New Tools and Old Stones: The Use of 3D Microscopy on Stone Tools to Understand Prehistoric Behaviour and Social Change

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bradford
Department Name: Sch of Life Sciences


Common questions asked by the public of stone tools are 'what were they used for?' or, of the people, 'what were they doing there?' The primary aim of this project is to develop and demonstrate a technique that allows these questions to be reliably answered and illustrated.

This project presents the analysis of an archaeological assemblage as a case study, designed to introduce new methods of high resolution three dimensional laser scanning microscopes to study archaeological stone tools. This presents the integration of methods from engineering into the study of heritage to improve the quality of archaeological research by digital transformation of current approaches.

Lithic microwear analysis is a technique that has been developed to study stone tool use. It involves the use of microscopes to study edges of stone tools to find areas that have been worn through use. This method has allowed archaeologists to gain insight into prehistoric activities but there are known flaws which experts aim to improve. The main problem is the method relies on visual discrimination of surface wear. Testing of the method shows that this qualitative assessment of tool function is highly inaccurate and inconsistent.

Stone tools are the primary artefact left by our ancestors as they have evolved over the last 4.5 million years. An understanding of stone tools is therefore fundamental to understanding evolution and social change. An important aspect of stone tool analysis is understanding how they were used. This level of understanding can help up learn about social development, environmental adaptation through climate change, and technological specialisation.

The assemblage studied is an Upper Palaeolithic set of stone tools from the site of Wey Manor Farm, a well preserved site from surrey. It represents one of only a few discovered in the UK that show a good degree of preservation and was meticulously excavated, presenting a unique opportunity to match data from the location of tools at the site and activities carried out by their prehistoric users. The good preservation of the assemblage makes it highly suitable for the project as the ability to gather useful data from the tools and high quality graphics illustrating a variety of different tool uses will serve to highlight the capabilities of the approach used.

The new technology introduced by this project aims to transform the approaches used through the addition of quantitative analysis wear and computed interpretation. The method changes the way that archaeological data is visualised and allows a shift of focus from method to interpretation.

The visualisation of data in this new way reduces the complexity of the interpretative problem. Experts will no longer needs to visually discern complex and often subtle textural information. The task of textural characterisation is taken up by the computing system as is the interpretation of what this implies for tool use. This reduces error in identification, improves consistency, and strengthens the reputation of the method as a whole. This allows the expert to shift focus to the interpretation of results and the implications of these in the broader context of the archaeological question at hand.

The reduction in need for the expert to be familiar with the visual system of remembering and cataloguing worn surface types for the purpose of future analysis also dramatically reduces the requirement for the associated extensive training (4-8 years is currently considered normal). Training requirements to use this new system will be on the scale of months; closer in line to other analytical systems in use across the applied sciences. This will make the technique more accessible across the discipline; a compound effect being the production of larger datasets pertaining to site function and subsequently a greater base for interpretation of heritage.

Planned Impact

Heritage practitioners and curators will have immediate benefit through hands on learning and knowledge transfer as a result of attending the project workshop. Small bursaries will be offered to increase the range of those able to attend. The workshop combines a series of short lectures and demonstration of equipment and documentation. There will be a better understanding of the potential for the use of microwear analysis and advanced methods and the ways to present this data to a broader audience.

The project outputs are aimed at practitioners outside of academia such as curators, object handlers and excavators. The consequence of this will be a better understanding of the value of microwear analysis across archaeology as an interpretive tool. This crosses over to a gained understanding of the problems of post-excavation damage and suitable handling methods to ensure optimal preservation of material for study. This will improve communication between curators, heritage specialists, and researchers about the best practices for conservation and analysis of material to study site activities and function.

1) The method under investigation is capable of producing images of high quality that illustrate wear from tool use on early prehistoric implements. The effect of visualising this allows data to be communicated to a wide audience. This presents opportunities for museums to display high quality images of tool wear in a way that is useful for public engagement. The nature of these images means that they can be appreciated as they are. Direct observation of wear is the only current way to adequately showcase its features to the public, this situation changes with the presentation of the high resolution, high depth images produced by laser scanning systems. The surfaces can be visualised as a sort of 3D landscape and displayed in interactive systems, moving beyond a simple digital photograph. This extends to the media whereby the quality of the output from such systems is far more suitable for the needs of print.

2) The quality of data. High quality data in archaeology leads to high quality interpretations and a better understanding of the archaeological record and, in this case early prehistoric archaeology. The impact to society is that the research forms the basis of good method that has the onward impact of producing a quality interpretation and presentation of heritage, early prehistoric life, and human evolution to the public.


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Description a new technique for studying how stone tools were used has been developed and promoted within the field - this is challenging current techniques and is creating an advancement that leads to better interpretations of archaeological material
Exploitation Route there is scope to apply the developed techniques to archaeological assemblages to make solid interpretations and to use the current platform to develop this new technique further
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The results of knowledge from this research are being commoditised by private companies for the production of new metrology equipment that can fill gaps identified in the market through this research
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Economic

Description Large Grants: Digital Transformations
Amount £1,854,630 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/L00688X/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2013 
End 09/2017
Description Atapuerca research team 
Organisation Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution
Country Spain 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution consultation of microscopy and analytical protocols for the 3d scanning of artefacts
Collaborator Contribution collaboration and analysis of material and consultation on methodologies
Impact currently there are no formal outputs from this collaboration
Start Year 2014
Description NPL 
Organisation National Physical Laboratory
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution expertise and a case study related to archaeological sample analysis for functional studies of surfaces
Collaborator Contribution expertise in surface metrology statistics and provisioning of equipment
Impact 010.1016/j.micron.2014.04.006 010.1017/S1551929514000364 presentation at MICROSCIENCE CONFERENCE presentations at International conference of surface metrology part of basis for application of a funded large grand from the AHRC 'Fragmented Heritage' THIS IS MULTIDICIPLINARY _ archaeology and engineering are the two overarching areas
Start Year 2009
Description british museum 
Organisation British Museum
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution expertise of functional analysis in archaeological studies
Collaborator Contribution collections access and advice on requirements within the field
Impact presentation at the European Palaeolithic Conference 2013 part basis for large grant application 'fragmented heritage'
Description Blind Testing Laser-Scanning Confocal Microscopy for Lithic Microwear Analysis. AWRANA Conference. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact talk at the awrana microwear conference
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Metrology at various scales for the analysis of cultural heritage materials - instrument comparisons and selection considerations 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation given at the 5th International conference on surface metrology in Poznan, Poland
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description borderly project 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact talk sparked questions and discussion afterwards. participants came away with more knowlage about the specialist subject that prior to taking part

the project were interested in further engagement with the research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2013