Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Obsidian -- A Sharp and Useful Material

Author's note: this post was last updated on 12/21/2017.

A piece of obsidian. From the USGS.

Obsidian is strong (through brittle) substance created by volcanoes when the magma they send out not only has a lot of silica in it but cools down so fast that it can't crystallize. (Depending on the definition, it is either called a rock or glass.) It is usually black and, though strong, it is also brittle. With the right skill, it can be worked so that its edges are very sharp. The ancient Maya thought very highly of obsidian, and -- though it seems that elites controlled it somewhat -- everyone used it.

Where They Got It
The information with this image (again from
the Y.U. Art Gallery) says that this 9 inch long
blade may or may not be from the Maya area.
The information also says that it was made
anywhere from the 300 AD to 900 AD.
When it comes to where they got their obsidian, archaeologists have found that the ancient Maya had more than one source. One source was special: the obsidian was green, and came from north of the Maya area, in the Valley of Mexico. (Archaeologists call the source area for this kind obsidian Cerro de las Navajas ("Hill of the Knives,") and they call the obsidian Green Pachuca.)

The ancient Maya had their own sources of obsidian too. Now, all of the known sources of ancient Maya obsidian are in Guatemala. One was in the Motagua Valley and today, it is called El Chayal. Another source is in the Southern Highlands and now has two names, Río Pixcaya and San Martín Jílotepeque. A third known source is in southeast Guatemala and is called Ixtepeque.

How They Worked It: Pressure Flaking and Percussion Flaking
When obsidian breaks, it breaks conchoidally. (You may also read descriptions that say it has a conchoidal fracture.) This means that when a piece breaks off, that piece will look like a clam shell. Because it does this, the Maya -- and other peoples -- used two methods for creating objects out of obsidian. These methods were pressure flaking and percussion flaking. (The ancient Maya shaped shaped their chert/flint tools this way too.)

With pressure flaking, you use what's a sharpened piece of something like hardwood or antler to sort of press and lift pieces off of the stone. With percussion flaking, you can use either a "soft hammer" or "hard hammer" -- though a soft hammer is the better choice for obsidian. (The difference between a soft hammer and a hard hammer is what they're made of. Soft hammers are made of things like certain types of hardwood and antler, and so get more of the force they send out sent back into them than hard hammers, which are made of certain substances like granite.)

According to the information posted
with this image (from the Yale University
Art Gallery,) this 6 inch blade may or may not
be Maya. It was made anywhere from 100 AD
to 1500 AD and may have been from the Classic
The ancient Maya obsidian trade actually went out into other parts of Mesoamerica. The first step in this trade were workshops (which were commonly near a source of obsidian.) At these workshops, obsidian workers turned pieces of obsidian into "cores." That is, the pieces were shaped but not all the way into anything specific. The communities that got the obsidian had their own workshops to make what they wanted out of the cores.

What They Made with It
The ancient Maya made a host of items with obsidian, some of which involved cutting. For example, they made projectile points. For another, they made blades, including a type known as the prismatic blade. This kind of blade has two cutting sides and are thin as well as a little bit curved -- the way they are made means that they don't need to have resharpening done.These blades were what the Maya liked to use best whenever they cut themselves for religious bloodletting. (But they may also have used this kind of blade for non-religious, everyday things.)

The Maya also wore obsidian. They would make a type of earring called an earflare -- or earspool -- with obsidian. (They also would make earflares with other things, one of which was jade.)

Yet another item that the ancient Maya made with obsidian (and chert/flint) was the eccentric flint. Eccentric flints are shaped pieces of stone that may have had a number of ritual uses.

Google Books: "Ancient Maya Commerce: Multidisciplinary Research at Chunchucmil"; Scott R. Hutson; 2017

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

Google Books: "Obsidian Reflections: Symbolic Dimensions of Obsidian in Mesoamerica"; Marc N. Levine, David N. Carballo (editors); 2014

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

Wesleyan University: WesScholar: "Toward a “Full Biography of Obsidian”: Studies ofObsidian Use and Exchange in the Maya Area"; Laura Heath; April 2011

Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian: Living Maya Time: Glossary

The Free Dictionary: Obsidian

The University of Iowa: The Office of the State Archaeologist: Flintkapping

Yale University Art Gallery: Obsidian knife blade

Yale University Art Gallery: Blade, pointed both ends

Image Credits:
USGS: Obsidian

Yale University Art Gallery: Obsidian knife blade

Yale University Art Gallery: Blade, pointed both ends


  1. It was not a good artical. I like how they tried their best though

    1. it actually is a good article