Project highlights

  • Crete is the home of Europe’s oldest civilisation – the Minoans – and has a uniquely rich history of subsequent cultures (see Fig. 1): including Dorian, Mycenaean, Classical Greek, Roman, Venetian, Ottoman, modern Greek.  
  • You will be part of an effort to generate the first high resolution palaeo-climate records from Crete (from lake and cave sediments, stalagmites, tree-rings), to study the impact of extreme events (e.g. droughts and wild-fires) on ancient societies.  
  • Cretan palaeo-climate records will deepen our understanding of the vulnerabilities, responses, and resilience of the oldest European societies to climate change. This resonates with current concerns over the vulnerability of the Mediterranean region to anthropogenic climate change and will ensure broad public engagement.  


Climate has influenced human society in the Eastern Mediterranean for millennia. The region is imperative for studying European societal change, from the first stepping points out of Africa to some of the earliest agricultural villages and cities. Crete is critical in this context; it is where the oldest European civilisation, the Minoans, built several “palace sites” (centres of consumption, storage and distribution of agricultural products), and it contains a rich history of subsequent cultures. Recently published palaeoclimate records from Crete point towards significant climate impacts during the last 10,000 years (Ghilardi et al., 2018; Ghilardi et al., 2019; Jouffroy-Bapicot et al., 2021). But there is still a need for well-dated, independent, spatially distributed palaeo-climatic records from Crete. These are needed to constrain the seasonal to decadal scale extreme climate events (droughts, wildfires) that are more likely to have impacted human societies over a single lifetime. Distributed records are necessary because Crete is a large island located in a climatically transitional zone with complex mountainous terrain (max alt: 2,456 m), yielding a mosaic of microclimates (e.g. av. precipitation varies from 440mm/yr in SE Crete to 2000mm/yr in uplands of NW Crete). Our project aims to characterise this complexity through independent but complementary proxy records which include lake records, cave stalagmites and tree rings. An intriguing aspect is that majority of ancient Cretan settlements were established in dry, water-scarce sites, unlike the ancient Egyptians or Sumerians, the Minoans did not have access to large scale freshwater systems (e.g. the Nile, or Tigris- Euphrates). How did they manage water? Did a drying climate and fires stress their water management systems and weaken their society, prior to the eruption of Santorini? Did extreme weather events contribute to conflict or changes in trade routes and diet for the Minoans and subsequent cultures? Fortunately, there are abundant opportunities to address these knowledge gaps and develop accurate records of hydro- climatic change from Crete, via lake and cave sediment, stalagmites and tree-rings.  

High-resolution terrestrial climate records are clearly required for meaningful comparison with Crete’s exquisitely rich archaeological and historical records. Your PhD will include a synthesis of existing climatic and archaeological data and targeted field expeditions to obtain additional material. Subsequent geochemical analyses will focus on the analysis of cave and lake sediments. These records provide a plethora of environmental information (including temperature, vegetation change and biomass burning) from preserved biomarkers and microfossils. Such lake records can then be compared to high resolution stalagmite and tree-ring records. 

Timeline showing climate change and civilizational change in Crete with accompanying photographs of archaeology and architecture,

Figure 1: Climatic and societal history of Crete (left-hand panels): Recently published lake records point to significant climatic changes on Crete during the Holocene (Ghilardi et al., 2018; Jouffroy-Bapicot et al., 2021). But well dated, high resolution Hydroclimate records from Crete are needed to compare with Crete’s exquisitely rich archaeological record, which includes abundant evidence of the importance of water management. Cretan Archaeology and History (right-hand images): A) Palaeolithic hand axe from south Crete5; B) Neolithic clay Goddess figurine, south Crete 8; C) Artists reconstruction of the Minoan Palace of Knossos, north Crete 10; D) Minoan water storage cistern at Zakros palace2; E)  The Minoan ‘Phaistos Disk’, southern Crete1; F) Clay tablet (ca. 3400BP) written in Linear B (the Myceanean script), Knossos, Crete 3; G) Lato4: one of several Dorian hill-top towns; H) Water cistern Lato, east Crete6; I) Gortyn, central Crete 7, gained prominence during Hellenistic through Roman Periods; J) Remains of a Roman aqueduct, Gortyn9; K) Theatre at Aptera, western Crete the settlement dates from 4400BP 11; L) Roman water cistern at Aptera (ca. 2100BP)12; M) Byzantine fortifications, Chania, western Crete (1300–1400BP)13; N) Byzantine water cistern, Areti Monastery, eastern Crete2; O) Venetian fortifications (1205-1669CE), Spinalonga, Crete14; P) Remnants of Venetian aqueduct, Karidaki, central Crete; Q) Ottoman drinking fountain, Ierapetra, Crete2; R) Ottoman reconstructed Foundana aqueduct at Aghia Irini, Central Crete. 

Figure Refs: 1: Wikipedia, P. D.-. Phaistos Disc (2019); 2: Markinos, Y., et al., Water History 8, 137-157,(2014);  3: Linear B Tablet. Ancient History Encyclopedia (2014). 4: Image from Lonely Planet; 5: Strasser, T. F. et al. Hesperia, 79, 145-190, (2010);  6 Mays, L. M. & Angelakis, A. N. Water 5, 1916-1940, (2013); 7                Ryckaert, M. (2009); 8 Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, (2014);  9 Schram, W. (2019);  10 Artists Reconstruction of the Palace of Knossos (Pinterest), (2019); 11 Neoskosmos. (2018);  12, 13, 14, Images from, (2019).



University of Birmingham


  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability
  • Dynamic Earth


Project investigator

James Bendle UOB ([email protected])


Dan Read CEH ([email protected])

Luisa Orsini UoB ([email protected] )

How to apply


The initial focus will be on biomarker and microfossil analyses of cave and lake sediments collected from Crete. This will include fieldwork to sample newly discovered cave sediment sequences and to collect cores from lakes in Crete. Biomarker analyses will include molecular and isotopic analyses of plant waxes, GDGTs, 3-OH-FAs and PAHs (in Birmingham and with collaborators, Seki, Zhou and Hou). Parallel microfossil analyses, led by Iliopoulos, will explore the preservation and potential of ostracods, pollen and other proxies. You will then generate complimentary environmental and ancient DNA records (with Orsini, Read, Zhang). You will explore correlations of the geochemical data to meteorological records from Crete and will then use instrumental era comparisons to develop and interpret longer time-scale (Holocene) climate and environmental reconstructions from Cretan lake sediments. You will work with the broader project team to synthesize your data with emerging data from stalagmites (Ersek) and tree-rings (Christopoulou).  

Training and skills

Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTCs) for participation in CENTA2-provided and ‘free choice’ external training. One CTC equates to 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.  

You will be trained in organic geochemistry, and bulk sedimentological methods (grain size) and molecular ecological techniques (eDNA and aDNA). You will also receive training in how to write and illustrate scientific papers, apply for grants and prizes, present work at conferences and scientific meetings, and network with peers and other scientists. There will be opportunities for undergraduate teaching and research supervision. These form the basis of an outstanding skill set, combining traditional and state- of-the-art techniques, that will facilitate a successful research career.  

Partners and collaboration

This project will be carried out in collaboration between University of Birmingham (Bendle, Orsini, biomarkers, DNA), CEH Wallingford (Read – DNA), Northumbria University (Ersek – stalagmites), the University of Patras (Iliopoulos – microfossils), Hokkaido University (compound specific isotopes), Lanzhou University (lake coring, 14C and OSL dating, GDGTs, aDNA: Chen, Zhou, Zhang) and the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Beijing (Hou – biomarkers).  

This represents excellent resources and expertise, with essential local support, collaboration and permissions (a Greek external supervisor who actively researches on Crete ).  

Further details

Further details on how to contact the supervisor for this project and how to apply for this project can be found here: 

For any enquiries related to this project please contact Dr James Bendle, University of Birmingham ([email protected]).

To apply to this project: 

  • You must include a CENTA studentship application form, downloadable from: CENTA Studentship Application Form 2024. 
  • You must include a CV with the names of at least two referees (preferably three) who can comment on your academic abilities. 
  • Please submit your application and complete the host institution application process via: Please select the PhD Geography and Environmental Science (CENTA) 2024/25 Apply Now button. The CENTA application form 2024 and CV can be uploaded to the Application Information section of the online form.  Please quote CENTA 2024-B2 when completing the application form. 

 Applications must be submitted by 23:59 GMT on Wednesday 10th January 2024. 

We particularly encourage applications from backgrounds underrepresented in Earth Science subjects.  

Possible timeline

Year 1

Cretan fieldwork, training in sample processing of sediment sample material, organic geochemical techniques and microfossils. Generate data from surface soil sediment samples, shallow cores and cave sequences and derive new calibrations. Laboratory visits with collaborators. 

Year 2

Cretan fieldwork, visits with collaborators. Present results at a domestic (BOGS) or smaller international meeting (Gordon conference) and prepare manuscript. Analysis of samples from deeper palaeoclimate archives. CENTA PhD project placement to generate an additional skill-set (transferable to industry) not directly related to the PhD.  

Year 3

Finish remaining analytical work, present results at an international conference. Write up results for final thesis and additional papers. 

Further reading

  1. Ghilardi, M., Psomiadis, D., Andrieu-Ponel, V., Colleu, M., Sotiropoulos, P., Longo, F., Rossi, A., Amato, V., Gasse, F., Sinibaldi, L., Renard, M., Bicket, A., Delanghe, D., Demory, F. and Fleury, J. (2018) First evidence of a lake at Ancient Phaistos (Messara Plain, South-Central Crete, Greece): Reconstructing paleoenvironments and differentiating the roles of human land-use and paleoclimate from Minoan to Roman times. Holocene 28, 1225-1244. 
  2. Ghilardi, M., Revelles, J., Glais, A., Theodorakopoulou, K., Theodoropoulou, T., Lespez, L., Longo, F., Rossi, A., Bellier, O., Benedetti, L. and Fleury, J. (2019) Reconstructing human-environment interactions in the western Messara Plain (Phaistos, Crete, Greece) from the emergence of city states to Byzantine times. Journal of Archaeological Science-Reports 26. 
  3. Jouffroy-Bapicot, I., Pedrotta, T., Debret, M., Field, S., Sulpizio, R., Zanchetta, G., Sabatier, P., Roberts, N., Tinner, W., Walsh, K. and Vanniere, B. (2021) Olive groves around the lake. A ten-thousand-year history of a Cretan landscape (Greece) reveals the dominant role of humans in making this Mediterranean ecosystem. Quaternary Science Reviews 267. 
  4. Castañeda, I. S. & Schouten, S. A review of molecular organic proxies for examining modern and ancient lacustrine environments. Quaternary Science Reviews 30, 2851-2891 (2011). 
  5. Katrantsiotis, C. et al. Eastern Mediterranean hydroclimate reconstruction over the last 3600 years based on sedimentary n-alkanes, their carbon and hydrogen isotope composition and XRF data from the Gialova Lagoon, SW Greece. Quaternary Science Reviews 194, 77-93, doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2018.07.008 (2018). 
  6. Markinos, Y., Angelakis, A. N., Christy, J. & Koutsoyiannis, D. Climatic variability and the evolution of water technologies in Crete, Hellas. Water History 8, 137-157, doi:10.1007/s12685-016-0159-9 (2014). 
  7. Rohling, E. J., Marino, G., Grant, K. M., Mayewski, P. A. & Weninger, B. A model for archaeologically relevant Holocene climate impacts in the Aegean-Levantine region (easternmost Mediterranean). Quaternary Science Reviews 208, 38-53, doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2019.02.009 (2019). 
  8. Moody, J. in Landscape and Land Use in Postglacial Greece   (eds C. Frederick & P. Halstead)  52-61 (Sheffield Round Table, 2000). 


A resurgence of covid-19 could impact international travel, for example to Crete for fieldwork. This can be mitigated by use of materials collected already (from collaborators and field-season 2022). During the last pandemic and lockdown, laboratory facilities were kept open and staffed, as much as possible, for time-limited projects, such as PhD theses.