Lab Research

RoboCut: developing automated experiments in use-wear analysis


KUKA robot performing a scraping task. Photo by Fabio Bergamin, ETH-Zürich

This project, in collaboration with Jonas Buchli  and his student, Johannes Pfleging, both from the Agile & Dexterous Robotics Laboratory at the ETH Zürich, aims at 1) measuring dynamic parameters in human use-wear experiments [Pfleging et al. 2015], and 2) passing these parameters to a force-impedance controlled robot for automated performance and documentation. Using a KUKA LBR iiwa arm, Johannes and the team were able to get to the finals of the KUKA Innovation Award, and presented at the Hannover Fair. Below you can see a series of links to press releases and articles about this event.


1) Press release:

2) Automaton blog:

3) VICE Motherboard:

Artifact morphology and function, and Paleolithic systematics

Stone technology is different from other technologies familiar to us today, in that it is reductive. I’ve used this concept in a series of papers (see below) to look at quantifying tool and assemblage life-histories and comparing them to identify differences due to functional embedding, diffusion, or migration. I have examined the interplay of production techniques and tool morphology to address independent invention, diffusion, and migration through lithic material for different periods and geographical contexts: the Dabban of North Africa and the Emiran of the Levant [Iovita 2009], the European Middle Paleolithic [Iovita 2008, 2009a, 2010a], and, most recently, comparing the Acheulian and Middle Paleolithic handaxe concepts [Iovita and McPherron 2011].

Recently, I analyzed morphological variability in North African Aterian tanged tools, concluding that they were resharpened like side-edge-tools rather than like weapon tips [Iovita 2011].

Neandertal Projectile Technology (NeProTec)

The invention of complex weapons, and especially that of projectiles, is considered to be one of the deciding cultural factors in the successful dispersal of hominins into virtually all ecological zones. However, the point in time when they became widespread is still debated. In order to evaluate the direct evidence for the use of stone tools as projectiles, and building upon earlier experimental work undertaken with colleagues at Penn [Dibble et al., 2005, Rezek et al. 2011], I obtained a two-year grant (titled “The Neandertal Projectile Technology (NeProTech)”) from the German Science Foundation (DFG) to study projectile fracture under controlled conditions.


The project, in cooperation with the German Metrological Institute (PTB), is the most controlled study design to date and involves experimental shooting of exact glass replicas of presumed archaeological projectile points at various speeds and angles into standardized targets made of organic simulants. Through the controlling of most external factors and the subsequent study of the damage under the microscope, we are working toward understanding how ‘diagnostic’ impact damages in both weapons and targets actually form [Iovita et al. 2014]. Thanks to these experiments, we are able to establish minimal criteria for distinguishing spears, javelins, and darts based on secondary fracture characteristics. To put the results of our teamwork in a larger context, I also obtained the funding for and organized an international workshop/ symposium on Stone Age weaponry in Mainz, the proceedings of which will be published as an edited volume [Iovita and Sano, 2016] in the Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology Series with Springer Press.


Dibble HL, Schurmans UA, Iovita RP, McLaughlin MV (2005) The measurement and interpretation of cortex in lithic assemblages. Am Antiquity 70: 545–560. URL:

Iovita RP (2008) Ontogenetic scaling in stone tools and its application to European Middle Paleolithic systematics. UMI Dissertations Publishing, 158 p.

Iovita R (2009a) Ontogenetic scaling and lithic systematics: method and application. J Archaeol Sci 36: 1447–1457. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2009.02.008

Iovita RP (2009b) Reevaluating Connections between the Early Upper Paleolithic of Northeast Africa and the Levant: Technological Differences between the Dabban and the Emiran. In: Shea JJ, Lieberman DE, editors. Transitions in Prehistory: Essays in Honor of Ofer Bar-Yosef. Oakville, CT: Oxbow Books. pp. 125–142.

Iovita R (2010) Comparing stone tool resharpening trajectories with the aid of elliptical Fourier Analysis. In: Lycett SJ, Chauhan PR, editors. New Perspectives on Old Stones: Analytical Approaches to Paleolithic Technologies. New York: Springer. pp. 235–253. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-6861-6_10

Iovita R, McPherron SP (2011a) The handaxe reloaded: A morphometric reassessment of Acheulian and Middle Paleolithic handaxes. J Hum Evol 61: 61–74. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol. 2011.02.007

Iovita R (2011b) Shape variation in Aterian tanged tools and the origins of projectile technology: a morphometric perspective on stone tool function. PLoS ONE. doi:10.1371/journal.pone. 002902

Iovita R, Schönekeß H, Gaudzinski-Windheuser S, Jäger F (2014) Impact fracture patterns in exact replicas of Levallois points: the first results of a new controlled ballistic experimental protocol.  J Archaeol Sci. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2013.01.031

Iovita, R. and K. Sano (Eds.) (2016). Multidisciplinary approaches to the study of Stone Age weaponry, Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology, Springer, Dordrecht.

Pfleging J, Stücheli M, Iovita R, Buchli J (2015) Dynamic Monitoring Reveals Motor Task Characteristics in Prehistoric Technical Gestures. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0134570. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0134570

Rezek Z, Lin S, Iovita R, Dibble HL (2011) The relative effects of core surface morphology on flake shape and other attributes. J Archaeol Sci: 1–14. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2011.01.014

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