Obsidian: Precious Stone

By Robert Nickel

Gold, silver, iron and steel were not the only mined items that were of great value to the ancient people of the area that is now Mexico (even extending to regions beyond). Obsidian stone actually had vast value to the local people, because of its usefulness, but also because it had symbolic meaning in everyday life, as it related to class structure.

Obsidian is a black mineraloid that is formed when volcanic lava rapidly cools, producing glass rather than igneous stone. Due to its structure, which is similar to crystals, it is easily shaped into sharp flints and edges. Metallurgy hadn’t been developed at this point in Mesoamerica, so the working properties of obsidian made it very useful. The volcanic regions of Sierra Madre de Chiapas were the best sources for the material, but it has been found at nearly every archaeological site in Mexico.

A great variety of uses were found for obsidian by the old civilizations. Easily honed into very sharp points that could be used as knives and other cutting objects, it was used from early times. These utensils have been found in the remains of rabbits, mollusks, and rodents, indicating that they were used for slaughter and harvest of the meat.

Ritual uses for obsidian were common. As carving techniques advanced, the stone was used to make decorative items as well, including jewelery, vases, figures and masks.. The Maya used the volcanic glass in the worship of their gods and it was also associated with death rituals.

Obsidian was used in ritual blood-letting and according to some researchers, the ancient civilizations considered the material to be the blood of the earth; its use in their religious services making it especially symbolic. Buried with highly placed members of society, it was a treasured item that was also used to indicate the status of an individual.

Each volcano has a unique chemical composition, and the obsidian which come from it can be traced back to the source. Archaeological evidence shows that volcanic glass ended up spread all over the country, signifying that it was heavily traded between various groups over long periods of time. The Teotihuacan culture may have traded the material at a significant loss, choosing to transport it over very large distances in return for the ability to turn it into elite status items. The concept of using the stone as a currency never seemed to take hold in Mesoamerica; nonetheless, it was undeniably held in a position of great importance and was integral to the development of the area’s societies.

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