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Wasted London: Rubbish and Recycling from the Romans to the Present

Birkbeck, University of London, and Museum of London Archaeology are pleased to announce the availability of a fully-funded collaborative doctoral studentship from October 2021 under the AHRC’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Scheme. The start date is 1 October 2021 and the deadline for applications is 1 June 2021. Interviews will take place in late June 2021.


This studentship will focus on an issue of pressing social and environmental importance, namely how waste is handled in cities. Examining archaeological evidence from London, it will provide a unique long-term perspective on the ways waste been fundamental to the formation of the urban landscape and its archaeological record. This project will be jointly supervised by Professor Jen Baird and Dr Esther Breithoff at Birkbeck and Michael Marshall and Nigel Jeffries of MOLA. The student will be expected to spend time at both Birkbeck and MOLA, as well as becoming part of the wider cohort of CDP funded students across the UK. The studentship can be studied either full or part-time.

We encourage the widest range of potential students to study for this CDP studentship and are committed to welcoming students from different backgrounds to apply. We particularly welcome applications from Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds as they are currently underrepresented at this level in this area. Students should have a Masters Degree in a relevant subject or be able to demonstrate equivalent experience in a professional setting.

Advice for Applicants

Project Overview

  • Since London's foundation in the Roman era, waste has been fundamental to the formation of the urban landscape and its archaeological record. It has been deliberately incorporated into the very fabric of the city through mass movement of rubbish and rubble for clearance, reclamation and landscaping. While discard is often envisaged as marking the end of object biographies, and the loss of cultural value, waste is culturally constituted and thus social and economic information is embedded in acts of discard. Moreover, waste remains actively entangled within networks of human-thing relationships. It is deliberately managed, moved and placed and it is often re-encountered; it can be purposefully reused and recycled and has both short and long-term impacts on urban populations and landscapes as pollution. 
  • This project will take on the challenge of examining waste and its relationship to the development of London over the longue durée, engaging with new understandings of waste as an integral part of human-environmental relations that emerge from current literature on the Anthropocene. It will compare these perspectives with alternative ontologies of waste, including both historical emic and archaeological etic categories, exploring different ways in which these frameworks can be applied to the archaeological record and to ongoing debates about waste in the modern world. 
  • Waste is a prevailing concern in London archaeology because of its importance both within past societies and as a mechanism by which the archaeological record is formed. Accordingly, it has been explored in relation to particular periods or areas of London, such as the Roman Walbrook or post-medieval Lambeth. However, a broader social and economic examination of the phenomenon over the long-term, and at an urban scale, has not yet been undertaken. Such an undertaking offers massive opportunities both for comparative social analysis and for the development of more robust archaeological taxonomies of waste and taphonomic models which could inform many other areas of archaeological research. 
  • Such an ambitious approach is made feasible by the unparalleled quality and consistency of data collected in central London over more than four decades, much now available in digital formats, and also the range of academic and professional support available within the context of this CDP project. The student will analyse waste deposition in the City of London and its environs from the Roman period to the present day, through an examination of archaeological contexts and assemblages excavated and held by MOLA. This will enable a broad-brush landscape perspective on the 'what', 'where' and 'when' of waste practices. It will be complemented by targeted case studies producing more detailed analyses of individual assemblages and features (middens, rubbish pits, cesspits, etc.) aimed at better understanding the 'how' and 'who' of deposition by unpicking biographies and formation processes and enabling an understanding of instances of recycling of sites and materials through time. 
  • In doing so, the project will enable a re-evaluation of the wasted landscapes of London over the long term, and will contribute to broader debates in archaeological practice (e.g. around recording, sampling and retention policies) and thought (e.g. consumption, depositional practice, landscapes) and even to contemporary modern waste management and recycling policies. By focussing on an issue of pressing social and environmental importance and providing a unique long- term perspective it also has the potential to champion archaeology's broader relevance to modern society. 

Research questions

  • Can we distinguish waste disposal from other forms of deposition within the archaeological record (or distinguish sub-types of waste)? 
  • How does the composition and scale of waste change over the longue durée and what can this tell us about contemporary attitudes and economies? 
  • How was waste treated and where was it deposited? How do these intentional social depositional practices contribute to its definition? 
  • How has this affected what is valued and conserved (and what is not) in the urban environment? 
  • How have socio-material and spatial practices associated with waste disposal shaped ancient and modern London? 
  • Can long-term waste disposal patterns inform contemporary waste management and recycling practices? 
  • How do our assumptions about waste shape our understanding of the archaeological record and impact on the practice of archaeological and heritage organisations?

Details of Award

  • CDP doctoral training grants fund full-time studentships for 45 months (3.75 years) or part-time equivalent. The studentship has the possibility of being extended for an additional 3 months to provide professional development opportunities, or up to 3 months of funding may be used to pay for the costs the student might incur in taking up professional development opportunities.
  • The award pays tuition fees up to the value of the full-time home UKRI rate for PhD degrees. Research Councils UK Indicative Fee Level for 2021/22 is £4,500 (and a CDP maintenance payment of £550/year). If the studentship is awarded to an international student Birkbeck will waive the difference between home and overseas fees.
  • The award pays full maintenance for all students both home and international students. The National Minimum Doctoral Stipend for 2021/22 is £15,609, plus London weighting of £2000/year. 
  • The student is eligible to receive an additional travel and related expenses grant during the course of the project courtesy of MOLA worth up to £1000 per year for 3.75 years (45 months).
  • Further details can be found on the UKRI website
  • The project can be undertaken on a full-time or part-time basis. The successful candidate will be eligible to participate in CDP Cohort Development events.


  • This studentship is open to both Home and International applicants. 
  • To be classed as a home student, candidates must meet the following criteria: 
    • Be a UK National (meeting residency requirements), or
    • Have settled status, or 
    • Have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements), or
    • Have indefinite leave to remain or enter
    • Further guidance on eligibility criteria.
  • We are committed to welcoming students from different backgrounds to apply. We particularly welcome applications from Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds as they are currently underrepresented at this level in this area. 
  • International applications, including EU applicants, must provide a copy of one of the accepted English language tests at the point of application. Read more about entry requirement for international students.
  • Applicants should ideally have or expect to receive a relevant Masters-level qualification or be able to demonstrate equivalent experience in a professional setting. Suitable disciplines are flexible but might include Archaeology or Anthropology.
  • Applicants must be able to demonstrate an interest in the museum sector and potential and enthusiasm for developing skills more widely in related areas. 
  • As a collaborative award, students will be expected to spend time at both the Birkbeck and MOLA.
  • All applicants must meet UKRI terms and conditions for funding.

How to apply

  • Please apply through Birkbeck’s PhD programme, naming two academic referees. 
  • The application will prompt you to confirm details of any scholarships or grants (for your proposed study at Birkbeck). Please ensure you respond with: AHRC CDP BBK/MOLA. If this section is not clearly marked, your application may not be picked up for assessment.
  • Please also upload a single research proposal document (uploaded under ‘research proposal') including your CV, a covering letter including a statement of your qualifications for, and reasons for interest in, the project, and a research proposal up to 1,500 words. It can also outline how you might wish to refine the project so as to meet specific research aims of your own.

Further information