Use-Wear Analysis: How it Works and What it Can Tell Us

Use-wear analysis is a technique employed by archaeologists, more specifically lithic analysts, to help understand the function of found tools. It is performed through macroscopic and microscopic analysis of these tool’s surfaces and edges in order to determine what the tools might have been originally used for. It is most commonly utilized for stone or rock tools but can be used on other materials as well, such as flint and bone. The term wear is generally defined as “the progressive loss of substance from surfaces as they move against each other”. (Adams, 2017.) and by studying this wear archaeologists are able to understand what purpose the tool served. Through use-wear analysis, questions such as “what material were these stones used on?”, “how were they used?’, and “why were they used?” are all able to be answered. (Texas Beyond History.)

An example of findings determined through use-wear analysis is the difference between pottery polishers and stone polishers. In a blog published by the Desert Archaeology Inc, Dr. Jenny Adams discusses how she was able to determine these slight differences using use wear techniques. “The stones selected for polishing pottery or stone are fine grained, meaning that the stone burnished the surface being polished rather than abrading it.” (Adams, 2017.) In contrast, “The shiny surface on a well-used pottery polisher has numerous abrasions caused by temper and other particles in the clay.” (Adams, 2017.) Archaeologists are even able to tell which parts of the tool were held in the hand of the person using it through microscopic analysis and studying the abrasions as seen below in Figure 1. When you compare Figure 1 and Figure 2, it is easy to see that Figure 1 is clearly much more rounded and smooth than the granular appearance in Figure 2. Hence, Figure 1 displays the area in which the used held the tool, whereas Figure 2 displays an unused area of the tool.

Figure 1: Granular, unused part of the tool (Adams, 2017.)

Figure 2: Rounded and smoothed part of the tool held in hand (Adams, 2017.)

The process used to conduct use-wear analysis varies for each study, but typically the artifacts are examined using “bright field microscopy” (Adams, 2017.) in their unwashed condition so that potential residues left over such as animal hair, blood, plant grains, wood fragments, can be identified and used as possible clues to help further understand the purpose of the artifact. Next, the scientists look at the striations on the rock as well as the bumps and abnormalities or smoothness on the edges of the rocks to understand where the rock bore the most force, and in turn how that translates to its use. By using residues as well as examining the striations imprinted on the tools, archaeologists can usually come to a conclusion and determine the tools’ use-actions which include “scraping, planning, slicing, whittling, boring, and cutting”. (Texas Beyond History.)

Reference List:

Adams, Jenny. November 30, 2017. “The Tell-tale Art: Recognizing Use-wear on Stone Tools.” Desert Archaeology, Inc. 

Texas Beyond History. 

“Use-wear Analysis.” Newcastle University, The Cutting Edge. 

1 thought on “Use-Wear Analysis: How it Works and What it Can Tell Us

  1. Under what preservatory conditions does use-wear analysis yield satisfactory inferences? By the same token, what are some circumstances that may limit its accuracy and thus applicability?

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