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Obsidian in The Maya World

Obsidian Clovis style Point from Puerta Parada, Guatemala Highlands ca 8,000 BC

Obsidian is a naturally formed volcanic glass that was an important part of the material culture of the Olmec and Maya since the Pre-Classic. Like other volcanic glasses, obsidian is a lava that has cooled too quickly for the contained minerals to crystallize. In chemical Obsidian Sources in Maya Aeacomposition it is rich in silica and similar to granite. Obsidian was a highly integrated part of daily and ritual life, and its widespread and varied use may be a significant contributor to Mesoamerica's lack of metallurgy. Lithic and contextual analysis of obsidian, including source studies, are important components of archaeological studies of Maya sites and inform scholars on economy, technological organization, long-distance trade, ritual organization, and socio-cultural structure. The first sings of human occupation in Guatemala dated from Ca 10,000 BC and are obsidian tools and weapons, both in the "Clovis" (mainly North America) and "Fishtail" (mainly South America) Styles.

 The first flat blades struck from a core were flat and not particularly useful. Later blades were struck along previous blade scars, producing a blade with a triangular cross-section, something archaeologists call a backed or prismatic blade which has greater strength than a flat blade. It was this prism-like blade that was widely used by the Maya as a cutting tool. 

Bifacial Prismatic Obsidian in Los Encuentros, Jalapa, Source discovered recently

No Maya site  is without obsidian, named TAJ Glyph T565v:136 - ta-ji Obsidian in Maya, and Chay Abaj in K'iche'. It was an item that had  common Warfare and Art uses as well as ritual use. Obsidian, opposite to Jade,  was available to all households and was found in hunting, agriculture, and many other everyday situations. Examples of obsidian tools are knives, lance and dart points, prismatic blades sometimes used for woodworking or shaving, bone working tools, bifacial, retouched flakes, and spearheads for  warfare. Blades have been found in situ with rabbit, rodent, and mollusk remains, indicating its use in butchery. 

Carved obsidian vase Serpent with snakes emerging from its head

Although the three major obsidian sources of the Maya are located in the Maya Highlands, most trade models proposed so far for obsidian distribution in the lowlands do not consider the sociopolitical and historical factors that affected highland polities, and hence, long-distance trade systems. One approach to this broad question is to study and compare the major trade routes between the highlands and the Petén Lowlands, i.e., the Alta Verapaz (land) route and the Motagua-Caribean (sea) route, from geographic, sociopolitical, and historical points of view. Cores were made from obsidian cobbles found in stream beds adjacent to glass producing volcanoes. Oblong or football shaped cobbles were struck in a way to produce a flat surface at one end. This flat area, or striking platform, was then chipped away along the outer edge using a deer antler and a small hammer stone. The larger blades could then be further reduced byeccentric obsidian Altar de Sacrificios pressure flaking to make projectile points or ornaments. Widely used throughout the western hemisphere and the rest of the world as well) obsidian blades, when freshly struck from the core represent the sharpest cutting edge known, several times sharper than a surgical steel scalpel. In fact obsidian blades are currently in use in some U.S. hospitals for heart bypass surgery. It seems that they cut cleaner, thereby promoting more rapid healing with less scar tissue. Needless to say, obsidian blades constitute a considerable hazard to the unwary archaeologist who chooses to sift through soil in Maya sites with unprotected hands. Even leather gloves are no guarantee against serious cuts.

 El Chayal obsidian featured the greatest variety of visual characteristics differing in both texture and color. The most common variety is smoky grey, translucent obsidian with grey or black bands, but it also can appear with red banding, as opaque gray, as nearly transparent, or with a combination of these characteristics. A small quantity can feature small black specks or inclusions, which makes it difficult to differentiate from San Martín Jilotepeque. However, San Martín Jilotepeque often has a bluish-black hue that is rarely found at El Chayal. Ixtepeque obsidian can resemble the transparent variety of El Chayal, but it has a brownish, “bottle glass” color that does not occur at other sources. Ixtepeque obsidian also is extremely fine and has a glass-like quality.

La Blanca, Preclassic Celt, Pacific Lowlands

Available data on the social structure and culture history of Naranjo and  Kaminaljuyú -prominent center located close to the obsidian sources-- and Guaytán, Vega del Cobán and Quiriguá  that  dominated the Motagua route, as well as of Verapaz centers, are tentatively reexamined and reevaluated in the context of the highland-lowland Classic obsidian trade. This allows us to assess the effective supremacy of the Motagua-Caribe route over the Alta Verapaz route, at least during the Pre and Classic period when Kaminaljuyú, Guaytán, Vega del Cobán and then Quiriguá, may have controlled long-distance obsidian trade. It appears that sociopolitical and historical factors resulted in a degree of instability in the Classic trade systems, as both routes competed for larger quantities of obsidian to be extracted, processed, and transported through systems that differed in time and space. Against such a complex background, quantitative data on Obsidian blades in an offering at Guaytanobsidian distribution in either the lowlands or the highlands will have limited predictive potential unless more precision is attained in the control of chronological and functional contexts of obsidian samples when they are analyzed for source provenience. Such a goal requires that specific data-recovery strategies be implemented, which should give priority to sociopolitical and historical factors and include both Maya Highland and Lowland sub areas. As an example, one of the largest workshops of Obsidian, its located in the pacific piedmont of Guatemala in El Baúl Cotzumalguapa, Obsidian from El Chayal, and San Martín Jilotepeque were its main sources, although Ixtepeque and San Bartolomé Milpas Altas also have been documented, the obsidian arrived in prismatic and macro cores arrived and then were reduced and transformed into macro blades, and these in turn were transformed into knives and projectile points. On the other hand, fine blades were obtained from the prismatic cores through the pressure technique. These cores were exhausted to the extreme, and subsequently used as a different type of tool, like scrapers, for example. Meanwhile, others were reduced through the bipolar percussion technique to obtain flakes, and something similar likely happened with the macro blade cores. The production of artifacts was aimed at manufacturing two major products: prismatic blades and projectile points. Both technological types required specialized skills and a centralized productive organization. The major purpose of this production was serving the local and probably the regional demand of cutting tools, throwing weapons with a cutting point, and instruments for scraping, polishing and perforating, all of which could be a part of household maintenance activities.

Mesoamerican Commerce Routes and goods production, from the Pre Classic to the Post Classic

Obsidian was also used in graves, at sacrifices, and in art. Some non-utilitarian forms are miniature human effigies, ear spools and labrets with gold and turquoise workings, carved animal figurines, beads, vases, and masks. Obsidian is frequently seen in the form of ritual blood-letting devices as well as buried in elite tombs and special deposits or caches. Debitage is found in many of these tombs in addition to evidence of obsidian use in temple dedications, or offerings. For example, flakes have been found in association with stela offerings and related to specific gods at the Maya site of Tikal. Lancet and prismatic blades are also found in frequent association with self-sacrifice, and in "private ceremonies" in Caves. Obsidian was a highly integrated part of Mayan daily and ritual life. This widespread and varied use may be a significant contributor to this culture's lack of metallurgy. The use of pecking, grinding, and carving techniques may also be employed to produce figurines, jewelry, eccentrics, or other types of objects. Prismatic blade production, a technique employing a pressure flaking-like technique that removed blades from a polyhedral core, was ubiquitous throughout Mesoamerica.

The dancing figures carry what seem to be tri-bladed obsidian knives

The main sources of the Olmec and Maya obsidian are located in the Guatemala Highlands. El Chayal, Ixtepeque, and San Martin Jilotepeque are the most well-known of the Guatemalan obsidian sources and the most commonly exploited in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Located in Central and Eastern Highlands of Guatemala, these materials are found as far north as the Yucatán Peninsula, moving via a well developed and important long-distance trade network that linked much of the Maya area. Newer and tentative additions to the Guatemalan source area Jalapa and Sansare. However, the El Chayal area is often seen as subsuming these two into one large source area. Although there are some pieces that came from distant sources such as Pachuca, and the Guatemala Obsidian have been found in Teotihuacán and vice versa.

One of a series of small carved  obsidian vases filled with red oxides, A Common Art form

Generally, obsidian came into the Maya area from Naranjo up to 400 AD and then Kaminaljuyú via larger central places, such as, Chocolá, El Baùl and  Takalik Abaj, in the Pacific Piedmont, Tikal, Waká', Uaxactún, and Piedras Negras. Obsidian artifacts and tools were then redistributed to smaller and potentially dependent centers and communities. This is indicated by a lack of production debitage, including polyhedral cores, decortical flakes, and large percussion flakes, among rural occupations. Obsidian was generally transported, where applicable, along coastal trade routes. Of primary importance is the circum-peninsular trade route that linked the southeast Maya area to the Gulf coast. Examples of evidence of this include the higher quantities of obsidian found among coastal sites, such as small island occupations off the coast of Belize and Yucatan, then at sites located in-land. In the large blades typical from Kaminal Juyú two alternative technologies could have been employed: the use of indirect percussion to shape large blades, and/or the use of lever assisted pressure to remove large blades using the chest crutch, as had been employed in the Old World.

Carved Obsidian from

Pacific Lowlands Celts

Kaminaljuyú Points

Obsidian Fragment with Hole drilled found in a
Guaytán Workshop.

Guaytán Obsidians found in a "hidding" inside a Pot

Guaytán: Jade and Obsidian Drilling points made of Calcedonite

Obsidian maze, Pacific Lowlands

Obsidian Prismatic Blades in
Trinidad de Nosotros Tomb, Central Petén

Carved Obsidian,  Petén

Obsidian,  has been found at every
Olmec and Maya archaeological site. Items made from this material had both utilitarian and ritual use. In many areas, it was available to all households regardless of socio-economic status, and was used in hunting, agriculture, food preparation, and for many other daily activities. Morphologically, obsidian was worked into a variety of tool forms, including knives, lance and projectile points, prismatic blades, general bifacial tools, and utilized flakes. Blades have been found in situ with rabbit, rodent, and mollusk remains, indicating their use in butchery. The practical use of obsidian is obvious considering that the material can be used to make some of the sharpest edges on earth. When skillfully worked, the edges of prismatic blade made from obsidian can reach the molecular level ( the material has a cutting edge that is only one molecule thick).

The Obsidian found in the Olmec site of San Lorenzo is mainly from El Chayal in the Central Highlands of Guatemala, and Tajumulco in the western Highlands  in Guatemala, meanwhile, that from La Venta is from San Martín Jilotepeque, also in Guatemala, due to this observations, Andrews (1990: 13) states:

. . . .within the Mixe-Zoque area itself two obsidian distribution systems existed, and (. . .) these may have been aligned with ethnic or linguistic boundaries. The first distribution network embraced sites in the Soconusco area of coastal Chiapas and Guatemala, that obtained predominantly El Chayal and Tajumulco obsidian, as well as sites to the west in Oaxaca, that had El Chayal and central mexican obsidian. This first group would also apparently have included San Lorenzo, in the Olmec heartland. Clark and Lee (1984: 246-47) have raised the possibility that the Early Formative Guatemalan El Chayal distribution pattern, extending far up the coast to Oaxaca, resulted from its being tied into a coastal canoe route that allowed obsidian to be traded more widely that it would have through an overland distribution network. The second group of sites lay in the Chiapas Central Depression and included La Venta, where the Guatemalan San Martín Jilotepeque obsidian was important in the Early Formative, as it was in the Maya Lowlands until the Late Formative. These two obsidian networks, if indeed they do form a meaningful pattern, correspond roughly to the distribution of known Mixe- and Zoque-speaking towns in the greater Isthmian area (. . .). If this late distribution of Mixe and Zoque speakers indicates the approximate location of these groups in the Formative period, with Mixe-speakers extending east along the Pacific Coast to  all  Guatemala up to El Salvador, it would seem that the Guatemalan coastal and Oaxaca Mixe were able to obtain both Guatemalan sources in El Chayal and Tajumulco obsidian, whereas the Zoque of Chiapas and Tabasco (including most of the Olmec heartland?) were, like the neighboring Lowland Maya, using San Martín Jilotepeque obsidian. (...)

Most of the evidence that supports the many theories about obsidian use in Mesoamerica comes from the artwork of the region. This artwork is seen in many forms including  obsidian figurines, ear spools, beads, and vases. Stelas and large carvings, sculpture, and murals on architecture also depict obsidian. Typically, the material’s visual depiction in artwork is generally associated with autosacrifice and other types of sacrifice, including images of prismatic blades with bloody hearts on the blade’s ends.

Some of the more significant portrayals of obsidian use involve blood-letting and warfare. One example includes the macuahuitl, a broad–faced club studded along its edges by obsidian prismatic blades. These weapons are predominantly used in  warfare and  date to the Post classic period, when the Mam, Kic'he' and Kakchikel's used it against the Spaniards, which feared it as the chronics said:  "They can cut a horse head with one stroke". Earlier depictions of obsidian is usually restricted to their appearance as dart, razors or lancets, and it is commonly believed that the material was not associated with weapons such as clubs or spears until later phases in Mesoamerica.  During the Pre classic period, obsidian was a rare item in the lowland areas, found predominantly in elite and ritual contexts. In many Maya excavations evidence of obsidian is likewise found most frequently in privileged settings. As the Late Classic period progressed, obsidian became increasingly accessible to the lower classes of Maya civilization. Thus the value of obsidian can be considered highly variable. It was an important trade item, but found in both elite and common settings, unlike many items whose ownership was confined to the elite, there is no indication that obsidian was used as a currency in Mesoamerica.

Macahuitl Used in The Post Classic



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Last updated 28/01/2011 17:07:34 -0500
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