Obsidian, a black volcanic glass, was first recognized by Colin Renfrew and his colleagues J.E. Dixon and J.R. Cann in the 1960s as a uniquely sensitive indicator of prehistoric trade, both because of the great desirability of this material before the use of metals, and also because the trace-elements it contains are usually diagnostic of individual sources.
Work on Near Eastern obsidian in the Neolithic period has been a particular focus of interest, and a summary of current results has been published by M.-C. Cauvin et al., L’obsidienne au Proche et Moyen Orient: du volcan à l’outil (Oxford: BAR Int. Ser. 738), from which the information in the following maps has been extracted.
They indicate a remarkable story, from limited circulation (though still over impressive distances) by late-Pleistocene hunter-gatherers, to its increasing use by the first farming communities – initially distributed along a few axial routes but then flowing through a more reticulated network.
The maps are particularly useful since they indicate the flows of material from two major source-areas, initially separate but increasingly inter-penetrating. (Obsidian from other sources, e.g. around Lake Van and in the Transcaucasus, is not shown).
The Obsidian Trade in the Near East, 14,000 to 6500 BC
Obsidian is a naturally occurring volcanic glass formed as an extrusive igneous rock. It is produced when felsic lava extruded from a volcano cools rapidly with minimum crystal growth. It is commonly found within the margins of rhyolitic lava flows known as obsidian flows, where the chemical composition (high silica content) induces a high viscosity and polymerization degree of the lava.
The history of obsidian merges with the history of early man . This volcanic glass was among the preferred raw materials from the Paleolithic , both for its technical qualities for the realization of effective tools, that for its aesthetic qualities. It will spread very locally first, then will accompany the colonization of new territories, and the creation of new trade roads.
The physico-chemical properties of obsidian allowed an identification of the sources and traceability by prehistorians of the human movements, exchanges of material, goods and expertise.
The oldest traces of use of obsidian on the Mediterranean rim dated Upper Paleolithic , and are found in caves on the southwest coast of Anatolia. The main sources identified are in Cappadocia, with Gollu Dag, Nenezi Dag and Nemrut Dag . It is found in Neolithic sites , as Catalhöyük. Obsidian from Anatolian volcanoes will travel south to Palestine, and west to Crete .
The currently available material on the market has its origin from the eastern part of Europe. It comes from the Caucasian mountains in Armenia where – for the time being – the sole important deposit is located. This place offers a great variety of different obsidian types but the Midnight Lace Obsidian is for sure the most spectacular one.
The first archaeological evidence known of usage were made from within Kariandusi and other sites of the Acheulian age (beginning 1.5 million years previously) dated 700,000 BC, although the number of objects found at these sites were very low relative to the Neolithic.
Obsidian was valued in Stone Age cultures because, like flint, it could be fractured to produce sharp blades or arrowheads. Like all glass and some other types of naturally occurring rocks, obsidian breaks with a characteristic conchoidal fracture. It was also polished to create early mirrors. Modern archaeologists have developed a relative dating system, obsidian hydration dating, to calculate the age of obsidian artifacts.
Obsidian is a volcanic glass formed as an extrusive igneous rock (SiO2 as main component ranging between 66% and 75%) that was used by Neolithic people (around 10000–3500 BC.) as a raw material in the manufacture of stone tools such as weapons tips, knives, or other cutting tools through a sophisticated chopping elaboration. Basically, obsidian can be found in locations which have experienced rhyolitic eruptions such as the Middle East and the Mediterranean area.
Almost all of the obsidian used to craft stone tools in the Near East from the Palaeolithic onward originated from volcanoes in two geographic regions: Central Anatolia and Eastern Anatolia. Anatolian sources of obsidian are known to have been the material used in the Levant and the Armenian Highland from a time beginning sometime about 12,500 BC.
Five decades of obsidian sourcing has led to the view that Central Anatolian obsidians largely followed the Mediterranean coast and rarely reached farther east than the Middle Euphrates, whereas Eastern Anatolian sources almost exclusively supplied sites east of the Euphrates.
Most (97%) of the obsidians at the Bronze-Age site of Tell Mozan (Urkesh) in northeastern Syria came from the Eastern Anatolian sources, as expected from established distribution models. Artefacts of Central Anatolian obsidian, however, were excavated from one wellconstrained context: the deposits on a palace courtyard that date to the height of the Akkadian empire’s influence at this third-millennium Hurrian religious and political centre. In particular, the obsidian came from the Kömürcü source of Göllü Daǧ. This obsidian might have “piggybacked” on the distribution of Central Anatolian metals or arrived at this city as royal gifts or prestige items.
Obsidian extracted from two regions, Central Anatolia and Eastern Anatolia were widely diffused in the Near-East. These raw materials were transported over hundreds of kilometers the most probably through exchange networks.
The first attested civilized use is from excavations at Tell Brak, a tell or settlement mound, in the Upper Khabur area in Al-Hasakah Governorate, northeastern Syria, dated the late fifth millennia. Acigöl town and the Göllü Dağ volcano were the most important sources in central Anatolia, one of the more important source areas in prehistoric Near East.
In around ca. 6000–4200 B.C the Shulaveri-Shomu and other Neolithic/Chalcolithic cultures of the Southern Caucasus use local obsidian for tools, raise animals such as cattle and pigs, and grow crops, including grapes.
Many of the characteristic traits of the Shulaverian material culture (circular mudbrick architecture, pottery decorated by plastic design, anthropomorphic female figurines, obsidian industry with an emphasis on production of long prismatic blades) are believed to have their origin in the Near Eastern Neolithic (Hassuna, Halaf).
The settlement of Aratashen, situated about 25 km west of Yerevan and 5 km south-west of Vagharshapat (Echmiadzine), is positioned in a loop of the river Kasakh, which flows into the Arax a few kilometres to the south. This habitation site, of which the stratigraphy is now well understood, covers the Chalcolithic and Neolithic phases of the regional culture of the Ararat plain (5900-5600 BC).
The Arteni complex is situated at a most important crossroads that had always traversed Armenia: from west to east, from Turkey to Nakhicevan, via the Araxes basin and the Ararat plain, and from south to north connecting the Araxes basin with Georgia and Kars, via the Akhurian valley and the Shirak plain.
The obsidians from the Pokr Arteni deposit and from the Aragats flow, in particular, are very abundant and of exceptionally high quality.
This obsidian has been exploited at least since the Middle Palaeolithic (or Mousterian) since bifaces have been recovered at several places on the slopes of Satani Dar and Pokr Arteni. These deposits are still exploited today. Dynamite, unfortunately, is used to extract blocs to prepare different objects, such as jewelry, figurines, and ashtrays.
Arteni obsidian was intensively exploited from the Neolithic period to the Iron Age, but mainly at a regional scale. Settlements on which more than 50% of the obsidian (up to 80%) belonged to this Pokr Arteni I group were tightly distributed up to 60 km. to the southeast of the source on the Ararat plain and c. 30-35 km. to the north of the source on the Shirak basin.
One of the most remarkable stone-tool types in the Old World Prehistory is the long and regular blades made by pressure with a lever and used in agricultural activities in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods.
The advanced and highly specialised technology required to produce these standardised blades defies the general idea that stone technology became less important in the Late Prehistory and later almost insignificant with the advent of metal tools.
So in the state of our present knowledge of the pressure technique using a lever, the super-blades made on local obsidian by the inhabitants of Aratashen would seem to be one of the oldest specimens to have been identified (that is nearly 2000 years before lever pressure is known from their neighbours of Northern Mesopotamia/ Canaanean blades) and one of the only example of this technique applied on obsidian.
In fact, this technique is known on flint in several Old World cultures: the Chalcolithic of Portugal, Sardinia, France (Toulouse region), Northern Mesopotamia, Bulgaria (Varna culture) and the early Neolithic in Greece.
Obsidian of the eastern islands come from Melos , with two nearshore sources , Dhemenegaki and Sta Nychia, exploited since the 11 millennium BCE. This Melos obsidian will circulate in the Aegean Sea between 11 ° and 8 ° millennium, certifying maritime trade between pre- Neolithic communities . Then she found in various parts of the Greek mainland and Knossos in Crete.
Obsidian from Giali, less favorable to the production of tools, only appears in the eight millennium , before being used as a semi- precious material at the 2nd millennium, by the Minoans in Crete .
In the western Mediterranean , obsidian is found in thousands of prehistoric sites , along an arc going from the eastern Maghreb , to Italy , southern France and of Catalonia , as well as in large islands , Sicily, Sardinia , Corsica, and the Aeolian archipelago . Exchanges are limited to coastal areas, and exceptionally more than 200 km. from the shore.
The main sources are in Sardinia, the Monte Arci volcanic complex , and three islanders sites : Pantelleria , Lipari in the Aeolian, and Palmarola in the Pontine Islands.
In Pantelleria , the main sources are Balata dei Turchi , south of the island, and Lagio di Venere , north -east . In Lipari, the obsidian is located in the lava flow of Gabellot , while at Palmarola , it comes from the Monte Tramontana and Punta Vardella .
Use of obsidian in pottery of the Neolithic in the area around Lipari, the largest of the Aeolian Islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the northern coast of Sicily, and the name of the island’s main town, was found to be significantly less at a distance representing two weeks journeying.
The obsidian of Lipari will spread in the Neolithic to Sicily and Calabria, Puglia and then to the Adriatic , even further north, in Friuli and the south of France. The obsidian of Palmarolla will travel to the Apennines, central Italy , Liguria and the south of France. From Sardinia, it will end up in Corsica and Tuscany. Obsidian from Pantelleria will spread further south to the neighboring islands and the coasts of eastern Maghreb.
These areas will gradually spread over time, to wither abruptly, with the advent of the metal Ages , Bronze Age and Iron Age , and the diversification of cultural traditions that accompanies it.
In the Ubaid in the 5th millennium BC, blades were manufactured from obsidian mined in what is now Turkey. Ancient Egyptians used obsidian imported from the eastern Mediterranean and southern Red Sea regions. Obsidian was also used in ritual circumcisions because of its deftness and sharpness. In the eastern Mediterranean area the material was used to make tools, mirrors and decorative objects.
Southeast of the Mediterranean, an area of circulation moves on both sides of the Red Sea, departing Ethiopians deposits. The priests of ancient Egypt used obsidian knives in embalming ceremonies . In the absence of Egyptian texts in this field, the writings of Herodotus ( 5th century BC ) report ” a sharp blade in Ethiopian stone ” in the mummification techniques that appear in the Middle Empire around 2700 BC.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has in its collections obsidian vases, gold rimmed, dated of 12 ° to 18 ° dynasties, between 1990 and 1293 BC. It was used to make the eyes of many statues ; the most significant achievement is the funerary mask of Tutankhamun – 1323 BC.
Obsidian has also been found in Gilat, a site in the western Negev in Israel. Eight obsidian artifacts dating to the Chalcolithic Age found at this site were traced to obsidian sources in Anatolia. Neutron activation analysis (NAA) on the obsidian found at this site helped to reveal trade routes and exchange networks previously unknown.
The oldest obsidian bracelet ever identified was discovered in the 1990s at the site of Aşıklı Höyük in the vilayet of Niğde, ca. 25 km. south-east of Aksaray and ca. 1 km. south of Kızılkaya Köy, on the right bank of the Melendiz Çay, Turkey.
Using high-tech methods developed by LTDS to study the bracelet’s surface and its micro-topographic features, the researchers have revealed the astounding technical expertise of craftsmen in the eighth millennium BC. Their skills were highly sophisticated for this period in late prehistory, and on a par with today’s polishing techniques.
Dated to 7500 BC, the obsidian bracelet studied by the researchers is unique. It is the earliest evidence of obsidian working, which only reached its peak in the seventh and sixth millennia BC with the production of all kinds of ornamental objects, including mirrors and vessels.
The Hittites mined the igneous mountains of the Caucasus and Taurus ranges of eastern Anatolia for valuable obsidian (volcanic glass), used for weapons, tools, and religious pieces; that obsidian discovered way down at Jericho in the Levant.
And west of Jericho, in the Negev, twenty-five miles northwest of Beersheva (anciently Fort Abram), at the ancient canaanite city of Gilat, obsidian pieces from Nemrut Dag (upper Mesopotamia), the Mountain of Nimrod (son of Cush), have been uncovered, that ancient obsidian trade supposedly (according to the darwinists) begun circa 7000 b.c
The high plateau of Central Anatolia is a pace of environmental extremes, with hot, arid summers and bitterly cold winters. Occupied since at least the 9th millennium BC, it has been home to a many human societies, which have left a complex and extensive archaeological record.
Archaeological studies at sites such as Çatalhöyük, the imperial Hittite capital of Hattuşa and the Phrygian capital of King Midas at Gordion, show how societies have adapted to the harsh climate and thrived within a network of regional social and political connections.
Excavations at the Cappadocian obsidian sources suggest regional connections, evidenced through the movement of obsidian (volcanic glass) across southwest Asia, go back into the Middle Palaeolithic.
The village of CatalḨuy̧k played a keyrole in the region, thanks to the unusual quantity and quality of the materials imported-over 35 different minerals-aswell as rocks for making groundstone axes. Besides, it has large a mounts of flint and obsidian, together with cowrie shells from the Mediterranean, copper, manganese and turquoise from eastern Anatolia-about 500 Km. away-and from the Sinai-1,000 Km a way, and mercury ore from Sizmar.
Obsidian from this area was traded to the Zagros area (probably for fir wood) as early as 30,000 BC – long before the birth of Catal Huyuk. The city did, however, trade for alabaster from the Kayseri district, marble from western Anatolia, and marine molluscs from coastal peoples of the Mediterranean. They received rock-crystal, jasper and apatite from unknown sources. The city of Beycesultan (4800 –> ) carried on trade with Crete, Greece, Samos, Lemnos, Thrace and Macedon.
Long distance trade, one of the supposed features that some researchers have associated with social complexity, has been documented in the cases of obsidian and copper. Specifically for obsidian, we should mention two very distinct areas: the volcanic crater of Nemrut Dag, near LakeVan, and the Bingol region.
As a result, we can say that the trade routes are also ways to pass down certain traditions – architectural, symbolical from very different areas. One of these areas is represented by the north Levant, particularly Syria, and related to the settlements of Tell Abu Hureyra, Tell Mureybet and Tell Halula; the second area includes the Highlands of Mesopotamia and such significant sites as Jarmo, Nemriq-9, Tell Shimshara and Umm Dabaghiyah – the last one from the Ceramic Neolithic.
Mount Hasan (Turkish: Hasan Dağı) is an inactive stratovolcano in Aksaray province, Turkey. With an altitude of 3,253 m (10,672 ft.), it ranks as the second highest mountain of central Anatolia. A caldera 4-5 kilometres wide formed near the current summit around 7500 BC, in an eruption recorded in Neolithic paintings. The summit offers a view over the central Anatolian plateau, including distant Cappadocia.
The ancient settlement of Catal Huyuk, a very large Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlement in southern Anatolia, which existed from approximately 7500 BC to 5700 BC., collected obsidian from the area of Hasan Dag, which was probably traded with other settlements for luxury goods.
The importance of Hasan Dag to the people of Catal Huyuk, the largest and best-preserved Neolithic site found to date, may be shown by a wall painting, sometimes called the “first landscape” by art historians, which many believe is a depiction of Hasan Dağ towering over the settlement’s houses.
Thomas Holme writes this about the religious significance of obsidian to the people of Catal Huyuk: An even older resource equally as important as salt to these people was obsidian, the volcanic material which made for blades sharper than modern surgeon’s scalples. The greatest source for obsidian was the base of Hasan Dag volcano which was visible from Catal Huyuk. This valuable stone became the source of perhaps the most significant trading that went on in the upper paleolithic and neolithic.
Just as the first walls seem to have been formed in Jericho as a means of safeguarding stores of salt for trading purposes the first walls near Hasan Dag were probably formed to storehouse the valuable obsidian. The Hasan Dag stone was traded to the Lavant for lumber and Dead Sea bitumen.
Obsidian was a stone that required priests and priestesses. Because the obsidian blades and spearpoints must bear sacred incantations to insure their swiftness and true flight to bring down the kill, and to keep the hunter from harm. Half of all the buildings in Catal Huyuk were shrines. Not only was Catal Huyuk a major trade center but more importantly it was a religious center.
River valleys had always been ancient pathways for mesolithic peoples who followed herds with the seasons. Another ancient route in continual use was the Danube river to the Rhine river which they followed to the sea, and from the sea the same wanderers in turn made the trip east and arrived at the great freshwater Euxine Lake and south into Anatolia to Catal Huyuk. We know this is so because a high percentage of the skulls unearthed at Catal Huyuk are of a type that come from western Europe.
Today, Central Anatolia is largely treeless, with rough grazing covering much of the region and arable land distributed along rich valleys and drained former wetlands. Human impact has been severe on the areas natural vegetation formations and continues with drainage and irrigation projects.
Mediterranean and Near East obsidian reference samples to establish artefacts provenance
Anatolia and the Caucasus, 8000–2000 b.c.
Obsidian, Trade and Society in the Central Anatolian Neolithic
Turkey : oldest obsidian bracelet reveals amazing craftsmen’s skills in the eighth millennium BC
The obsidian roads – 1. Around the Mediterranean basin
Obsidian circulation networks in Southwest Asia and Anatolia
Obsidian data webbase