Monday, November 13, 2017

Eccentric Flints

This eccentric flint of two beings, the smaller one looks like
it's getting a piggyback ride. It comes from Guatemala, and
was made in the 600s AD to 700s AD. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The ancient Maya (and other Mesoamericans) had a practice of working stones including chalcedony, chert/flint, and obsidian into items  that don't appear to have been tools. Possibly connected with lightning -- the Maya may have thought flint was made from lightning strikes -- these carved stones were sacred items. The stones -- called eccentric flints, eccentrics, and eccentric lithics -- seem to have been the most popular in both the central and southern lowlands, during the Classic Period

Types of Shapes
Also from the Met.
This eccentric flint
comes from Mexico,
sometime before contact
with the Spanish.
The ancient Maya shaped eccentric flints with pieces of stone bigger than what you would use for a tool. The Maya also chose to shape these images as though you were looking at them from the side.

Some of their eccentric flints look like their gods -- K'awiil, a god who seems to have a connection to lightning, was a preferred choice -- and others look like rulers; there are also ones that have more than one being. (One of the shape that the SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology mentions is head-shaped eccentric flints. From their description, these seem to count as part of the ruler and god shapes.) There are also eccentric flints that look like animals, such as centipedes and scorpions. The Maya crafted eccentric flints that were just shapes as well.

There are some big eccentric flints that have a long piece that is called a stem -- which you might see called a tang -- coming straight down from the bottom of the part shaped to look like a god or ruler. (Though other sources this author has found don't say this, the SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology says that this kind of eccentric flint is leaf-shaped.)

The Maya put these carved stones in caches that archaeologists have found in elite graves and under stelae, among other locations. One theory says there were also certain eccentric flints that the ancient Maya used for bloodletting rituals.

There may have been a third use, at least for the big eccentric flints.The stems of big eccentric flints may have been for putting into a staff so that the part that looked like a god or ruler was on top of the staff. It's a possibility that the ancient Maya used this kind of scepter. A variation on this is that it may have been put into a staff and been a war-related item, like a battle standard -- or perhaps a weapon. 

Making Eccentric Flints
Making an eccentric flint was a very challenging project. No one is quite sure how the ancient Maya made them with the tools that they are known to have had. (Flaking off chips with a piece of something like a part of an antler or a piece of bone or limestone.) However they did it, the ancient Maya who knew how to make eccentric flints had some very special knowledge about stone working.