North Macedonia

Neanderthal Crossroads: Excavations at the Middle Paleolithic Site Uzun Mera

Period: Paleolithic / Middle Paleolithic
Code: NCRDS.EXC 22
Session: 25 June - 16 July, 2022
Academic credits available: 9 ECTS
Admission fee starting from: 2049 EUR/ approx. 2348 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.

Site: Uzun Mera Middle Paleolithic (open air site), near the town of Shtip and a couple of caves nearby, Republic of North Macedonia.     

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

Period(s) of occupation: Middle Paleolithic 

Major field school topics/activities: Archaeology of the European Middle Paleolithic (300 000 - 45 000 BP). Archaeological field techniques and methods for excavation and documentation, surveying, geological cave coring, processing of finds and samples; Lectures on Paleolithic sites, emergency conservation, Prehistoric Europe, data gathering & processing, interpretation & presentation of results, and workshops in photography, archaeological drawing. Experimental archaeology. Excursions to significant heritage sites in North Macedonia.

BHF Partners in this project: Goce Delchev University (North Macedonia), California State University Dominguez Hills (USA), and New Bulgarian University (Bulgaria)

Dig co-directors: Prof. Trajche Nacev & Darko Stojanovski

Research and field school team: Asst. Prof. Sarah Lacy & Aleta Guadelli

Field school coordinator: Darko Stojanovski

Field school sessions available: Three-week session: 25 June - 16 July, 2022   

Application deadline: Until the places are filled or 15 May 2022

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: Maximum 12

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.

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. 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.    


Even though to a lesser degree, there are also Neanderthal and Pre-Neanderthal skeletal remains. Vindija and Krapina (Croatia) have contributed a vast amount to our knowledge of Neanderthal 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 Neanderthals and yet, for historical and geopolitical reasons, the Middle Paleolithic has not been explored to the degree similar to France and Spain for example. Now, this is changing as new sites are being surveyed and literature is being translated into other languages. Still, the Balkans remain probably the least studied region of Europe regarding the Middle Palaeolithic.

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 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, documenting the site in its environmental, geological, and cultural setting.

After two 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 Paleolithic. 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 a 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 Paleolithic (or maybe even Mesolithic) phase in the assemblage. One or two of the pieces collected during the initial survey suggest that the site was also visited during the Upper Paleolithic, but this is not enough to make definitive claims.

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? The valley is surrounded by small hills, and those at the southwestern edge of the valley are part of a longer karstic chain with an abundance of natural caves. The nearest cave system to Uzun Mera is Peshti Gorge. This is an area where we could potentially discover other aspects of the Middle Paleolithic Neanderthal life, obtain human remains, and where we could see the stone tools in a primary stratigraphic context, providing relative chronological phases.

The last question to answer at this stage of research is the origin of the raw material used for the tool production. We already have indications about the possible source in the nearby hills, but it would be important to identify the exact quarry and match it geo-chemically to the artifacts.      

In summary, the main questions for fieldwork season 2021 would be:

  • What is the site formation history (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 than the flatlands at the centre of the valley?
  • Where is the source for raw-material for stone-tool production and how far these products dispersed?

The initial focus of the research would be archaeological excavations at the Uzun Mera site. Smaller trenches will be positioned on as many different locations in its 1,5 km2 large area as possible. By adding some more detailed and well-documented field survey of the site territory, we should be able to detect if there is horizontal stratigraphy at the site, i.e. if there are techno-typological differences among different locations.

The extensive field survey will take place in the hills north of the site, in order to detect possible sources for the raw material used to make the discovered stone tools. Samples will be analysed by the Geology department laboratory at the Goce Delchev University in Shtip.

During the excavations, soil and quartz samples will be collected for Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) or Thermoluminescence (TL) dating of the layers with artifacts and those immediately under. These measurements will provide chronological frame and the duration of the formation of the layer containing artifacts.

Regarding the Peshti cave complex, excavations were carried out at the Toplata cave in June 2019. Only the Holocene sediment was excavated, where two Copper Age layers were found, as well as seven Medieval pits. Due to financial constraints, the Pleistocene was not reached (but layers of clayish soils, alternating with calcite concretions were visible in the profile of the deepest pit). Continuation of the excavations is planned for 2020, but the priority will be to test as many other caves as possible for Pleistocene sediments by geo-coring. This way we can evaluate the potential of the caves for Paleolithic archaeology and have a better judgment in selecting caves for future excavations.

Expected results:

  • Techno-typological assessment of a larger assemblage from different areas of the large territory of Uzun Mera.
  • Establish the absolute chronology of the formation of the cultural layer(s) at 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.
  • Establish the number of caves in the Peshti Gorge with potential for Paleolithic archaeology and possibly continue the excavations at the Toplata cave.

The Field School

This field school is an amazing opportunity to:

  • dig at a Paleolithic 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 basic excavation, surveying, recording geological cave coring techniques on the field  
  • develop skills in finds retrieval and processing with a focus on Paleolithic stone-tool technology
  • expand knowledge on Neanderthal culture and the use of interdisciplinary approach (geology, biology, physics etc.) in Neanderthal study
  • visit significant archaeological and historic sites (Roman town Stobi, Byzantine town Bargala, early Medieval monasteries, and the late Medieval fortress and urban core in Skopje)

The field school excavations will start in 2020 and it will focus on the excavations at the Uzun Mera site, helping to resolve some issues of the research project regarding the horizontal stratigraphy of the site and site formation. In addition to this, together with the BHFS students, we will try to determine the wider context of the site and it’s placed in the activity network and mobility pattern of the Neanderthals, by searching for the source of the raw materials they used, and the locations (caves and rock-shelters) where they potentially stayed for prolonged periods of time.

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:

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

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:   


  • 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)
  • Geological coring (geological assessment of cave sites for sediment depth and potential for future excavations)


  • 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 an accent on the Balkan Peninsula);
  • Paleolithic stone tool techno-typology of Europe (human-technology co-evolution)

 Lab work:

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


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


Guided tours to:

  • Roman and Late Roman city of Stobi & Skopje, the capital of the R. of North Macedonia
  • Early Byzantine town Bargala, medieval monastery of Lesnovo & 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 Geology department of Goce Delchev University, Shtip
  • Field instructions and training take place at the site


The Agenda


Frist day

Arrival date: 25 June 2022    

Arrival in Shtip, North Macedonia and and check-in by 7:00 pm.

8.00 pm - 9.30 pm - Traditional Macedonian Welcome Dinner.

Transfers from Skopje airport may be arranged upon request for an additional fee .

Second day

Morning: Orientation & Walking Tour of Shtip.

Afternoon: Lectures. 

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 - 8:00 pm - Lectures/Workshops/Lab work

8:00 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

2 July 2022: Tour of Stobi, the Ancient 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.

9 July 2022: Tour of Roman/Early Byzantine town of Bargala, guided tour of the archaeological site and the early Medieval church of St. George and 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 admission fee. 


3rd and 10th of July

Last day

Departure. Check-out by 12.00 pm

Departure date: July 16, 2022

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

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?: There are regular buses between Skopje and Shtip, and an airport shuttle can be organized for an extra fee.

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: In Hotel Oaza, located in the town of Shtip – double rooms (twin beds) with toilet/shower in each room. Laundry service and free Wi-Fi are available at the hotel. Bed linen and towels are provided. Single room accommodation is possible upon request for an additional charge of 300 EUR. The hotel is in the downtown area, within walking distance to everything essential in Shtip.

Meals: Three meals (organic Macedonian homemade food) per day are covered by the admission fee. During the workdays, all meals except breakfast 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: 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, the walking/running/training tracks on the river Bregalnica banks, three 14th-century churches in the surrounding environs and the ruins of an old castle. Free days can be used to cool down from the heat at the nearby aqua park in Probishtip (36 km from Shtip).

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 (60 km from Shtip), as well as the famous Kokino site (100 km 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 Ohrid town and lake (230 km from Shtip), in the SW corner of N. Macedonia. This UNESCO protected natural and cultural monument offers stunning natural beauty with crystal clear waters and magnificent mountain peaks, combined with archaeological sites testifying for continuous cultural development during the past 8000 years.  


Technicalities & Practicalities


Insurance: The admission fee does not cover insurance. It is mandatory to arrange your own health insurance before your trip to N. Macedonia.

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 Admission Fee


BHFS admission fee includes: 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 admission fee does not include: travel costs to and from the project venue 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 fees in USD are approximate. Please check current exchange rates!


Early Bird Special - until March 31, 2022:


Early Bird Admission fee for three-week project session is 2049 EUR/ approx. 2348 USD


Regular admission fee - after March 31, 2022:      


The regular admission fee for three-week project session is 2249 EUR/ approx. 2577 USD   


All students registered for BHFS season 2020 shall contact BHF Admissions office at b[email protected] for further information about the conditions of their participation in season 2022. 

Admission Fee Transfer Options:

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

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

Academic credits   


New Bulgarian University grants 9 ECTS credits for attending the field school. Transcripts of Records (ToR) are available upon request for an additional tuition fee. Details: Regulations for Obtaining Transcripts of Records.



North Macedonia

Neanderthal Crossroads: Excavations at the Middle Paleolithic Site Uzun Mera

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