An Interdisciplinary Method of Traceology and Prospects of its Usage in Archeology

In the early 1940s, A. Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986) and S. Semenov (1898-1978), known as a father of the prehistoric archeology in Russia and France, commenced the fundamental work on the issues of understanding and studying the ancient material culture. In the 40s of the 20th century, the researchers of the east and west were engaged in the development of traceology and „chaîne opératoire1“conception that provided basis for a complex study of the ancient peoples and remains – artifacts of material culture and restoration of the behavior model [Longo, 2007: 9-10]. The conception of “chaîne opératoire” is widespread in the Europe and is based on the theoretical researches by Leroi-Gourhan [Longo, 2007:13].

It should be noted that as early as in the 30s of the 20th century, the development of the traceological method in archaeology was attributed to S. A. Semenov. This method allowed the archeologists to study the stone tools in a typological context as well as to identify their actual functions. A typological-morphological study of the tools provides retrieving of a cultural genesis, while the method of traceology is based on the identification of the functions of tools that allows the reconstruction of the economic activities of the early men [Longo, 2007:10].

Semenov’s fundamental work “Первабытная Техника“ (“Prehistoric Technology”) [Семенов, 1957] has provided basis for spreading an experimental-traceological method in various countries. R. Yerkes mentioned that in North America nothing had been known about this revolutionary method until the translation of S. A. Semionov’s work into English in 1964. Irrespective of an initial skepticism, with time, significance and substance of the method offered by Semenov became clear for the American researchers [Yerkes, 1999:6].

“Use-wear” method is based on the experimental researches performed by F. Bordes, J. Tixier, M. Newcomer, J. Coles, etc. They tried to explain the capacities of the tools and their proposed transformation as a result of their usage [Коробкова..., 1996: 8].

It should be mentioned that traceology is a neologism (“trace” (French) – trace and logos (Greek)), which means the study of traces. It has been applied in criminology since the end of the 19th century. In the middle of the 20th century, Sergei Semenov established the term “traceology” in archeology. As for the term “use-wear”, it corresponds to the Georgian “a trace of use” („გამოყენების კვალი“).

For the decades, in various centers all over the world, the traceological schools emerged and developed. Among the schools of traceology, we can admit the centers in Russia, France, Great Britain and America.

S. Semenov, a founder of the Russian archeological school, used fundamental approach to the research of the issue from the outset. He studied consistently almost all types of tools of various epochs. In his researches, S. Semionov relied on the archeological facts and anthropological interpretations [Скакун..., 2010:235].

F. Bordes, his student P.A. Gerfaud, L. Keeley, M. E. Mansur-Franchomme and H. Plisson contributed greatly to the formation of the French traceological school [Keeley, 1980: 11]. Research of the remains of phytoliths and other organic matter and development of techniques of taking prints from the tools can be regarded as a particular achievement of this school. Polish is the key diagnostic sign of the tools. It should be noted that researches of French scientists are based on both traceological and ethnographic data [Plisson, 1983: 17-19].

R. Tringham, E. Moss, M. Newcomer are representatives of British Traceology School. Russian and British schools had long contacts with one another. British traceologists were primarily interested in diagnostics of the polish on the tools; they limited themselves to study of the specific or isolated Paleolithic and Neolithic materials [Keeley, 1980: 1-2].

Formation of the Traceological School in the USA commenced in the 70s-80s and its first leader was D. Roe. In addition, when L. Keeley was in Great Britain, D. Roe headed his works and hence, development of traceological method in the USA took place after his return. L. Keeley, J. Odell, N. Vaughan are the representatives of this school [Коробкова..., 1996: 8-9; Keeley, 1980: 1-9].

The researchers of the US traceology school were mostly interested in the identification of the functions of Paleolithic-Neolithic tools, relying again and again, on the classification of the polish. P. Vaughan’s researches should be particularly admitted. He was the first US traceologist studying an intended use of the tools on the basis of microanalysis. To identify the tool functions, P. Vaughan studied polish and directions of linear traces on the tools [Vaughan, 1981: 90-91].

Therefore, we discussed the key traceological centers of the world, where the traceological method was formed and developed. As for the other countries, for example, in China, the traceological method was introduced in 1980s and it was basically applied for the study of the Paleolithic materials [Hou 1996: 16].


Traceological Laboratory of Georgia


In Georgia the development of traceology is associated with K. Esakia. On the basis of a traceological study of the stone and bone tools discovered at the settlements of tribes occupied with agriculture, she identified the branches of domestic production and generally, economic industries. During researching the stone industry of the early Agricultural period, K. Esakia relied on the method developed by G. Korobkova: the tools were classified in groups according to their functions and for each group the quantity of tools as percentage of their total quantity was calculated. Afterwards, a typological list was created for the identification of a group of tools and determination of a dominating sector of economy.

K. Esakia and G. Korobkova studied stone industries at the sites of Shulaveri-Shomutepe culture: Arukhlo I, Arukhlo II and Arukhlo III, Chikhori, Tsopi, etc. [Эсакия, 2003:14;136;  Коробкова, 1984; Nebieridze, 2010; Esakia… 2000].


The Methodology of Traceological Studies


For decades, Semenov’s pioneering studies in the sphere of functional interpretation of tools have maintained their significance and their role in studying of macro and micro traces on the prehistoric tools further increase. Years of work and study of vast materials revealed three main stages of methodology: 1. Research of various rocks based on experimental items and ethnographic materials; 2. Application of macro and microscopic research tools; 3. Development of terminology [Marreiros…, 2015: 2].

In the methodology of traceological researches, the application of various microscopes acquires a great significance: 1. Binocular microscope (over x100 magnification); 2. Metallographic microscope (over x400 magnification). Since 1950, Russian traceological school, has basically used the microscopes produced by “EMBISI” [Коробкова, 1996: 6-7], while representatives of the European traceological schools have used (and use now) the microscopes of “Olympus Vanox” and “Olympus BMHJ”. Both Russian and western researchers usually use x100 magnification to detect the traces on the tool surfaces [Grace, 2012: 48-49].

A traceological research includes two stages: the first – a microscopic study of a surface of a tool. It is known that in the process of work, as a result of the contact between the tool and material, a work edge of the tool deforms and various, absolutely relevant types of traces are left (polishing, smoothing, abrasion, chipping, scrape) [Котов, 1999: 7; Коробкова..., 1996: 6-7].

The second stage of the research includes a functional analysis, where the tools are classified in groups and types. On the basis of such analysis one can identify the industry, its specific features, leading and secondary sectors, economic characteristics, etc.


Directions in Traceology


     Years of research of archeological materials, numerous experiments and creation of the reference base resulted in the development of the new directions in the traceological-functional method – a macro-traceology, a micrometric method and a phyto-traceology.


A Macro-traceology


    The study of traces on the tools via a microscope is a micro-traceology. Identification and analysis of the traces by an unaided eye is a macro-traceology. The intention of both directions is identification of the function of a tool and reconstruction of the ancient economic activities [Сиссоко, 1988:125-135; Коробкова..., 1996: 19-21].

      A macro-traceology is the means of verification of the function of a tool for identification of similarities and origin. Such approach to the study of materials emerged in the 60s, but acquired a scientific significance only in the 80s of the 20th century. Micro and macro analyses allowed the differentiation of haying blades – a tool was used to process cultivated and wild plants [Сиссоко, 1988:125-135; Коробкова..., 1996: 19-21].

     A macro-traceology is an independent method, thought it cannot be applied in each and every case to identify the function. Its capabilities are limited. Therefore, in such cases, a complex research – the study of the aggregate of micro and macro signs - is used [Сиссоко, 1988:125-135; Коробкова..., 1996: 19-21].


A Micrometric Method


A micrometric method was first developed by V. P. Linico for the study of metal articles. The method was not quite suitable for the study of archeological materials – it required a special treatment of an object. S. Semenov and V. Shelinski worked on these issues. The authors offered the methodology of a micrometric analysis and applied it to study the Mousterian and experimental samples [Сиссоко, 1988:125-135; Коробкова..., 1996:18-19].

A micrometric method emerged as a result of a micro-traceology development. According to G. F. Korobkova, this is the means for a quantitative study of the traces on the tools allowing the identification of duration of usage and the function of a tool (via a slight wearing of the surface). The purpose of a micrometric method is the examination of the surface of the material, its micro-relief via a binocular microscope, photography and topography. Application of a  micrometric method on a tool with an uneven surface can result in errors. Therefore, it requires a great attention, care and several measurements for the achievement of a maximal precision [Семенов..., 1971: 20-22; Сиссоко, 1988:125-135; Коробкова, 1996: 18-19].




Due to a rapid decay of the vegetable tissues, it often becomes hard to find out what our forefathers used to eat. However, the silica forms special structures, phytoliths, in green cells. Similarly to other minerals, they can stay in the soil for a long time. These remains adhered to everything (tools, inner surface of the pottery, mortars, etc.). Opal phytoliths, silica phytopiths, silica cells, plant opal2 or common silica are the parts of hydrated silica and exist in the plants that died and decayed [Piperno, 2006: 1]. Phytoliths are not organic compounds and they do not decay due to the bacteria. Hence, they have no such problems as preservation as the remains of plants do. Phytoliths can survive in dry and humid soils. The burnt plants will leave the phytoliths in the coil and naturally, decayed plants will remain in archeological sedimentation in a form of phytoliths. Phytoliths allow identification of the key cereals, like wheat, barley, rice, etc. [Harvey…, 2005: 739-740; 742].

Archeologists J. Witthoft and J. Cumming actively participated in the development of  a phyto-traceology, but its formation as a method is associated with Patricia Anderson-Gerfaud [Verdin, 1999: 19]. The purpose of a phyto-traceology is the identification of the function of a tool according to the remains of an organic matter on it. P. Anderson-Gerfaud used an electronic microscope to study the phytoliths. She associated the phytolith remains discovered on the surface of a tool with the traces of work left on the same surface.

Verdin mentioned in his experiments that in archeological and experimental researches of phytoliths there were identified two different processes: threshing and ensilaging [Verdin, 1999: 19].

A fragmented nature of phytoliths cause difficulties for the identification of the function of the material. In addition, versatility of the plants is associated with additional difficulties as the trace is not always the same and hence, the dimensions of the traces are different as well. In many cases, the phytoliths is less informative, it should be within the context of a cultural layer. Its typological definition is also required, because traces will differe due to the versatility of flora [Коробкова..., 1996: 19].


A Functional Typology


A methodological study of the stone industry has significantly changed with time. Typological study of the stone artifacts, irrespective of numerous transformations, acquires a great significance. A typological method is based on the determination of the morphological characteristics of a tool. In the sphere of the study of a material culture, a typological method is applied for a comparative analysis of various complexes and for the determination of a cultural genesis [Массон, 1999: 9-10].

While typology was regarded as a key component of an analytical archeology, technological and functional researches occupied a significant position in the study of a stone industry. Typological and functional methods jointly offered reshaped goals and objectives of the archeology [Матюхин, 2003: 94].

         The study of a great number of artifacts has led G. F. Korobkova to the development of a functional typology. A functional typology allows systematization of a subject of research. Traceologically identified tool is categorized by functional types, groups and classes. A functional type implies an article and signs of wear presented on it, which are marks of a certain working process or operation. Functional groups unify types with various signs for the expression of a specific production or economy. A functional class is a group of tools with different signs of wear.

A functional typology helps in the identification of general trends of economic activities as well as local specific features of a certain settlement. It is widely applied for the systematization of archeological materials and for the identification of the economy practiced on the monument [Коробкова…, 1996:21-23; Коробкова,1994: 13-14].

Therefore, a traceological method provides solutions to various problems in archeology. Traceological studies covers almost all periods (from Paleolithic to Medieval). Subjects of study include the materials from specific monuments as well as from the regions. It should be noted that functional analysis is based on the study of the surface of a tool and physical characteristics affected by the humans. Therefore, a functional analysis is based on methodological researches and the latter – on the experimental observations [Marrerios, 2015: 2]. Such study of prehistoric tools is the best method for the reconstruction of the ancient economic system [Массон, 2003: 66-73; Сиссоко, 1988: 28-62).


Note: This research was supported by Shota Rustaveli National Science Foundation (SRNSF) [PhD_F_17_146].

1French term is used in anthropology, especially, in archeology and socio-cultural anthropology and means “chain of the sequence of operations”.

2Non-crystalline silica


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