Use-wear analysis research at the Institute of Archeology, NCU

Use-wear analysis is a method allowing for interpretation of functions of primeval non-metal tools on the basis of analysis of traces occurring on them in the course of their usage. The scope of the method includes also studies on damage occurring on artifacts because of their deposition in soil, or being a result of transport, and also problems related to their production (Korobkowa G. F. 1999, s. 11).

The beginnings of functional research date back to XIXth century. Microscope was not used for this purpose then, but one based on ethnographic analogies, giving the primeval tools names borrowed from tasks for which used were their counterparts by archaic societies. In this way, to an archeologist’s dictionary introduced were terms like scraper or stylus. More important works of this period are by: J. Lubbock (1864), J. Evans (1872) and W. G. Smith (1874).

First typically usewear analysis observations were made by W. Greenwell (1865), who pointed to the rounding of edges of some of Paleolithic scrapers. Soon after, J. Evans (1872, s. 261, 279-280) noticed the presence of linear traces. Simultaneously, experimental research began, the aim of which was a construction of a comparative base for primeval tool analysis. A breakthrough for this method was published 1957 work by S. A. Semenov „Pierwobytnaja technika”, translated for the first time to English in 1964. The author (widely considered to be the father of use-wear analysis) as the first fully used the results of microanalysis of experimental tools and systematized use-wear traces characteristic for particular groups of functional tools. His work was considered highly significant and resulted in intensification of use-wear research. The next step in the development of this method were works of by L. H. Keeley (1976; 1980). He employed microscopes on a larger scale, which allowed to obtain large magnifications (above 200x), what in turn allowed for a precise analysis of various types of polishes and became a stimulus to begin specialized research on their particular types and the process of formation. The direction to this works was given by arrangements made during the first large international traceological conference, which took place in March 1977 at the Simon Fraser’s University in Canada. The delivered lectures have been published in 1979, and edited by Briana Hayden.

Currently, two use-wear analysis “schools” are distinguished: the so-called St. Peterbur (low-power) one and Western European (high-power) one. The first one bases on methods developed by Siemionow, the other – promotes the methodology of Keeley. Both differ in the theoretical scope of applied magnifications and the apparata used (por. Vaughan P. C. 1985, p. 10). The division is not reflected in current research (see Małecka-Kukawka J. 2001, p. 10). For properly conducted microscopic analysis requires the use of both small and large magnifications (see Ramos Millán A. 1990, p. 32). The first ones are useful in the course of preliminary observations, the aim of which is the identification of products bearing any traces of using and the localization of areas potentially used. They are also necessary during the observations of use retouch (see Vaughan P. C. 1985, p. 11). Large magnifications are usually essential in polish analyses and hence the interpretation of function.

Use-wear analysis is underlined by an assumption that the treatment of each material with the use of flint tools leaves characteristic traces on it, informing about the type of performed task, the manner in which a tool was used and finally about the type of worked material. This damage can be divided into three basic categories: usage retouch, polish and linear traces. Each of them is characterized by a set of features, the variability of which allows to interpret the primeval tool’s functions. In the case of usage retouch, they include the distribution and complexity of chipping, the form negatives constituting it and the shape of their endings (see Ho Ho Committee 1979, p. 133-135; van Gijn A. L. 1989, p. 17-18). An even greater number of taxa characterize the polish. Subject to analysis are here: distribution (location and spread), degree of development (degree of intrusion and linkage), topography, shininess and texture (see Vaughan P. C. 1985, p. vii, Glossary; van Gijn A. L. 1989, p. 19, Juel Jensen H. 1994, p. 23-26). The group of linear traces includes primarily their type and orientations (see Mansur M. E. 1982, p. 217-219; Juel Jensen H. 1994, p. 26-27).

A detailed analysis of use-wear traces may allow for a precise interpretation of the function of a flint tool. As indicated by research conducted for many years around the world, it is not always possible. Working in certain materials causes very similar damage. A big problem may also be tools used for a short time, post-depositionally changed and multi-purposed (see Vaughan P. C. 1985, p. 40). Some of the observed traces may be a result of actions of currently unclear character. It is very probable that people of the Stone Age performed tasks and use techniques of which registration in antique material (and thus definition is impossible (see Owen R. L. 1993, p. 3-15). A remnant of them may be usage traces beyond the established patterns (e.g. type „23” polish – van Gijn A. L. 1989, p. 85; Juel Jensen H. 1994, p. 61).

For carrying out use-wear analyses, it is necessary to have the proper equipment. Basically, required are two types of binocular microscopes: a device with a mobile light source allowing to obtain magnifications of the order of x100, and a microscope for opaque sample with incident light, allowing to work with magnifications of the order of x200 and greater (see Korobkowa G. F. 1999, p. 15). In research conducted by the Institute of Archeology,, NCU, the role of the former is placed by microscope Nikon SMZ-2T. It allows for objective magnifications of up to 12,6x and is equipped in two-point fiber illuminator with white xenon light. For observation of polish used is a microscope-computer set with incident light Zeiss-Axiotech allowing for objective magnifications of up to 50x.

The process of observation begins with localization and preliminary description of possible usage traces (van Gijn A. L. 1989, p. 16; Vaughan P. C. 1985, p. 31, 56). Applied here are small magnifications and a mobile source of light. Analyzed tool is held in hands, what (through manipulation of it and the light) allows to pick out all the important diagnostic features. At this stage subjected to study are mainly chippings and, to a lesser degree, polishes and linear traces. It is of large significance in the preliminary phase of the process of interpretation of a possible function of the product, because it allows to determine the relative hardness of the material treated with the tool as well as the direction of working. A detailed analysis of polishes and linear traces is conducted with the use of greater magnifications (usually up to around 250x) and a microscope with incident light.

In our center, we perform microscopic research of stone tools from various periods. The oldest of the analyzed artifacts originated from the Middle Paleolithic, the youngest ones from the Iron Age. Usually, to analysis we subject flint artifacts. However, we have a considerable experience with tools made of obsidian, pebble or radiolarite. Recently, our area of interest covers also specimens made of bone and antlers. We cooperate at the same time with research centers from the area of Poland and from abroad.

A comparative basis for observations made during microscopic analyses is constituted by a set of experimental tools currently including about 450 specimens. These are flint products as well as made of other materials, used in experimental treatment of different organic and inorganic materials, among others leather, bone, antler, meat, wood, ceramics, shells, amber, stone, siliceous plants etc. The collection is constantly expanding.

Grzegorz Osipowicz


Evans J.
1872          The ancient stone implements, weapons and ornaments of Great Britain, London.
van Gijn A. L. 
1989          The Wear and Tear of Flint Principles of Functional Analysis Applied to Dutch Neolithic Assemblages, Analecta Praehistorica Leidensia, Leiden.

Hayden B. (ed.)
1979            Lithic use-wear analysis, New York. 
Ho Ho Committee
1979             The Ho Ho Classification and Nomenclature Committee Report, [w:] Hayden B. (ed.), Lithic use-wear analysis, s. 133-135, New York. 
Juel Jensen H. 
1994             Flint Tools and Plant Working, Hidden Traces of Stone Age Technology, A use wear study of some Danish Mesolithic and TRB implements, Aarhus.  
Keeley L. H.
1976             Microvear polishes on flint: some experimental results, Staringia, tom 3, s. 49-51.
1980             Experimental Determination of Stone Tool Uses, Londyn.
Korobkowa G.F.
1999             Narzędzia w pradziejach. Podstawy badania funkcji metodą traseologiczną, Toruń.
Lubbock J.
1864            Prehistoric times as illustrated by ancient remains and the manners and customs of modern savage, London.
Małecka-Kukawka J.
2001            Między formą a funkcją, traseologia neolitycznych zabytków krzemiennych z ziemi chełmińskiej, Toruń.
Mansur M. E. 
1982            Microwear Analysis of Natural and Use Striations: New Clues to the Mechanisms of Striation Formation, Studia Praehistorica Belgia, tom 2, s. 213-233.
Ramos Millán A. 
1990           Use-Wear Analysis and Archaeological Theory. A Restatement of Current Problems, [w:] Gräslund B., Knutsson H., Knutsson K., Taffinder J. (ed.) 1990, The Interpretative Possibilities of Microwear Studies, Proceedings of the International Conference on Lithic Use-wear Analysis, 15th-17th February 1989 in Uppsala, Sweden, Societas Archaeologica Upsaliensis, tom 14, Uppsala, s. 31-45.
Smith W. G.
1874             Man the priemeval savage. His haunts and relics from the hill-tops of Bedfordshire to Blackwell, London.

Vaughan P. C.
1985             Use-wear Analysis of Flaked Stone Tools, Tuscon.