Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Chert -- A Commonly Used Stone

Author's note: This post was last updated 11/25/17.

A Belizean eccentric flint that dates to around 500 AD. From Yale University Art Gallery.

Like jade and obsidian, chert was one of the different kinds stones archaeologists know the ancient Maya made part of their lives. They thought it was made from lightning strikes. (Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya says that they thought Chac (God B) caused the lightning.) A type of quartz called microcrystalline quartz, chert (and flint, a dark type of chert) seems to have been used both for everyday uses and for ritual uses.

A Belizean blade with a point 
on each end that dates to 
550 AD to 675 AD. 
From Yale University
Art Gallery.
One way the ancient Maya used chert was to make tools, such as the ax or hatchet that the ancient Maya used for farming, knives (some of which were used for ritual blood-letting,) and points for spears. When a tool lost its usefulness, the ancient Maya reshaped the chert to use for another tool. Chert tools used for heavy work like axes and hoes don't work as well as steel tools.

Then there were eccentric flints. These were pieces of chert (or one of several other kinds of stones) shaped into designs like the god K'awiil (God K.) They may have been used for rituals, and there's an idea out there that they could have been painted.

The ancient Maya, at least at the site of Piedras Negras during the Classic Period,  made something similar to eccentric flints. These were painted, but not shaped into different shapes like eccentric flints. Archaeologists didn't realize at first they were painted. They used to think these flakes were just that, flakes of chert. When organizing artifacts, they disrupted the surface of the flakes so they could write numbers on them.

Sourcing and Working It
An eccentric flint that
comes from 600 AD to
900 AD. It was either
made in Mexico or
Guatemala. From Yale
University Art Gallery.
A good place to look for chert in the Maya area is the lowlands, near bajos or swamps/wetlands that dry up in the dry season. To get chert out of the ground, the ancient Maya used pit mines that weren't that deep. (And when used up, the Maya would turn their chert mines into a place to store water -- these places are called aguadas, though there's also another kind of aguada that forms naturally. Limestone mines also would be turned into aguadas.)

To work chert, the ancient Maya used two types of methods. These methods were pressure flaking and  percussion flaking. Chert that wasn't the best for shaping got heat treated first. (Pressure flaking and percussion flaking were also the methods they used for obsidian.)

A site of note when it comes to chert and chert tools is Colhá, located in the north of Belize. This site had a centuries long history of being a place where chert came from -- a history that started in the Late Preclassic.

Consideration: The Chert-Free Zone
There is a part of the northern Yucatán Peninsula where archaeologists have not found much when it comes to chert tools. Technology of Maya Civilization says a possibly good name for this part of the peninsula is the Chert-Free Zone. The book also includes different ideas out there about how the ancient Maya in the Chert-Free Zone were able to not use tools made of chert.

Google Books: "Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey (editor); 2016

Google Books: "The Life Within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence"; Stephen Houston; 2014

Google Books: "Technology of Maya Civilization: Political Economy and Beyond in Lithic Studies"; Geoffrey E. Braswell, Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos (editors); 2011

Google Books: "Cities of the Maya in Seven Epochs: 1250 B.C. to A.D. 1903"; Steve Glassman, Armando Anaya; 2011

 Mesoweb: Maya Archaeology Reports: "Painted Lithic Artifacts from Piedras Negras, Guatemala"; Zachary X. Hruby, Gene Ware; 2009 

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