The Geoarchaeology Program


The program here at the University of Washington is primarily a doctoral program in archaeology, with an emphasis in geoarchaeology for those that wish to pursue it. We believe firmly that geoarchaeology is really archaeology using adaptations of techniques and methods. Thus, the geoarchaeologists that come from this department examine archaeological questions by looking at sedimentological, stratigraphical, petrographic (mineralogy and petrology), geomorphological, and pedologic techniques. We are really doing archaeology, with a geological orientation.


The geoarchaeology program at UW was founded by Julie Stein, who taught the first class here in 1981 and is now the Director of the Burke Museum and no longer working with students. Julie was a student of George (Rip) Rapp, Herb Wright and Patty Jo Watson and is best known for her work on shell middens in the Pacific Northwest. Julie's contributions to the interdisciplinary field of archaeological geology were recognised in 1999 when she was awarded the Rip Rapp Archaeological Geology Award (Geological Society of America, Archaeological Geology Division). 

The geoarchaeology course at UW

The geoarchaeology course I teach is based on Julie Stein's curriculum and aims to give students an understanding of the application of geological approaches to archaeological problems. This course also provides a foundation of basic geoarchaeological lab skills to prepare students for advanced research. The course covers stratigraphic, sediment and soil nomenclature used in geoarchaeology, reviews different geomorphologic contexts of archaeological site location and formation and surveys applications of geophysical and geochemical techniques in archaeology.

Geoarchaeology in the UW graduate program

For the first two years in the graduate program, all archaeology graduate students are required to take a similar set of courses. Depending on the student's background (how much statistics and anthropology they have had) some classes may differ. The basic classes are four laboratory classes (bones, ceramics, lithics, and of course geoarchaeology) , two or three theory classes, a quantitative methods class, and thematic and regional classes. These courses prepare students for taking the comprehensive exam that must be taken at the beginning of the seventh quarter in residence (the beginning of Autumn quarter two years after arriving). The exam is difficult and most students take some of spring quarter and most of the summer to prepare. Passing the comprehensive exam is the requirement for receiving a master's degree. We also require that you write some sort of research report involving an original piece of research. But after the comps are passed you are done with the official requirements for the masters degree.

Related courses

Although we do not require that geoarchaeology students have geology or pedology courses before they are admitted, after the comprehensive exams these students should expect to take at least three of the following geoscience courses (Stratigraphy, Depositional Environments, Great Geological Issues, Fluvial Geomorphology, and Geological Time) and 3 pedology courses (Soil Genesis and Classification, Field Survey of Wildland Soils, and Forest Soil Fertility and Chemistry). If you are interested in mineralogy and petrology, then optical mineralogy and work with SEM and ICP is also recommended. Students work with me to design their programs to fit individual needs and backgrounds. This program thus afford a student great flexibility, but only after they have received a heavy dose of basic archaeological theory and practical laboratory knowledge.

The Geoarchaeology Lab

The Geoarchaeology Laboratory in the department is set up to do basic chemistry, particle size analysis, and thin-section preparation. For detailed chemical work a partnership with the sediment labs in other locations has been negotiated. This arrangement allows students access to better equipment. For example, we have a partnership with Materials Science to use their thermal analyzer and X-Ray diffraction equipment. Earth and Space Sciences allows students access to their sample preparation facilities, particle size analysers and isotope equipment. As the number of geoarchaeology students grow, the demand for our laboratory equipment increases and necessary arrangements are made.


Most of our graduate students receive some sort of financial assistance or apply for financial aid in the form of work-study positions that allow students to work in our labs. The Work-Study applications must be filed in the Spring in the year before new students arrive. However, the funds are small and competition for them is great. Please discuss with me opportunities for financial assistance.

The Quaternary Research Center

The Quaternary Research Center (QRC) here at the University of Washington is not a degree-granting department. It is a research center. Although you cannot receive a degree from the QRC, it offers many opportunities such as scholars participating in QRC seminars and lecture series. This research center gives our students exposure to the newest ideas, and collegial contacts. Obviously the QRC is a benefit to anyone interested in geoarchaeology, but not part of the official program.

Prospective students

If you’d like more information about graduate study in geoarchaeology at UW, you can easily contact me using the form below.