Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art

Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art

The Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art (RLAHA) is an key part of the School of Archaeology, with the laboratories and other facilities to support research involving the use of scientific methods within Archaeology.  Founded in 1955, it played a key role in pioneering scientific approaches in interdisciplinary research, and today provides a unique environment for state-of-the-art research in this area.

The main laboratories and study areas for graduate students of Archaeological Science are based in the Dyson Perrins building, adjacent to the Departments of Earth Sciences and Geography, with which there are close ties and some shared facilities.  Just across the road in 1 South Parks Rd, are the seminars and teaching space for Masters students in Archaeological Science.  The RLAHA includes the following main elements:

  • The Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU), including an MICADAS AMS for radiocarbon measurement, associated sample pre-treatment facilities, compound specific analysis facilities (HPLC, GC-MS, SFE/SFC).
  • The Wellcome Trust Palaeogenomics & Bio-Archaeology Research Network  (PalaoBARN) is based here, with its specially built ancient DNA facility in another building nearby.
  • The Bioarchaeology laboratory, including access to chemical preparation areas and facilities for stable isotope analysis.
  • Tephrochronology facilities including an electron microprobe and dedicated laboratory for the preparation of crypto-tephra samples.
  • The Luminescence Laboratory, with facilities for Optically Stimulated Luminescence dating and for research into novel luminescence techniques.
  • Materials analysis laboratories with the facilities to use many different techniques (SEM, light microscopy, XRF) for the study of a whole range of archaeological materials.

The RLAHA is there to provide a suitable environment for anything from large research projects to student projects. It is also central to our teaching in Archaeological Science.

Michael Tite the first Edward Hall Professor of Archaeological Science writes: 

A physicist, Lord Cherwell, who as Professor Lindemann was Director of the Clarendon Laboratory, was a prime mover in the creation of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art. Lord Cherwell was concerned by the implied lesser status of the sciences in academic circles, and wanted to show that science could make significant contributions to research in subjects such as archaeology. As a result, he initiated research into the development of an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer for the non-destructive analysis of archaeological material with Edward (Teddy) Hall as the responsible DPhil student. In addition to the analysis of ancient pottery and coins, the equipment was used to show that chromium had been used to stain the Piltdown skull, suggesting that the skull had been tampered with, thus providing one of the early pieces of evidence that Piltdown man was a forgery.

In consequence of this research, Lord Cherwell consulted with Christopher Hawkes, the Professor of European Archaeology, and at a dinner at Christ Church, the two of them plus Teddy Hall plotted to create the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art,  the Research Laboratory finally being established in 1955 with Teddy Hall, who was now Dr Hall, as its first Director. As far as its administration was concerned, the Research Laboratory did not come under either Physics or Archaeology, but was regulated by a committee of the General Board, and this arrangement continued until just before Teddy Hall’s (now Professor Hall) retirement in 1989 when the Research Laboratory became affiliated to the Committee for Archaeology.

Subsequently, Professor Hawkes was responsible for coining the word Archaeometry as the title for what, in 1958, started as the Bulletin of the Research Laboratory and later became an international journal.  

Finally, before retiring, Professor Hall raised the necessary funding to establish a Chair in Archaeological Science, something that was especially crucial since Professor Hall himself had never received a salary from the University. Thus, in 1989, Michael Tite was appointed as the first Edward Hall Professor of Archaeological Science and Director of the Research Laboratory.