N.Alexashenko. Use-wear analysis in archaeology and ethnography of the North of Western Siberia: results and potential // Northern Archaeological Congress. Papers. 2002. C.7-19.



History of the studies

The first archaeological sites in Yamal were discovered and examined in the 1920-30s [Chernetsov 1935; Adrianov 1936], in the 1950-60s part of these materials was published [Moshinskaya 1953,1965; Chernetsov 1953]. In the 1960-70s the work in Yamal was continued by L. P. Khlobystin (LDIA AS USSR) [Khlobystin 1987] and L. P. Lashuk (MSU) [Lashuk 1965]. At the end of the 1980s and early 1990s Yamal was researched by the archaeological and ethnographic expedition of the Tobolsk Pedagogical Institute (supervisor — A. V. Golovnev) [Golovnev, Zaitsev 1992; Sokolkov 1991], and from 1993 — by the archaeological expedition of the IH&A UrB RAS (supervisor — N. V. Fedorova). The excavations of the settlement Tiutei-Sale I, fortified settlement Yarte VI, fortified settlement (sacred place) Ust-Polui, burial site Zeleny Yar have significantly expanded the range of sources: in addition to the ceramics, stone and bronze there were finds of items made of bone, wood, plant fibers, leather and fur. The study of these unique sites could be performed only as a collective effort of various specialists, including experts in the use-wear analysis.

The use-wear analyst`s field research

The need for the use-wear specialist to work directly at the site of the excavation of the cultural layer on the sites located on the Arctic Circle and further north is caused by the fact that part of the organic materials extracted from the permafrost is swiftly disintegrating. Under these conditions the presence of a restorer, who normally works with the tools, decorations, and household articles is not enough. Production waste materials (chips, split wood, bone, bits of leather) described and analyzed by a use-wear specialist become the source for the reconstruction of the ancient technological processes. The scope of her/his work in the northern archaeology is significantly wider than just identification of the functional application of a tool with the help of microanalysis. The studies are aimed at describing the general economic situation at the settlement. The use-wear analyst becomes a specialist in technologies for working of wood and bone, hide-working dressing, birch-bark processing and making and use of objects from these materials. What makes the situation unique is that use-wear analyst has a chance to study not only the wear traces on various tools (e.g. a scraper), but also the results of their use on different kinds of materials (e.g. leather or fur, fragments of which were found on the same sites). At the same time, a tool could have different applications in the everyday life and ritual practices (e.g. a scraper on settlement or in burial). To identify the primary function of an item the microanalysis is necessary, but is obviously insufficient in itself, therefore it is also necessary to have a fair understanding of the archaeological context.

Use-wear study of the ethnographic materials

The specifics of the work of the use-wear analysis specialist in Yamal include also the possibility to study the ancient manufacturing traditions preserved in everyday practices of the contemporary indigenous population. However, though it can be tempting to use direct ethnographic analogies for artifacts interpretation, direct extrapolation of results of the observations of the contemporary technological practices on ancient industries is hardly justified. It is the microanalysis of both archaeological and similar in the form ethnographic pieces that allows to make a correct comparison. Registration of the traces of making and use identified on an ethnographic tool with the use of a microscope, their comparison with the description of its functional application made from the words of an informer, or in the course of direct observation by an ethnographer, allows to create a kind of a standard model for determining the functions of an archaeological piece. In this case the ethnographic object made by people as part of their routine practices is similar to a sample obtained in the course of archaeological experiment.

A lot of information can be derived from the studies of the ethnographic collections of museums. Thus, I have studied the bone and wooden pieces from the ethnographic collection of the Tobolsk State History and Architecture Museum-Reserve (TSHAMR). This collection has been formed from the end of the 19th century to the present days. It has exhibits from the collections of A. A. Dunin-Gorkavich, L. R. Shults, B. N. Gorodkov, R. P. Mitusova. I have studied under the microscope 103 bones and wood items: the small bones for untying knots and nettle splitting, parts of harness, a bow, arrowheads, herder`s staff points, knives for fish scaling, sewing and netting needles, hair and grass combs. Many groups of items were represented with the pieces at different manufacturing and utilization stages, which was very fortunate for the identification of the range of use-wear signs characteristic for tools of the same function. Particularly clear linear traces and polish were visible on the tools for nettle working, scrapers, head and cheek plates of the deer harness, fish scaling knives. This work is in progress, and the obtained results are already used in the analysis of the archaeological materials.

Archaeological sources

The use-wear analysis of collections from the settlement Tiutei-Sale I site is now completed, and the studies of the fortress Yarte VI materials are close to completion, the microanalysis of the pieces from the fortress (sacred place) Ust-Polui from the excavations of V. S. Adrianov and N. V. Fedorova has just began. I have also made the initial visual inspection of the materials from the fortresses Zelenaya Gorka and Pitlyar. I was lucky to participate personally in the excavations of the burial site Zeleny Yar. All these sites belong to the Iron Age and are dated within the range from the 1st century BC to the 14lh century AD.

The fortress (sacred place) Ust-Polui (lsl century BC — 1st century AD) is located on the Arctic Circle within the bounds of the city of Salekhard. Its excavations were started by V. S. Adrianov [1936], and in 1993 were continued by N. V. Fedorova. The site was severely damaged by the construction and operation of the hydroport, nonetheless it was still possible to study some sections of the cultural layer, which produced a huge collection of artifacts from different materials (17,888 pieces of V. S. Adrianov`s collection [Popova 1988:182] and 5,000 pieces of N. V. Fedorova`s collection). I have studied under the microscope 77 bone pieces from the V. S. Adrianov`s (MAE) collection: the head plates of the deer harness, blocks, swivels, fish-scaling knives, scrapers, combs, snow shovels, armor plates. Analysis was performed on details of the harness, comb, spatula-spoon, snow shovel, armor plate from the settlement Katra-Vozh, stored in MAE in the Ust-Polui collection. Microanalysis was also performed on 324 bone pieces from the materials of N. V. Fedorova (arrow heads, swivels and clasps, tools for netting, borers, armor plates).

Settlement Tiutei-Sale I is located in the northern part of the western coast of Yamal Peninsula on Morzhovy (Walrus) Cape formed by the estuary of the rivers Tiutei-Yakha and Ser-Yakha at their confluence with the Kara Sea [Fedorova, Kosintsev, Fitzhugh 1998:21]. Two periods of the settlement existence were registered. The bone tools (121 pieces) were made from walrus tusk (104 pieces) or reindeer bones (17 pieces). The walrus tusk pieces included the arrow heads (42 pieces), scrapers, netting tools, borers, knives-daggers, harpoon blank, a pick. The scrapers were also made from flat walrus bones (pelvic or scapular). A needle, an awl-borer, head-plates (details of the deer harness), bow cover plate, netting instruments, iron knives hafts were made from reindeer antler. Among the stone tools there were abrasives for metal blades sharpening, polishing plates, a chopping tool and two scrapers on slate slabs. In the finds of the cultural layer of the settlement Tiutei-Sale I there was a lot of wooden chips, sticks, stacks, small planks, a fragment of the sledge I runner, a fragment of a comb, children`s toys (a bow with arrows, water fowl figures, a model of a sledge with a cabin, whipping tops, a broadsword).

Fortress Yarte VI (llth-12lh centuries) is located in the central part of Yamal on the southern shore of the lake Yarte, on the high edge of the native terrace of the left bank of the river Yuribei [Kosinskaya, Fedorova 1994:41]. According to the archaeological and dendro-chronological data this place was inhabited during the spring and summer seasons 5 times over the period of 50 years. The collection from the site is quite ] big and includes tools and everyday items from various materials, split bone and wood, chips, stacks.

Burial site Zeleny Yar is located on the bank of the Gorny Polui Channel, approximately 40 km south-south-east from Salekhard. The number of researched burials is 27, including 5 with the mummified human remains. The wooden boat-shaped blocks (in the children's burials possibly cradles) the threaded birch-bark sheets in which the deceased were covered, remains of the fur clothing and footwear were relatively well preserved.

Interpretation of the microanalysis data

Economy reconstruction

Results of the use-wear analysis help to clarify the methods of economic adaptation of the population of the North. The main sphere of economy over many centuries was hunting. In Ust-Polui, alongside with war-arrows there was a significant number of hunt-arrows of various shapes and sizes. The microanalysis allowed to register traces of secondary use on many of them (e.g. as borers, netting tools). Bones found in the site included the reindeer, elk, dog and fur animals.

In Tiutei-Sale I the main types of game were the reindeer, walrus, polar bear and the waterfowl. The use-wear analysis of the bone tools demonstrated that there were no harpoons (there was a single J blank of a denticulate piece), which makes it different from the sites of other northern regions, e.g. the Chukotka. The walrus hunting on the Kara Sea coast apparently concentrated in the rookeries. The ratio j of the small arrowheads and the bone remains of birds suggested that they were caught with nets at the t time of molting: some netting tools were identified. The reindeer was hunted with a bow. In the collection from Tiutei-Sale I there was a toy wooden bow and a bone bow plate. This type of plates with traces of intensive use were found in big quantities in the fortress Yarte VI, together with the plates protecting the hand while shooting the bow. The wear traces on the plates from the archaeological and the ethnographic collections are identical. For cutting of the animal carcass the walrus tusk knives-daggers (Tiutei-Sale I) and, probably, metal tools were used.

Numerous pieces related to fishing were, as yet, registered only in the fortress (sacred place) Ust-Polui, i.e. few fishing hooks, several netweights, netting tools and a big group of the fish scaling tools. Knives made of reindeer shoulder blades were still used by the population of the Lower Ob region in the beginning of the 20th century. The use-wear analysis of the archeological and ethnographic tools allowed to identify clear characteristic traces in the form of thin long scratches at an angle to the blade edge and the "greasy", polish brighter on the work area than on the handle. In the ethnographic collection of TSHAMR and Adrianov`s collection there were knives-daggers made of reindeer bone, on which the linear traces and the shine concentrated on the tip, edge and the side surfaces and reflected a more complicated kinematics of movements in the process of gutting and scaling of fish. Similar in shape items were found at the Tiutei-Sale I site, but the wear traces on them were different, which confirmed the assumption of different functions of daggers — for the animal carcass cutting.

The issue of time and origins of reindeer husbandry in the North still remains controversial. V. I. Moshinskaya defined the curved plates with indents from the collection of the fortress (sacred place) Ust-Polui as the head plates of reindeer-"manshik" (a decoy for hunting). In the same collection I found the plates similar to those, that are still used in reindeer harness today. In the materials of Tiutei-Sale I there also were some head plates with the indents, but larger in size than those from Ust-Polui. Parts of the harness found in the fortress Yarte VI, had no indents, but were of the same size as the pieces from the settlement Tiutei-Sale I. All above listed artifacts were studied under the microscope. They showed traces of intensive use in the form of clear thin crossing lines and polish on both surfaces. The surface contacting the head of an animal had greater wear. The holes at ends of the plates used for fixing them were deformed, on their walls and adjacent areas there were traces of friction from the leather straps. The reindeer hair has a tubular structure and leaves characteristic traces. Comparison of the traces with the ones registered in the analysis of harness from the ethnographic collection proved they were identical. Contemporary head plates are similar in shape to the ones found in the fortress Yarte VI. This allows to assume the draught reindeer husbandry existed in Yamal at least from the 6th-8th centuries AD, and its sources, probably, go back to the l-st century BC. Among the wooden pieces there were the sledge runners (Ust-Polui, Tiutei-Sale I) and the children`s toys (Tiutei-Sale I, Yarte VI).

Household occupations

Stone working

A particularly big group of artifacts consisted of the objects related to various materials working and everyday activities of the people. The continuity in the stone working techniques can be traced over a period from the Mesolithic to the 12th century AD. In the early sites the predominant percussion technique was scarfing and small blades knapping, then the main techniques became scarfing and polishing. The pestles, abrasive tools and the scrapers on lamellar rock slabs continued to be used for a long time (Ust-Polui, Yarte VI, Tiutei-Sale I).

Wood working

The metal tools for wood working were axes, knives, and chisels. Traces of use of such instruments were clearly visible on the wooden pieces from the settlements and the burial blocks from Zeleny Yar burial site. Several burials were damaged in a similar way: the bones of legs and hips of the buried were preserved, while the skull and upper part of the skeleton were scattered. On the "boat" from burial 22 there were marks of cross-cuts made with a metal axe, which confirmed the purposeful destruction of the grave. There were numerous traces of notching, sharpening of the stacks on Yarte VI and Tiutei-Sale I. Small wooden everyday pieces were made with a metal knife, in this case it was not only modeling of details of the piece, but ornamentation as well (combs from the fortress Yarte VI). Alongside with the metal tools for the working (splitting) of wood the antler wedges were also used. They are represented in the archaeological collections from the Yamal sites and have clearly visible wear traces.

Bone working

The bones and antlers of reindeer were widely used for making tools and everyday things. The raw material was first steamed out or soaked for softening. This is confirmed with the long smooth cuts on the blanks or finished items. Bone was processed on site, as there was no deficit of it. The tools of the same functional application were represented with the objects of different manufacturing stages, which allowed to reconstruct the technological manufacturing sequences. For making handles for metal knives an antler was cut along the perimeter and then broken. At the ends the holes were made for attaching it to a belt. The blade was inserted right into the porous mass of antler. The external surface was polished or scraped with an iron blade. The holes were made with a knife tip, therefore they were of an irregular round or oval shape. Similar techniques were used for making other items: cutting, shaving, less frequently polishing. Many bone pieces from the fortress (sacred place) Ust-Polui were decorated.

The walrus tusk was worked differently then reindeer antler or bone. The tusk contains significant quantities of minerals and therefore splits similarly to the flint rocks. Among the finds on the settlement there were the walrus "nucleuses" with the negatives from flaking spalls and numerous flakes that were used to make arrowheads (42 pieces), scrapers, netting tools, borers. The walrus tusk tools included knives-daggers, a harpoon blank, a pick. The shaping of the work and the accommodation (handle or pin) parts was done by percussion. The flat walrus bones (pelvic or scapular) were worked in the same way as reindeer bone.

Birch-bark and plant fibers working

The study of the birch-bark working has just begun. At the moment it is clear that in making of the large sheets they were heat treated. Otherwise it would not have been possible to make such accurate stitches as were registered on the pieces from Zeleny Yar burial site. Fragments of small birch-bark items with small holes from threading and several bits of the tendon thread were found in settlements Yarte VI and Tiutei-Sale I. Interlaced willow (?) rods were found in fortress Yarte VI. The population of the lower Ob region used the nettle fiber in their everyday life. In the Ust-Polui collection there were small bones with traces in the form of the crossing lines and bright gloss similar to ones that were registered on the ethnographic tools for nettle working. In burial 27 of the burial site Zeleny Yar on a bronze face mask there were traces similar to the nettle ones.


A large group of the artifacts had traces of being used in such processes as working hides, leather, belts, making and repairing clothes and footwear. Scrapers from flint rocks constituted one of the widest categories of the finds on the sites of the Stone and the Bronze Ages. Scrapers of discoid, rectangular or sub-triangular shape on slate, amphibolite and gneiss slabs were found on the sites Ust-Polui, Zelenaya Gorka, Tiutei-Sale I and Yarte VI. On all pieces the work edge was rounded with clear cross (sometimes inclined) linear traces. The edges of the lines were sharp, as these tools were used on the dried dirty hide. Tools for leather working were also made from the walrus tusk flakes (Tiutei-Sale I), flat and tubular reindeer and elk bones (Ust-Polui, Yarte VI), reindeer antler plates (Yarte VI). They were different in size and shape (including shape of the work blade), straight, semicircular, or denticulate. Some tools were used for removing (scraping off) hair. The fur and leather goods were sewn with the tendon thread with use of bone needles. We could see the results of hide working on the remains of the goods from fortress Yarte VI and Zeleny Yar burial site. Numerous bits of well dressed leather and fur with traces of fine "overcast" seams were found on the fortress site. In the children's burials of the burial site there were blankets (clothes?) from sable and marten, beaver fur, footwear from reindeer fur (furs were identified by the director of the Ural branch of the Russian Research Institute of hunting and fur farming N. I. Mordvinov). In the male burial there was a head dress and the face cover from glutton fur, a blanket (clothing?) from reindeer fur. Initial visual inspection and the registering of the seams (visible with a naked eye) on the pieces was made by the ethnographer E. V. Perevalova and myself. The studies can be resumed only after the conservation and restoration of the fur pieces, for which purpose they were sent to the Hermitage. However, already at this work stage it is possible to state the high quality of hide working of various animals, e.g. beaver. All seams were made accurately, with the exception of the ones with which the face cover was stitched to the head dress in burial 27.

In the cultural layers of the northern sites straps of varying width, thickness and color were found. The straps from the burial site were dressed particularly well. They were thin and dyed with red or black. The straps from the settlements were thicker (5-8 mm). Both types of straps, thin and wider, were stretched with the tools made from reindeer shoulder blades [Alexashenko 1999:131-132]. Plenty of such tools were found in fort Yarte VI, where the belts and straps were made, apparently, not only for local use, but also for exchange. Today the Ural Khanty also use the reindeer scapula for stretching the lasso straps, but with a smaller hole than in the i archeological tools.

Everyday objects

The use-wear study of the everyday items demonstrated that among them there were apparently similar, but different in the use-wear traces articles, which meant that their functions (e.g. hooks for cradles and for caldron) were different. In the collection from the fortress (sacred place) Ust-Polui there were items, which use was related to a particular season (e.g. winter). These were the "ice horse-shoe" and the bone blades of the snow shovels (forked on one side blades 25-30 cm long, with two-three holes with which they were fixed to a wooden shovel). The cross and inclined to the blade edge clear linear traces and the bright shine spread far over side surfaces of the item. No such items were found in Yarte VI or Tiutei-Sale I, which confirmed the assumption of their seasonal (spring and summer) use [Fedorova, Kosintsev, Fitzhugh 1998:71]. The microanalysis of several miniature models of the items demonstrated their intensive use, which confirmed the assumption that they were the children`s toys and not the ritual items. Their study has just begun.

Thus, the initial research has proven the high potential value of use of the microanalysis method for the study of archaeological and ethnographic artifacts of the North of Western Siberia. This approach also contributes to development of the use-wear analysis method itself.


I want to express my gratitude to all the people who inspired me to this work, offered materials for research, shared with me their ideas, knowledge, who helped and supported my work. My thanks to N. V. Fedorova, E. V. Perevalova, Z. A. Tychinskikh, T. A. Popova, P. A. Kosintsev, O. V. Malozemova, A. G. Brusnitsyna, Z. I. Randymova.

© Ямальская археологическая экспедиция, 2003-2017
Яндекс цитирования