Functional analysis of macrolithic tools from the Upper Palaeolithic haematite mines of Tzines (Thasos, Greece)

Functional analysis of macrolithic tools from the Upper Palaeolithic haematite mines of Tzines (Thasos, Greece)

The prehistoric mines of Tzines are located in Thasos, an island in the northern Aegean Sea, close to the coast of East Macedonia and Thrace (Greece). Archaeological investigations were carried out between 1982 and 1993 by the 18th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities of Kavala, represented by Chaido Koukouli-Chrysanthaki, in collaboration with Gerd Weisgerber of the Deutsches Bergbau-Museum of Bochum and Georgios Gialoglou of the Greek Institute of Geology and Mineral Exploration. They revealed evidence of underground hematite mining activities, the most ancient ones in Europe, being dated around 20.000 BP (ETH-11573 20350±160 years BP).

Besides deer antlers and flint tools, archaeologists found over 300 pebbles used as percussion implements devoid of any hafting system (Koukouli-Chrysanthaki & Weisgerber 1999; Weisgerber, Cierny, & Koukouli-Chrysanthaki, 2008). Their classification, whose denomination already refers to use hypotheses, is not easy to define since what distinguishes them from natural pebbles is not the traces of manufacture but those of wear. They fall into the wider category of the so-called macro-lithic artefacts for which Adams and colleagues (2009) have recently developed specific use-wear analysis. The authors have suggested a definition of wear and a classification of its mechanisms (adhesive, fatigue, abrasive and tribochemical wear) borrowed from tribology, which is the science and technology of interacting surfaces in relative motion. Using these categories and examining an item for macroscopic and microscopic evidence, it is possible to understand how it was altered, distinguishing damage patterns caused by manufacturing techniques and post-depositional activities from those caused by use (Adams, in press).

Starting from the hypotheses advanced by Koukouli-Chrysanthaki, Weisgerber and Cierny (1999, 2008) and from direct observation of some finds it is possible to highlight two key issues. The first one concerns the use of the pebbles as hammers and in general as handheld percussion tools. This assumption is to be tested through functional analysis, because it is necessary to understand the actual nature of use-wear traces on pebbles surfaces and their development mechanisms in order to identify tools prehensile modes, their actual function and possible elements of variation. For this purpose it is important to recognize the petrographic nature of tools since the wear development on a surface and the final implements shape depend as on the work they carried out as on composition, type and texture of the rock they are made of (Adams et al., 2009). In fact, it might have been a conscious selection of rocks particularly suitable for the work they were intended to and for their use without any modification of the original shape. For this reason sources of supply should be located, since it is not assumed that all the rocks were available in the immediate surroundings of the mining site. The second issue concerns the identification within the best investigated sites - the so called “T1” and “T2” mines - of various mining phases alternated with gaps. Features of petrographic, morphological, and functional variability and continuity between the tools coming from different layers might reflect different frequentation phases, different human groups, and changes in mining techniques observed between the two sites. This study will start from the reconstruction of the data coming from the archaeological excavation, followed by petrographic description, morphological classification, experimental replication of use-wear traces, use-wear analysis.

The perspective of study offered by functional analysis on macro-lithic tools from Tzines mines certainly aims to overcome the limits of studies connecting a priori shape and function of tools. Its multidisciplinary approach enables to understand that the shape of a tool can be outcome of its use-wear, that its function is bonded to the physical and dimensional properties of the rock type, which can condition the choice of raw material and the prehensile modes. Moreover, data resulting from this study will be contextualized within a system that takes into account raw material sources, geographical settings, palaeozoological, and palaeoclimatic reconstructions providing straightforward and objective observations on production strategies employed by the most ancient underground miners known until now not only in Greece but also in Europe.

Zugehöriges Teilprojekt

PhD theses

Chiara Levato

Responsible body

Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum




Dr. Chaido Koukouli-Chryssanthaki (Emeritus director of Antiquities - Member of the Archaeological Society of Athens)

Dr. Caroline Hamon, Laboratoire UMR 8215 Trajectoires (CNRS - Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)


3 years


  • Adams, J. L. (in press). Ground stone use-wear analysis: A review of terminology and experimental methods. Journal of Archaeological Science (2013). doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2013.01.030.
  • Adams, J., Delgado, S., Dubreuil, L., Hamon, C., Plisson, H., & Risch, R. (2009). Functional Analysis of Macro-Lithic Artefacts: A Focus on Working Surfaces. In F. Sternke, L. Eideland, & L. J. Costa (Eds.), Non-Flint Raw Material Use in Prehistory. Old prejudices and new directions, Vol. 11. BAR International Series 1939 (pp. 43-66). Oxford: Archaeopress.
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  • Weisgerber, G., Cierny, J., & Koukouli-Chrysanthaki, C. (2008). Zu pläolithischer Gewinnung roter Farbmineralien auf der Insel Thasos. In Ü. Yalcin (Ed.), Anatolian Metal IV, Der Anschnitt, 21, 179-190.