The Institute was established in 1990 through a generous benefaction from the late Dr D. M. McDonald, a well-known and successful industrialist. The benefaction enabled the University to construct purpose-built premises for the Institute which include research rooms and laboratories, together with storage space, a seminar room and a modest library.
The Institute provides support for Cambridge-based researchers in the various branches of archaeology, with a particular interest in the archaeology of early human cognition. The Institute emphasises the value of archaeological science, and contains laboratories for geoarchaeology, archaeozoology, archaeobotany, and artefact analysis. The extensive faunal remains collection of the Department of Archaeology is now based within the McDonald Institute and a corresponding reference collection of plant remains is being assembled. There are also research rooms for post-excavation work on major field projects.
The Institute is primarily a centre for post-doctoral research though it does provide facilities for a number of PhD students whose research fits within existing McDonald Institute themes. In addition to providing space for projects and researchers, the McDonald Institute also has an annual programme of grants for Cambridge-based projects, and an active publications division which produces the McDonald Institute Monograph series and the twice-yearly Cambridge Archaeological Journal.