North Macedonia

Neanderthal Crossroads: Excavations at the Middle Paleolithic Site Uzun Mera and Peshka Rock-shelter

Period: Paleolithic / Middle Paleolithic
Code: NCRDS.EXC.23
Session: 24 June - 15 July, 2023
Academic credits available: 9 ECTS
Cost starting from: 2249 EUR/ approx. 2249 USD

The Project and the Course

General Information

Project type: Field school & archaeological excavation. Suitable for both beginners and advanced students as well as those interested in archaeology, prehistory and early human dispersal in the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe during the Paleolithic period.   

SitesUzun Mera Middle Paleolithic open-air site, 20 km from Shtip, North Macedonia and Peshka rock-shelter (40 km from Shtip), and a couple of caves nearby. Transportation from Shtip to the sites and back is provided for all field school participants. In case of rain, fieldwork will be substituted by workshops, lectures and other indoor activities.

The excavation started: 2017; The field school began in: 2022

Period(s) in the project's focus: Middle Paleolithic is the primary field school focus. However, remains from the Copper, Bronze, Iron and Middle Ages can also be discovered, processed and discussed.

Major field school topics/activities: Archaeology of the European Middle Paleolithic (300 000 - 45 000 years ago). Human evolution and Neanderthals.  Archaeological field techniques and methods for excavation and documentation, surveying, geological cave coring, processing of finds and samples; Data gathering and processing, interpretation & presentation of results. Archaeological photography and technical drawing. Experimental archaeology. Excursions to significant heritage sites in North Macedonia.

BHF Partners in this project:    

Dig co-directorsDarko Stojanovski (PhD in Quaternary and Prehistory), Balkan Heritage Foundation; Associate Professor Sarah Lacey (PhD in Biological Anthropology), California State University Dominguez Hills; Prof. Trajche Nacev (PhD in Archaeology), University of Goce Delchev

Research and field school team: Andrej Machkovski, Blagoja Kitanovski

Field school coordinator: Darko Stojanovski   

Field school sessions available: Three-week session: 24 June - 15 July, 2023

Application deadline: Until the places are filled or 9 April, 2023

Minimum length of stay: Three weeks

Minimum age: 18 (16, if the participant is accompanied by an adult family member)

Number of field school places available: 14

Project language: English

Academic credits available: 9 ECTS

Experience Required: None

Special requirements: Participation in the project is not recommended for individuals with solar allergies or other special illnesses that might be exacerbated during the intensive outdoor activities. The average summer temperatures in the area are 25-35° C (77-95° F). Participants should bring clothes and toiletries suitable for hot and sunny weather but should also prepare for possible rainy, windy and chilly days.   

A medical COVID-19 certificate might be requested from each participant. The participants should have medical insurance including COVID-19 treatment and repatriation. The participants should inform the project staff about any health issues, allergies, and food preferences.         

Participants are also expected to prepare for the dig by reading at minimum the recommended readings. 

Participants will use the tools and equipment available at the site and are not expected to bring any additional equipment.   

Archaeological Context & Period

The history of migration of modern humans and our predecessors is complex and still not entirely revealed. Long before Homo sapiens emerged, other hominid species ventured out of Africa and roamed throughout Eurasia, from Portugal to China. Recent research has identified new species (e.g., Denisovans, Homo luzonensis) and confirmed the coexistence of different hominid branches and their genetic interaction. A recent examination of two skulls from the Apidima site in nearby Greece suggests that Homo sapiens was present in SE Europe as early as 200 000 years ago and had a long period of coexistence and interaction with the Neanderthals (Harvati et al. 2019). Human history is becoming more complicated than previously thought and more intriguing.   


Based on the stone-tools found at Pirro Nord in Italy and the expansive site of Dmanisi in Georgia, early hominins inhabited temperate latitude Western Eurasia as early as 1.7 million years ago. The earliest human remains in Europe date to around 1.1 million years ago, discovered at Atapuerca in Spain. They are identified as Homo heidelbergensis-like, extinct hominin species inhabiting Europe roughly between 800 000 and 300 000 years ago. They are the taxonomic lineage that eventually evolved into Homo neanderthalensis, the main protagonist of the Middle Palaeolithic of Europe.   


Homo neanderthalensis derived in Europe around 450 000 years ago, and later dispersed southward to Israel and eastward to Central Asia. They disappeared around 40 000 years ago, either through extinction (for climatic and environmental reasons, or from violent interaction with anatomically modern humans), or were gradually dissolved into the Homo sapiens gene pool. Within this span of 400 000 years (the European Middle Palaeolithic), guided by climatic fluctuations, the Neanderthals often migrated. The southern parts of the Iberian Peninsula, Crimea, and Italy have often been considered as refugia for Neanderthal groups during glacial maximums. The Balkan Peninsula was not only a refugium but also a crossroad, a route into and out of Asia and the most likely path of ancient hominins. It was a meeting point for various groups, from different geographical regions and with different stone-tool production concepts.    


Excavations from Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece revealed a great diversity within the Mousterian cultures of the Balkan Peninsula. There are dozens of Middle Paleolithic archaeological sites across Serbia and Bulgaria (e.g., Pešturina and Hadži Prodanova in Serbia and Temnata Dupka in Bulgaria). They are also dotted across Greece (e.g., Lakonis, Klissoura, Kalamakia) with many likely lost to sea-level rise.    


There are also Neandertal and Pre-Neandertal skeletal remains to a lesser degree. Vindija and Krapina (Croatia) have contributed a vast amount to our knowledge of Neandertal skeletal anatomy and genetics, considering the large size of the samples, in addition to skeletal remains from Kozarnika (Bulgaria), Balanica (Serbia), and Apidima and Petralona (Greece). This region was likely intensely inhabited by Neandertals and yet, for historical and geopolitical reasons, the Middle Paleolithic has not been explored to the degree similar to France and Spain. Now this is changing as new sites are being surveyed, and literature is being translated into other languages. Still, the Balkan region remains probably the least studied region of Europe with regards to the Middle Paleolithic (Roksandic, 2016).

The Site and the Excavation Project

The Republic of North Macedonia is positioned centrally in the Balkan Peninsula. Until recently, Golema Pesht cave was the only excavated site representing the Paleolithic in the country. In 2017 the Uzun Mera site was discovered: an open-air site with stone-tools scattered over a vast area in the central part of the Ovche Pole valley. Given the rarity of Paleolithic sites in the country, a wider project was initiated, which documents the site in its environmental, geological, and cultural setting.

After several field campaigns, we now know much more about the stone tool assemblage, the stratigraphy, and the relative chronology at Uzun Mera. The recovered artifacts date to the Middle Palaeolithic. They are contained in the top layer of the stratigraphy together with cobbles of the raw material they are made from, and all the steps of the production sequence are present. There are, however, many important questions still unresolved. One of them is the site formation history. The layer containing artifacts is an alluvial terrace on the left bank of a small river. The river source is in the nearby hills to the north, which are part of an ancient volcanic complex. Obviously the raw material was transported downhill to their current position. The question is whether the artifacts traveled together with the cobbles, or they were made on-site once the raw material was deposited. Some of the knapping products show signs of transportation, but others do not.    

Another question is whether there is more than one Palaeolithic (or maybe even Mesolithic) phase in the assemblage. A few of the pieces collected during the initial surveys suggest that the site was also visited during the Upper Palaeolithic. Furthermore, if this open-air site was an area used for raw material procurement and tool production, where did the other economic, social, and cultural activities of these mobile groups take place? To address some of the unresolved questions, we set out to look for Paleolithic remains in stratified contexts in the wider region. Obvious features to investigate would be some of the caves and rock-shelters at the periphery of the valley.    

In 2022, we initiated excavations at the Peshka rock-shelter at the NE edge. During the only campaign so far, we have seen the great archaeological potential of the site, and discovered remains from the Copper, Bronze, and Iron Age, and the Early Medieval period. The stratigraphic sequence goes further down, and we expect to reach early prehistoric layers in the following campaigns.

In summary, the main questions for fieldwork season 2023 would be:

  • What is the site formation history at Uzun Mera (whether the artifacts are in a primary or secondary context?)
  • Is there more than one Paleolithic phase represented in the Uzun Mera assemblage?   
  • What was the range of movement of these hominin groups and were they using other features of the surrounding landscape different from the flatlands at the center of the valley?   
  • Where is the source for raw-material for stone-tool production, and how far are these products dispersed?   
  • Are there Paleolithic levels at the Peshka rock-shelter, and how do they relate to the Uzun Mera assemblage?

Expected results:

  • Techno-typological profile of the Uzun Mera assemblage.
  • Establish the absolute chronology of Uzun Mera and have a better view of the nature of the site (primary or secondary context?).
  • Detect the exact origin of the raw material used for knapping at Uzun Mera.
  • Document the stratigraphy and establish the Paleolithic potential of the Peshka rock-shelter

The Field School

This field school is an amazing opportunity to:

  • dig at a Paleolithic and a Pre-/Protohistoric site in North Macedonia
  • learn about the early human dispersals of Europe and their technology, and prehistoric archaeology approaches and methods for studying the material remains
  • practice all basic excavation and recording techniques on the field
  • develop skills in finds retrieval and processing with a focus on Paleolithic stone-tool technology
  • expand knowledge on Neandertal culture and the use of interdisciplinary approach (geology, biology, physics) in Neandertal study
  • visit significant archaeological and historic sites across the country: the Roman city of Stobi, the Late Antique and medieval town of Bargala, medieval monasteries and Skopje - the capital of North Macedonia with its very diverse cultural heritage dating back to Antiquity, Middle Ages and the Modern period.

These three weeks are an excellent opportunity for beginners who will be introduced to the methodology and theoretical knowledge needed for engaging in an archaeological excavation of a prehistoric site.

Students who are required to prepare field reports and presentations for their universities can receive additional instruction and assistance.     

All participants will receive:

  • Free access to readings
  • Balkan Heritage Field School Certificate specifying the fieldwork hours, educational modules, and sites visited
  • T-shirt 

The Team

Dig co-directors:    

  • Dr. Darko Stojanovski, Balkan Heritage Foundation - PhD in Quaternary and Prehistory, University of Ferrara, Italy
  • Associate Professor Sarah Lacey, California State University Dominguez Hills - PhD in Biological Anthropology, Washington University in St Louis, USA      
  • Prof. Trajche Nacev, University of Goce Delchev - PhD in Archaeology, University of Goce Delchev in Shtip, North Macedonia

Research and field school team:      

  • Andrej Machkovski   
  • Blagoja Kitanovski

Field school coordinator:    

  • Dr. Darko Stojanovski, Balkan Heritage Foundation - PhD in Quaternary and Prehistory, University of Ferrara, Italy

The Program

The full duration of this field school provides a minimum of 120 hours of fieldwork, workshops/lab work, lectures/instructions and guided tours as follows:

Field work

  • on-site excavations
  • field walking and surveying (establishing the limits of the site, the density of surface finds, detecting nearby raw-material sources, visiting caves with potential archaeological remains)
  • documentation (macro photography, drone photography, plan and profile sketching)


  • The basics of archaeology (fieldwork methods for Paleolithic sites, emergency conservation, field and post-field documentation, data gathering and manipulation, interpretation and presentation of results);
  • Prehistory of Europe (cultural and anthropological aspects from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic, with accent on the Balkan Peninsula);
  • Paleolithic stone tool techno-typology of Europe (human-technology co-evolution)


  • Experimental archaeology: stone-tool knapping workshop
  • Artifact and field drawing workshops
  • Archaeological photography workshop      

Lab work:

  • Scanning electron microscope (SEM) – matching geological samples from field-walking with archaeological stone tools
  • Soil analysis

Guided tours to:

  • The Roman city of Stobi (archaeological reservation) and Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia
  • The Late Antique and medieval town of Bargala, the medieval monastery of Lesnovo and a traditional pottery workshop at Zletovo     
  • Fieldwork - expect to perform all types of fieldwork at the site, from digging, brushing to mapping and sampling as well as finds processing along with lab work
  • Lectures & workshops will take place at the Faculty of Educational Science & the Faculty of Geology, Goce Delchev University, Shtip
  • Field instructions and training take place at the site


The Agenda


Frist day

Arrival date: 24 June, 2023    

Arrival and check-in by 7.30 pm.

8.00 pm - Traditional Macedonian Welcome Dinner.

Second day

25 June, 2023:   

Morning:  Orientation and walk around Shtip

Afternoon:  Lectures

8.00 pm - Dinner 

Working days

6:00 am - Transfer to the site

6:30 am - 8:30 am - Fieldwork*

8:30 - 9:00 am - Breakfast at the site

9:00 - 11:00 am - Fieldwork*

11:00 - 11:15 am - Break

11:15 am - 1:00 pm - Fieldwork*

1:00 - 1:30 pm - Transfer to Shtip

1:30 - 2:30 pm - Lunch

2:30 - 5:00 pm - Siesta break

5:00 - 7:00 pm - Lectures/Workshops/Lab work

7:00 pm - Dinner

* In case of rain, the field school program provides substitute activities including finds processing workshops, lab work and film projections at the university.

Excursion days

1st July 2023: Tour of Stobi, the Roman capital of Macedonia Secunda. Tour of the Archaeological Museum in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, as well as a traditional lunch, visits to Skopje’s old town & fortress.   

8th July 2023: Tour of the Early Byzantine town of Bargala, guided tour of the archaeological site and the medieval church of St. George as well as a traditional pottery workshop at Zletovo. Visit to the Medieval monastery St. Gavril Lesnovski, the Lesnovo gorge and the cave system & ancient mill-stones production center.    

Both excursions are covered by the reimbursement payment.


2nd and 9th of July

Last day

Departure. Check-out by 12.00 pm

Departure date: July 15, 2023

Transfers to the airport in Skopje may be arranged upon request for an additional fee.

Reading Background   


Alex, B., Mihailović, D., Milošević, S., Boaretto, E., 2019. Radiocarbon chronology of Middle and Upper Paleolithic sites in Serbia, Central Balkans. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 25, 266–279. doi:10.1016/j.jasrep.2019.04.010

Harvati, K., Röding, C., Bosman, A.M., Karakostis, F.A., Grün, R., Stringer, C., Karkanas, P., Thompson, N.C., Koutoulidis, V., Moulopoulos, L.A., Gorgoulis, V.G., Kouloukoussa, M., 2019. Apidima Cave fossils provide earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in Eurasia. Nature 571. doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1376-z

Kozlowski, J.K., 1992. The Balkans in the Middle and Upper Paleolithic: the gate to Europe or a cul-de-sac? Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society1 58, 1–20.

Maczkowski, A., 2018. New data from the Balkans: assessment of the post-depositional modifications and the technological variability of the lithic industries of Uzun Mera, Republic of Macedonia. University of Ferrara.

Roksandic, M., 2016. The role of the Central Balkans in the peopling of Europe: Paleoanthropological evidence. In: Harvati, K., Roksandic, M. (Eds.), Paleoanthropology of the Balkans and Anatolia. Springer, pp. 15–33.

Sirakov, N., Guadelli, J.L., Ivanova, S., Sirakova, S., Boudadi-Maligne, M., Dimitrova, I., Ph, F., Ferrier, C., Guadelli, A., Iordanova, D., Iordanova, N., Kovatcheva, M., Krumov, I., Leblanc, J.C., Miteva, V., Popov, V., Spassov, R., Taneva, S., Tsanova, T., 2010. An ancient continuous human presence in the Balkans and the beginnings of human settlement in western Eurasia: A Lower Pleistocene example of the Lower Palaeolithic levels in Kozarnika cave (North-western Bulgaria). Quaternary International 223–224, 94–106. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2010.02.023

Stojanovski, D., Arzarello, M., Nacev, T., 2018. Middle Palaeolithic stone-tool technology from the Central Balkans: The site of Uzun Mera (eastern Republic of Macedonia). Quaternary International 476, 63–69. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2018.03.003   

Strait, D.S., Orr, C.M., Hodgkins, J., Spassov, N., Gurova, M., Miller, C. and Tzankov, T., 2016. The Human Fossil Record of Bulgaria and the Formulation of Biogeographic Hypotheses. In Paleoanthropology of the Balkans and Anatolia (pp. 69-78). Springer, Dordrecht.

Tillier, A. Marie, Sirakov, N., Guadelli, A., Fernandez, P., Sirakova, S., Dimitrova, I., Ferrier, C., Guérin, G., Heidari, M., Krumov, I., Leblanc, J.C., Miteva, V., Popov, V., Taneva, S., Guadelli, J.L., 2017. Evidence of Neanderthals in the Balkans: The infant radius from Kozarnika Cave (Bulgaria). Journal of Human Evolution 111, 54–62. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2017.06.002

Tourloukis, V., Harvati, K., 2018. The Palaeolithic record of Greece: A synthesis of the evidence and a research agenda for the future. Quaternary International 466, 48–65. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2017.04.020

Travel & Accommodation & Practicalities


Project venue: All of the lectures, workshops, lab work and activities held outside of the archaeological dig will be held on the premises of “Goce Delchev” University in Shtip and more specifically at the Faculty of Educational Science & the Faculty of Geology.

The nearest air terminals: Skopje is the nearest airport (66km), alternative options being Thessaloniki airport, Greece (194km) and Sofia airport, Bulgaria (214km).

How to get there? All participants shall arrive in Skopje and will be picked-up by a field school shuttle in the morning of 25 June, 2023 for an additional fee of 30 EUR. Those who miss the shuttle can take the regular buses between Skopje and Shtip ( or taxi (approx. 80-90 EUR).

Visa requirements: Citizens of EU, EEA, USA, Canada, Japan, Republic of Korea, Australia and New Zealand do not need a visa to visit the Republic of North Macedonia for up to 90 days. Citizens of all other countries may need a visa. The Balkan Heritage Foundation can send an official invitation letter that should be used at the relevant embassy to secure a visa to the program. For further details please visit our Visa information page  



Accommodation & Meals


Accommodation: Smestuvanje za studenti - Danilov is located in a quiet residential part of the center of Shtip, within walking distance to everything, offering double rooms (twin beds) with toilet/shower. Free use of wi-fi, washing machine, kitchen. Bed linen and towels are provided. Single room accommodation is possible upon request for additional charge (two single rooms are available on a first-come, first-served basis).

Meals: Three meals (organic, local Macedonian homemade food) per day are covered by the admission fee. During the workdays, all meals usually take place in a restaurant close by to the accommodation facilities. The meals during the weekends take place at the same restaurant except for the lunches planned in the excursions or brown bag lunches. This field school can accommodate vegetarians, vegans, and individuals with lactose intolerance. Kosher and gluten-free diets are impossible to accommodate in this location.

Participants must pay on their own for extra days and for single room accommodation as well as for extra meals, beverages, services and products. 

Free Time & Trips

Free time:The BHFS participants can take advantage of their stay in Shtip, North Macedonia and take hikes around the beautiful mountainous region around the city under the Isar hill. There are walking/running/training tracks on the banks of the river Bregalnica, three 14th-century churches in the surrounding environs, and the ruins of an old castle. The recently renovated local swimming pool is available to cool down from the heat during free days.

Extra trips and surroundings: In the wider area of Eastern N. Macedonia, an interesting geo-formation - the Stone Dolls - can be visited near the Kuklitsa village (60km from Shtip) as well as the famous Kokino site (100km from Shtip), a geological formation and a Bronze Age site claimed to represent one of the oldest megalithic observatories in the Balkans. For nature lovers, Berovo (85 km from Shtip), an idyllic mountain town and lake, would be an interesting day trip. A must see in the Central Balkans is the Ohrid town and lake (230 km from Shtip), in the SW extremes of N. Macedonia. This UNESCO protected natural and cultural monument offers a stunning natural beauty with crystal clear waters and magnificent mountain peaks, combined with archaeological sites testifying for continuous cultural development during the past 8 000 years.


Technicalities & Practicalities   


Insurance: The reimbursement payment does not cover insurance. It is mandatory to arrange your own health insurance before your trip to N. Macedonia. The insurance must cover as a minimum the following risks: medical treatment in case of an accident or disease, specifically covering COVID-19 as well as costs related to evacuation and repatriation.

Weather: South-European (Transitional Mediterranean to Continental) climate with average summer temperatures of 25-35° C (77-95° F) dominates in the region. Rainy and chillier days in this season are not unheard of.

What to bring?

  • A pair of working shoes (sneakers, running shoes) and a pair of comfortable shoes for walking/hiking;
  • Clothing suitable for an outdoor working environment: sun-hat and light clothes with long sleeves and legs (protecting from the sun and insects), including a light raincoat (consider weather conditions - hot and sunny, but rain may fall as well);
  • Wide brim hat;
  • Small backpack (for your water bottle, snacks, camera, etc.)
  • Medication - only prescription medicines you may need since you can buy all basic non-prescription drugs in North Macedonia.
  • A converter to European type electricity wall-plug if needed.
  • A good attitude for work, fun, study, and discoveries.

Excavation & documentation tools and materials, as well as working  gloves are available at the site!   


The Cost


All field schools are conducted as non-profit projects by the Balkan Heritage Foundation, Bulgaria. Their costs, including students' costs related to participation in the field school are covered by the reimbursement payments made by field school students.


BHFS project reimbursement payment covers: Educational and fieldwork activities, full-board accommodation (hotel + 3 meals per day), tools, materials, project handbook or readings, issue of Certificate of Attendance, administrative costs, travel related to the fieldwork and the excursions included in the field school program plus relevant entrance fees.


BHFS project reimbursement payment does not include: travel costs to and from the field school or related to activities not included in the field school program; medical products and services and any expenses related to medical quarantine (food delivery, accommodation, etc.).


The costs in USD are approximate. Please check current exchange rates!


Early Bird Cost - until March 1, 2023:


Early Bird Cost for three-week project session is 2249 EUR/ approx. 2249 USD


Regular Cost - after March 1, 2023:      


The Regular Cost for three-week project session is 2549 EUR/ approx. 2549 USD   


All students registered for BHFS season 2020 shall contact BHFS Admissions office at b[email protected] for further information about the conditions of their participation in season 2023. 

Reimbursement Transfer Options:

- Bank transfer
- Online transfers via the Balkan Heritage virtual POS Terminal. VISA, MASTERCARD & MAESTRO cards are accepted.      
Wise money transfer

For further information contact Admissions Office at: [email protected]!

 Discounts off the regular cost:

* 5% DISCOUNT OFF the regular cost available for:

  1. Participation in more than one BHFS project in 2023 (discount applies to the second, third, etc. project).
  2. Membership in the Archaeological Institute of America.

* 10% DISCOUNT OFF the regular cost available for:

  1. Participation in any BHFS project/s in the past.

* 12% DISCOUNT OFF the regular cost available for:

  1. Group Participation (three or more people who participate together in one BHFS project in 2023). The discount is valid for each participant.

* 15% DISCOUNT OFF the regular cost is available for:

  1. Group Participation (three or more people, who participate in more than one BHFS project in 2023 (the discount is valid for each participant).
  2. BHFS alumni, who participate in more than one BHFS project in 2023. (discount applies to the second, third, etc. project).
  3. BHFS alumni who attended a full project in the past and return to the same project.


For more information about scholarships, low-cost flights, hotels, etc. please feel free to contact us or look at our recommended links.


Academic credits   


New Bulgarian University grants 9 European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) credit units for attending the field school. Transcripts of Records (ToR) are available upon request for an additional tuition fee of 600 EUR for EU students and 900 EUR for Non-EU students. Details: Regulations for Obtaining Transcripts of Records.   

Participants in the field school who do not need academic credit units are not expected to pay for them.   





North Macedonia

Neanderthal Crossroads: Excavations at the Middle Paleolithic Site Uzun Mera and Peshka Rock-shelter

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