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  • Writer's pictureMatilda Siebrecht

Microwear Literature

I often receive requests for papers, articles, and other literature to give a bit of an introduction to microwear analysis, and so I thought it would be a good idea to dedicate a blog post to the topic!

Theoretical background

Of course, the best way to learn the basics of microwear analysis is through practical repetition. However, as with any topic, a background theoretical context is always important in order to understand what exactly you're looking at. For example, imagine you see a particular type of trace on an object. It is not enough to just identify the trace and write that down in a neat little list of results. You have to link that trace back to the action that created it, and then associate that action with the person doing the action, and then place that person in the context of their culture, and then discuss the influences of that culture. This might sound self-explanatory, but it's very easy to get bogged down in the identification and analysis part without really thinking about the concepts that you're investigating.

In microwear analysis, the majority of the theoretical concepts that we need to be aware of relate to the field of material culture studies. If you can afford it, I would definitely recommend getting a copy of the Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies, which provides an excellent overview of some of the key ideas in the field. Of course, it's quite pricey, so you can also just use the chapter headings as keywords for further searches. I will also try to provide a few examples here of what I feel are the most important concepts to understand.

One of the most commonly applied theories is that of chaîne opératoire, which simply translated means "operational sequence". The idea is to investigate the process of making the object in question by looking at the different steps of manufacture, from the sourcing of the raw material all the way to the use, and even sometimes the deposition (i.e. putting in the ground) of the final object. By looking at the different stages of the process, you're not just looking at what happened, but also trying to see why it happened. What was happening in the mind of the person making this object? Why did they make certain decisions - was it due to practical restrictions of the material (eg. certain materials are so hard they can only be cut with certain other materials), or maybe cultural taboos (eg. only certain classes or genders were permitted to access and use particular materials)? Very tied up in this approach is that of an object biography, which follows the life story of an object from it's "birth" to its "death" (although there is a lot of discussion on the time-stamps involved...). Here are some papers on both concepts to get you started (all of the papers provided in this blog post are also available open-access online):

Gsoden and Marshall 1999 - The cultural biography of objects
Download PDF • 1.54MB
Martinón-Torres 2002 - chaine operatoire
Download PDF • 672KB
Bar-Yosef and Van Peer 2009 - The chaine operatoire approach in Middle Paleolithic archaeo
Download • 808KB
Soressi and Geneste 2011 - The history and efficacy of the chaine operatoire approach to l
Download • 4.04MB

In my mind, these two approaches are the most important things to understand as a base for microwear analysis. There are of course many other theories of material culture that are also important to be aware of - material agency, entanglement, cross-craft interaction to name a few - but I don't have the space to go into all of them here. Perhaps I will write another blog post about them later, but for now they are up to you to research depending on which theoretical direction you want to focus on.

Critical development

As with every analytical method, it's always important to know how it started and how its developed, so that you can be critical of how well it can actually be used. Microwear analysis emerged from the pioneering work of S.A. Semenov, whose book on prehistoric technology described the process of identifying traces of manufacture and use on objects made from stone and bone. Happily, the Association for Archaeological Wear and Residue Analysis (AWRANA) has the translation by M.W. Thomas freely available to download on their website: Although of course there are several aspects of the book that are now somewhat outdated, it is nevertheless an important read to understand the foundations of microwear analysis.

As the field of microwear analysis developed and expanded in the 1980s and 1990s, it was met with a lot of critique, because although it classifies itself as a scientific approach, it is nevertheless an extremely subjective method of analysis that relies completely on the ability and experience of the individual researcher. There was therefore somewhat of an academic debate between several groups of researchers over the validity of using microwear analysis, which revolved around the publication of blind tests results. Basically, some analysts were given objects of known manufacture and use to analyse, without knowing how they were made and used. Based on how many object they guessed correctly, the method was declared successful. However, the results of these blind tests were criticised by other researchers who claimed that they weren't conclusive enough to be considered a success. Again, these papers are older so slightly outdated now, but nevertheless an important background to the field (and also fun to read for the "oh no he didn't!" factor). Unfortunately not all of them are open-access, but these two should give a general first idea:

Grace et al 1985 - the quantification of microwear polishes
Download PDF • 4.51MB
Bamforth 1988 - Investigating microwear polishes with blind tests
Download PDF • 992KB
Newcomer et al 1988- microwear methodology
Download PDF • 4.72MB

Basic overviews

There is no "how to" manual on microwear analysis. As I mentioned at the start of this blog post, the best way to learn it is through practical training, which is not something that you can read about in a book. However, there are a few basic concepts of how to approach the actual analysis itself that are not necessarily covered in the sources I've provided so far, but could nevertheless be useful when preparing your mind for the task of analysing microscopic traces. So if you want papers that provide a really good introduction to the different methods, approaches, and theories that have been and could / should be applied within the field of microwear analysis, I would definitely recommend checking out the following (they also have great references that you can follow up on if you're planning to pursue this topic yourself):

Van Gijn 2013 - science and interpretation in microwear studies
Download PDF • 248KB
Evans et al 2014 - standardization, calibration, and innovation
Download PDF • 243KB
Bradfield 2015 - use-trace analysis of bone tools
Download PDF • 3.24MB

And to give you a bit of an idea of what kinds of projects you can do with microwear analysis, here are some of my favourite research papers from the last few years to show the different kinds of exciting research questions you can answer:

Gentile and Van Gijn 2019 - anatomy of a notch
Download PDF • 18.87MB
Dekker et al 2021 - human and cervid osseous materials used for barbed point manufacture i
Download • 3.53MB
Crellin et al 2023 - materials in movement
Download PDF • 2.79MB

Final words

I've said it several times now, but really the best way to get a real understanding of microwear analysis is to do it yourself. Unfortunately, there are of course practical restrictions in terms of the actual machines and technology that you need (see my previous blog post for more information on that). However, if you have the opportunity to access a lab or intern under someone adept at microwear analysis, that is really the best place to start.

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