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Rocky coast geomorphology: the key to unlocking our archaeological heritage

This research project is in competition for funding with one or more projects available across the NERC GW4 Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP). Usually the projects which receive the best applicants will be awarded the funding. Find out more information about the DTP and how to apply.

Application deadline: 7 January 2019

Start date: October 2019

DTP research theme: Changing planet


Archaeological coastal sites play a crucial role in the cultural heritage of our country. At Tintagel, Cornwall, the geomorphological evolution of the rocky coastline is critical to interpreting the site. The early medieval citadel was built here because of the strategic headland. We cannot reconstruct the history of this nationally important site without understanding the geomorphology.

Cliff erosion and the risks to coastal property has long been a topic of investigation; however, in the context of climate change, there is a limited understanding of the vulnerability of rocky coastlines. In situ and remotely sensed techniques have recently been adopted to understand wave-beach-cliff interaction. This project would extend our understanding of these dynamics to plunging coastal cliffs (with no beach frontage), where measurements have not yet been obtained.

The knowledge that the studentship will bring will enable us to understand how to conserve coastal heritage for future generations.

Project aims and methods

The main aims of the project are to:

  • Determine the combined role of waves and structural geology in influencing the long-term morphological evolution of plunging coastal cliffs in a high wave energy environment.
  • Couple the archaeological and geomorphological chronology of Tintagel.
  • Understand how the coastline is likely to evolve with the influence of increased storminess and sea level rise.
  • Provide an interactive online 3D model for visitors, schools and local managers, illustrating the archaeology and geomorphology of the site in the past, present and future.

These aims will be achieved by:

  • Collating existing and historic mapping of the site in order to determine a recent (c. 200-300 years) geo-chronology of coastal evolution.
  • Improving our understanding of wave-cliff impacts on a highly exposed stretch of coastline by deploying in situ (pressure transducers, seismometers) and remote sensing instrumentation (Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle, Terrestrial Laser Scanner).
  • Establishing appropriate wave-cliff impact metrics based on the field observations for process-based cliff erosion modelling. These will be used to hindcast and forecast coastal cliff evolution.
  • Acquiring digital elevation models over a 2-year period (in addition to existing DEMs), using UAV, TLS and photogrammetry, to determine cliff erosion volumes and analyse structurally controlled cliff failures.


This would suit a candidate with a strong background in field-based structural geology/geomorphology/coastal processes. The archaeological aspect of the work would require a demonstrable interest in heritage. The candidate would need experience using mapping software and handling large data sets (e.g. Unmanned aerial vehicle data, seismic data).

CASE or Collaborative Partner

Tintagel is in the custodianship of English Heritage (EH), an independent charity linked to the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission (a UK Research Council-approved Independent Research Organisation).

The successful doctoral candidate would be supported by English Heritage at the site of Tintagel (site facilities including storage and cafeteria) and by the EH co-supervisor Nick Holder and other members of staff. EH intends to host the interactive 3D model of the site (one of the project outputs) on the Tintagel website.


You will receive full training in the deployment of the Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle, Terrestrial Laser Scanner, seismometer, and pressure transducers from Cardiff University and the University of Exeter. In addition to this Exeter will provide structural geological mapping assistance and software training.

Cardiff School of Earth and Ocean Sciences will ensure you are trained in processing and interpreting seismic and hydrodynamic data.

English Heritage will provide training in mapping software.

Working at Tintagel, you will also gain experience in archaeology and heritage conservation.

References and background reading

  • Brain, M.J., Rosser, N.J., Norman, E.C., and Petley, D.N., (2014), Are microseismic ground displacements a significant geomorphic agent? Geomorphology, 207, pp. 161–173.
  • Earlie, C.S., Young, A.P., Masselink, G., Russell, P.E., (2015) Coastal cliff erosion and response to extreme storm waves, Geophysical Research Letters, DOI 10.1002/2014GL062534
  • Earlie, C., Masselink, G., and Russell, P. (2018) The role of beach morphology on coastal cliff erosion under extreme waves. Earth Surf. Process. Landforms, 43: 1213–1228. doi: 10.1002/esp.4308.
  • Naylor, L., Stephenson, W., and Trenhaile, A.S., (2010). Rock coast geomorphology: recent advances and future research directions. Geomorphology, 114, pp. 3–11.
  • Thomas. C (1993), Tintagel: Arthur and Archaeology, Batsford/ English Heritage, London.
  • Young, A.P., Guza, R.T., Dickson, M.E., O’Reilly, W.C., and Flick, R.E., (2013) Ground motions on rocky, cliffed, and sandy shorelines generated by ocean waves, Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, 118, pp. 6590–6620.
  • Vann Jones, E.C., Rosser, N.J., Brain, M.J., Petley, D.,N, (2015) Quantifying the environmental controls on erosion of hard rock cliff, Marine Geology, 365, pp 230–242.


Dr Claire Earlie

Dr Claire Earlie

Lecturer in Coastal Processes

+44 (0)29 2087 5563
Dr David Thompson

Dr David Thompson

Lecturer in Geodynamics

+44 (0)29 2087 4283


Programme information

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