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Journal of Archaeological Science 37 (2010) 971985

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Remains of the day-preservation of organic micro-residues on stone tools

Geeske H.J. Langejans
Institute for Human Evolution and School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies and Hazenberg Archeologie, University of the Witwatersrand,
Private Bag 3 PO Box, WITS 2050, South Africa

a r t i c l e i n f o

a b s t r a c t

Article history:
Received 22 July 2009
Received in revised form
5 November 2009
Accepted 21 November 2009

Here I report on the decay processes of microscopic organic residues left on stone tool surfaces after their
use. Residue analysis on ancient stone tools facilitates reconstruction of past activities. This study enables
predictions about the circumstances under which ancient residues preserve. Experimental tool sets with
modern residues were buried for a year in separate deposits at Sterkfontein, Sibudu (South Africa) and
Zelhem (the Netherlands) whose pH and geomorphology varied, they were then analysed using light
microscopy. Biological weathering mainly causes residue decay. In unstable environments rich in
microbes and micro-organisms, residues decay quickly. From an archaeological perspective this means
that sites that are stable, desiccated, waterlogged, extremely acidic or alkaline and extremely cold or hot
sites. Different residue types have different preservation optima and this may lead to a preservation and
perhaps interpretation bias. The preliminary predictive models presented in this paper could aid in the
considered selection of sites and samples.
2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Residue analysis
Stone tools
Experimental archaeology

1. Introduction
It has been argued that researchers are unable to describe the
mechanism of residue decay (Grace, 1996; Odell, 2001). This paper
aims to investigate some of these taphonomic issues. Grace
observes that residue analysts . simply record a phenomenon
(.) and then make functional interpretations by analogy without
having explained the process that gave rise to the phenomenon.
(Grace, 1996, 214). Odell argues that residue analysts are inclined
to consider what they see, not what is missing (Odell, 2001, 63).
Although these issues are acknowledged and in some cases
examined (e.g. Barton, 2009; Barton et al., 1998; Fullagar, 1988,
1998; Haslam, 2004; Jones, 2009; Lombard and Wadley, 2007; Lu,
2006; Rots and Williamson, 2004; Wadley and Lombard, 2007),
they remain essentially unresolved. Potentially the results from
residue studies may be oversimplied, or worse inaccurate.
Stone tool micro-residue analysis aims to identify microscopic
remains or traces that are left on a tools surface after use. Analysts
have identied organic plant and animal remains and inorganic
deposits. Residue analysis is generally conducted with a direct or
indirect light microscope, using a range of magnications (between
50 and 800 times), an experimental comparative collection and
sometimes an ethno-archaeological comparative collection

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2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

(Anderson, 1980; Bruier, 1976; Fullagar et al., 1996, 1999; Loy, 1997;
Miller, 1979; Rots and Williamson, 2004; Williamson, 2000a,b).
The identication of processed materials is of relevance to
a wide range of research questions (Bruier, 1976; DominguezRodrigo et al., 2001; Fullagar, 2006; Fullagar and Jones, 2004; Hardy
et al., 2008; Horrocks et al., 2007; Hurst et al., 2002; Lombard,
2005; Piperno et al., 2004; Staller and Thompson, 2002). Residues
themselves may also serve as a source for further investigation, for
example DNA analysis (e.g. Hardy et al., 1997; Nelson et al., 1986;
Williamson, 2000b) and they can be used to study rare artefacts for
additional information (e.g. Barton, 2007; Loy, 1998; Loy and Dixon,
As yet, it is unclear to which extent residues on tools are the
result of use or of taphonomic processes. As residues are expected
to be inuenced by taphonomy, direct analogies between use and
remains are problematic (Grace, 1996; Haslam, 2006; Odell, 2001),
especially when quantitative spatial analyses are not conducted on
representative samples (e.g. Lombard, 2005, 2007; Wadley and
Lombard, 2007). When analysts are able to describe the mechanism
of residue preservation and predict under which circumstances
(what) residues preserve, residue analysis has great potential.
There have been many investigations into the molecular decay
of blood and fat (e.g. Cattaneo et al., 1993, 1991; Eisele et al., 1995;
Evershed, 2008; Evershed et al., 2001; Evershed and Tuross, 1996;
Gurnkel and Franklin, 1988; Kooyman et al., 1992; Tuross et al.,
1996). The decay and taphonomy of blood and starch has been


G.H.J. Langejans / Journal of Archaeological Science 37 (2010) 971985

residues is needed. Preservation may be inuenced by the season of

deposition. For example, if a tool with residues was deposited
during the dry season at Sibudu it would quickly become desiccated
and thus protected from biological decay. If a tool was deposited
during the wet season, the residues would have taken longer to dry
out and they would have been prone to deterioration during this
time. Rapid burial or prolonged exposure could also inuence
preservation (also see Barton, 2009). Sedimentation rates can also
be dependent on seasonality.
. This means that in a conserving environment residues are
equally well preserved in the four-week and one-year experiments and that if circumstances remain stable residues might
preserve for long periods of time.
The rst part of the prediction is falsied. Even under the benign
circumstances in the caves, residues decay. The second part of the
predictions appears true.
After one-year, few or no residues preserved outside the caves at
Sibudu and Sterkfontein. The equation in Fig. 14 predicts that a
numbers of A (the residue) react (this may be a chemical reaction or
a biological reaction) with b numbers of B (water/oxygen) to
create c numbers of C (by-product) and d numbers of D (carbon
dioxide). At equilibrium as much A and B changes in C and D and
vice versa. In the beginning only A and B are present and the
reaction is fast, but as A and B and are consumed the reaction slows
down (Raiswell, 2001). Therefore, residues deteriorate quickly
during initial deposition and later, when equilibrium is reached, the
amount of residue present stabilises (also see Barton et al., 1998).
However, with biological decay of residues, equilibrium may
never be reached because in most environments, the by-product
carbon dioxide is lost as a gas (Cronyn, 1990; Raiswell, 2001;
Watkinson, 2001) and the organic residues are eventually
completely consumed. When just deposited decay is fast because
there are many residues and substrate for microbes. As the residues
diminish there is less foodstuff for micro-organisms. The microbes
probably diminish in number as a result (also see Barton, 2009).
This appears as stabilisation of the decay process or equilibrium,
but it is the result of fewer residues that are available for decay.
Decay may thus follow a more exponential trend than a linear one.
Biological decay can be extremely slow due to inhibiting factors,
such as low temperatures. Slow decay may be mistaken for
permanent preservation. However, chemically and sometimes
visually such residues do undergo change. Slow decay might take
tens of thousands of years, provided that the burial environment
remains stable. Changes in the environment can cause these
inhibiting factors to change and rapid decay could set in. Once
excavated, archaeological tools are at danger of losing their
potential residues.
Chemical decay could reach equilibrium, but only when the
secondary products (C and D in the equation) remain in the environment. In permeable sediments, for example, C and D leach out
and decay continues until all residues are consumed. Therefore, in
an unstable environment residues are more likely to deteriorate
The coarse-grained slides at Zelhem are likely to preserve residues better than ne- and medium-grained ones. The irregular
surface of coarse-grained stones provides micro-relief in which
residues may be protected.
This prediction is incorrect. In the Zelhem fat experiments, the
ne and medium grained sandpaper preserved residue best. The
sandpaper slide experiments also demonstrate that residues
preserve badly on glass-type surfaces and this has implications for
the study of artefacts made on quartz and other glass-like surfaces.
Because the surface of the ne-and medium-grained paper is larger

than the surface of the course-grained sandpaper, residues are

probably better preserved on the rst. A large, irregular surface is
best for residue preservation. It is possible that residue preservation is inuenced by the pH of the raw material. Porous stone may
also preserve residues by absorbing them. Residues, however, may
become unidentiable (stains) as a result. More experimentation is
needed to investigate this.
Some organic materials are hardier than others.
Some residue types will preserve better than others. After oneyear plant tissue and bres preserved better than any of the other
experimental residues outside the caves. The cell walls of plant
tissue do not readily decompose and plant tissue contains sugars
that decay in a more complicated way than those of starch. When
examining the one-year experiments outside the caves, starch was
vulnerable when unprotected and did often not preserve. Starch
has no cell walls and is easy and rewarding for micro-organisms to
break down. They are, however, abundant in plant material and
their sheer quantity might explain their presence in the archaeological record. Additionally, the dry circumstances inside Sibudu
may have ensured excellent preservation. After one year muscle
tissue preserved poorly outside the caves. Animal cells do not have
cell walls and they are easy to break down. Blood also appears to be
fragile. After a year muscle tissue preserved better inside than
outside the caves. Bone consists of more mineral components and is
more complex to decompose than other animal components.
Although bone preserved well after one-year, particularly in the dry
cave settings, bone working leaves few residues (personal observation and also see Hardy et al., 2001), decreasing the residues
survival chances. Fat it is a complex molecule and difcult for
microbes to break down. Therefore, good fat preservation is
generally expected, but because fat can get absorbed in the rock and
in the sediment, it may not be observed during analysis.
In general, the experimental residues preserved best in the dry
settings of caves or rock shelters, which probably inhibit (biological) microbial decay. PH, temperature and burial appear to play
a less important role. A protective micro-environment may have
preserved otherwise fragile residues from mechanical and perhaps
chemical and biological decay. It is no surprise that the experiments
conrm that micro-remains decay similarly to macro-remains.
Although some residue types are more resilient than others, the
environment can also lead to differential preservation. Different
residues have different preservation optima and processed materials can potentially be misrepresented as some residue types may
be missing. To avoid misinterpretation, the preservation conditions
per residue type should be carefully charted. Fig. 15 is a rst attempt
to do so. It summarises the variables inuencing preservation and
predictions for four main residue types; it is based on the literature
review and the results from the experiments.
7. Conclusion
In the Introduction I discussed a research lacuna in residue
analysis (Grace, 1996; Odell, 2001): residue specialists make
a direct analogy between the residues they observe and materials
that were processed. Consequently, there is a danger that the
results of residue studies are oversimplied. Thus, to enhance
interpretative frameworks for past human activity and to identify
potential methodological shortcomings, it is necessary to gain
understanding of the relevant (post-) depositional processes.
The residue decay mechanism appears to be mainly driven by
biological decomposition. Tools from stable sites with no, or low,
bioactivity are best for residue analysis. In practice this excludes
most open-air sites. Dry and desiccated sites, waterlogged,
extremely acidic or alkaline sites, a close proximity to heavy metals

G.H.J. Langejans / Journal of Archaeological Science 37 (2010) 971985

and cave sites potentially preserve residues best. Different residues

preserve differentially. Of the tested materials, blood, muscle tissue
and starch are fragile and bone, fat and woody plant tissue are more
durable. Residues always undergo decomposition, but with slow
decay residues give the appearance of being permanently
preserved. Slow decay can take tens of thousands of years, provided
that the environment remains stable.
On the basis of these results it is possible to make predictions
about residue preservation at archaeological sites. These predictions may be used to select or exclude sites from analysis and to
interpret the identied use-related remains in terms of differential
preservation. It also suggests caution regarding the decontextualised interpretation of residues observed on archaeological tools.
Unfortunately the taphonomy of many sites precludes the preservation of ancient residues, but when sites and artefacts are carefully
selected, based on feasibility studies, residue analysis can be
a valuable tool for the reconstruction of processed materials and
past activities.
This research was sponsored by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Palaeontological Scientic Trust (PAST), South
Africa. Special thanks go to Lyn Wadley for her continued advice,
support and commenting on drafts of this document and to
Christopher Henshilwood for sponsoring my post-doc at the
University of the Witwatersrand. Gerrit Dusseldorp, Tom Hazenberg, Marco Langbroek, Marlize Lombard, Annelou van Gijn and
Kartsen Wentink helped with the experiments and logistics, or
provided advice, guidance and comments on drafts of this document; their contributions are much appreciated.
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