The boundary element method is applied to the analysis of crack growth induced by the action of an indenter on monolithic ceramic materials and on thin ceramic coatings. The path followed by the crack has non-trivial geometry. The direction of crack propagation is determined using the maximum mechanical energy release rate criterion. The chief advantage of the method is the ease with which problems having complex geometry or loading (giving rise to complex crack trajectories) can be treated. In this paper we present models of contact damage induced by cylindrical and spherical indenters and show that both the crack geometry and the crack energetics can be accurately represented. In particular, the method allows the study of the early stages of crack growth, which are difficult to observe experimentally. (C) 1998 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.