|Figure 1: Example of an obsidian blade|
Obsidian is a naturally forming glass that is created when "viscous lava" cools rapidly (Encyclopedia Britannica). It is known to be the sharpest glass and was once used in eye surgery for its precision cuts. In the case of the Maya, archaeologist have found obsidian artifacts such as knives, blades, spearheads as well as some ornamental pieces. Obsidian cores and flakes, results of working the obsidian, have also been discovered. (Walker 2013)
How did individual Maya sites come into possession of such a scarce resource? This scarcity is one of the most important pieces of knowledge that should be considered when analyzing the trade of obsidian from one Maya city-state to another. Specifically, the fact that during the time of the Classic Maya there were only two primary distribution sites of obsidian. There were others in the vicinity but the majority of the artifacts found originate from two sites located in the Northern highlands of Guatemala at El Chayal and Ixtepeque.
The first archaeologist to present a theory on obsidian trade was Norman Hammond in 1972. (McKillop 2004) Hammond theorized that given the locations of El Chayal and Ixtepeque, along with the analysis of obsidian samples from around twenty three Classic Maya lowland sites, that the obsidian from El Chayal was traded inland by canoe, via river, as well as over land. In the case of Ixtepeque he theorized that the obsidian was transported again by canoe, specifically along the Montagua River,which then continued the trade up the coast of Belize, and further up along the Yucatan coast.(Healy 1984) The largest quantity of obsidian artifacts during the Classic time period have been found in the Maya lowlands.
|Figure 3: Examples of possible Maya trade routes|
Since 1972, more studies have been
conducted which have led archaeologists to a different understanding of obsidian trade routes. With the assignment of obsidian artifacts to their appropriate source, as well as the dating of these artifacts, it has been brought to attention that it is not the location of the source that matters. Rather, the deciding factor is likely how and where it was traded and even more so the time period. An important revelation from dating obsidian artifacts is that El Chayal and Ixtepeque were influential sites at different time periods. Even though both sites were being used at corresponding times, El Chayal was the premier site during the Classic time period and Ixtepeque during the Postclassic. With artifacts continually being found, it is now believed that obsidian from both sites were traded via land and along the coast. (McKillop 2004)
Location of obsidian artifacts
Obsidian artifacts have been found all the way from their source in the Guatemalan highlands at sites from Kaminaljuyu, to Quingua, to Tikal, and then all along the coast of Belize to sites like Wild Cane Cay and Altun Ha. Cuello and Cahel Pech were among the first sites to trade in obsidian.
Trade routes of other Maya luxury items
Other luxury items of the Maya are believed to have followed many of the same trade routes as the obsidian examples listed above and shown in Figure 3. If you would like additional information regarding luxury items that were traded among the Maya please click on the links below:
Jade the Mayan Treasure
Ancient Maya Economy and Trade
A Guide to Ancient Maya Ruins
Feathers, Ceramics and More
Encyclopedia Britannica. Obsidian.http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/424074/obsidian
Healy,Paul F., H. McKillop and B. Walsh. Analysis of obsidian from Moho Cay, Belize: new evidence on classic Maya trade routes. (1984). Science, 225(4660), 414.
McKillop, H. (2004). The ancient Maya : new perspectives / Heather McKillop. Santa Barbara, Calif. : ABC-CLIO, c2004.
Walker, J. Archaeology of Complex societies. (2013)
Figure 1: http://print.alvarezphotography.com/media/1873d1f4-3a35-11e2-a257-d91dd206b669-obsidian-blade
Figure 2: Golitko, M., Meierhoff, J., Feinman, G. M., & Williams, P. (2012). Complexities of collapse: the evidence of Maya obsidian as revealed by social network graphical analysis.(Method)(Report). Antiquity, (332), 512.