Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences

, Volume 11, Issue 7, pp 3065–3099 | Cite as

Documenting scarce and fragmented residues on stone tools: an experimental approach using optical microscopy and SEM-EDS

  • Elspeth HayesEmail author
  • Veerle Rots
Original Paper


Residue analyses are widely applied to studies of stone tool function and can be a powerful method for determining the past tool use(s), especially when combined with other functional investigations such as usewear and technological analysis. Experimental work has shown that optical microscopes and the scanning electron microscope with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDS) are reliable instruments for identifying intact tool residues. However, little experimental work has aimed to document residues that show various stages of degradation or when abundance is low. We combined traditional optical microscopy and the SEM-EDS to identify the advantages and challenges of each technique when looking at progressively smaller and more fragmented residues following more aggressive stages of cleaning, burial and soaking in a weak acid/base solution. We found that large quantities of intact residues on unwashed stone tools show distinctive morphological features under optical microscopes and the SEM-EDS can be used to document residues under extremely high magnifications and to determine their elemental compositions. After the various stages of washing, we found that residues became highly fragmented and were restricted to common stone features like the micro-cracks/scars along the working edge. These residues were often difficult to characterise using optical microscopes but the SEM-EDS proved highly useful. The weak acid/base solutions caused some residues to become physically altered or modified their elemental composition. Buried tools reduced the abundance of use-residues and introduced additional non-use-related contaminant particles that affected EDS measurements and lead to less reliable residue interpretations.


Residue degradation Contamination Functional analysis Residue reference library 



This research was carried out in the TraceoLab at the University of Liège, Belgium, and was funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement n. 312283 (V. Rots), the Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS-FRS EQP) and the University of Liège (FSR). We thank Christian Lepers, Noora Taipale, Ewa Dutkiewicz and Dries Cnuts for providing experimental specimens for analysis. We are grateful to Philippe Compère and Sarah Smeets from the University of Liège for sputtering the extracted samples. Veerle Rots is also indebted to the Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS-FRS CQ). We would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their useful comments that helped improve this manuscript.


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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Archaeological ScienceUniversity of WollongongWollongongAustralia
  2. 2.TraceoLabUniversity of LiègeLiègeBelgium
  3. 3.Chercheur Qualifié du FNRS, TraceoLabUniversity of LiègeLiègeBelgium
  4. 4.Institute for Early Prehistory and Quaternary EcologyUniversity of TübingenTübingenGermany

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