap in Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square


Prof. H. Fazeli, Department of Archaeology, University of TehranIran. Social complexity and craft specialisation in the Neolithic and Early Chalcolithic period in the central plateau of Iran (2001).

Prof. R. Young, Department of Archaeology, University of Leicester, UK. Food procurement strategies in Iron Age Pakistan (2000).

Assoc. Prof. H. Karimian, Department of Archaeology, University of Tehran, Iran. Space and society in Mediaeval Bam (2003).

Dr. L. Ford, Ceramic Specialist, West Yorkshire Archaeology Unit, UK. Towards the scientific provenancing of Rouletted Ware (2004).

Assoc. Prof. Dr M. Mortazavi, Department of Archaeology, University of Sistan and Baluchistan, Iran. System collapse? A reassessment of the end of the civilisations of southeast Iran in the second millennium BC (2004).

Andrew Newton, MPhil Politics and archaeology in nineteenth and twentieth century Germany (2005).

Prof. P. Gunawardhana, Department of Archaeology, University of Kaleniya, Sri Lanka. Monastic planning and sectarianism in Sri Lanka (2006).

Assoc. Prof. Abed Al Raouf Mayyas, Queen Rania Faculty of Tourism and Heritage, Hashemite University, Jordan. Late Prehistoric ceramic function and provenance in the Tehran Plain (2007).

Dr. Mark Manual, Department of Archaeology, University of Durham, UK. Normative models and the social organisation of the Harappan Civilisation (2008).

Dr. Keir Strickland, Senior Lecturer, Department of Archaeology, La Trobe University, Australia. The Jungle Tide: Urban Collapse in Early Medieval Sri Lanka (2011).

Dr. Saud Al-Ghamdi, M.A., Senior Research Archaeologist, Qatar Museums Authority, Qatar. Neolithic settlement in the south-west of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (2011).

Dr. Cesar Villalobos Acosta, M.A., Center for Anthropological Studies, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), Mexico. Archaeology in circulation: nationalism and tourism in post-Revolutionary Mexico (2011).

Dr. J. Marshall, M.A., Missing links: demic diffusion and the development of agriculture in the Central Iranian Plateau (2012).

Dr. C. Davis, M.A., Department of Archaeology, University of Durham, UK. Early Buddhist monasteries in Sri Lanka: a landscape approach (2013).

Dr. R. Daroogheh-Nokhodcheri, M.A., Research Fellow, Iran Heritage Foundation, UK. Nationalism, politics and the practice of archaeology: the case study of Iran (2014).

Dr. J. Tremblay, M.A., Department of Archaeology, University of Durham, UK. The Development and spread of Buddhism: an archaeological evaluation (2015). 

Dr. A. Margussian, M.A., Department of Archaeology, University of Durham, UK. Ceramic typologies and stylistic phylogenesis: the prehistoric ceramics of the Central Plateau of Iran (2017).

Dr. J. Shoebridge, M.A., University Library and Collections, Durham University, UK. Arikamedu Type 10 and the reconstruction of networks of Indian Ocean trade (2018).

Dr. Anouk Lafortune-Bernard, M.A., Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Team, European Commission, Brussels. Mastering the master plan of Lumbini: towards developing an evidence-based approach to evaluating the economic and social impact of site development on local communities (2020).


Research interests

  • UNESCO and World Heritage management
  • International Cultural Heritage Management
  • Sustainable pilgrimage
  • Community engagement
  • Post-conflict archaeology and heritage
  • Post-disaster archaeology and heritage
  • Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage
  • Later Prehistory and Early Historic archaeology of Southern Asia (from Iran to Myanmar)
  • Archaeological visibility of Buddhism
  • Caste and the development of craft specialisation
  • Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea Trade
  • Urbanisation
  • Politics, identity and archaeology

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