|Color||Deep black or blackish green|
|Mohs scale hardness||5–6|
|Specific gravity||c. 2.4|
|Other characteristics||Texture: Smooth; glassy|
It is produced when felsic lava extruded from a volcano cools rapidly with minimal crystal growth. Obsidian 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 inhibition of atomic diffusion through this highly viscous and polymerized lava explains the lack of crystal growth. Obsidian is hard and brittle; it therefore fractures with very sharp edges, which were used in the past in cutting and piercing tools, and it has been used experimentally as surgical scalpel blades.
Origin and properties
— Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia (AD 77)
The translation into English of Natural History written by Pliny the Elder of Rome shows a few sentences on the subject of a volcanic glass called obsidian (lapis obsidianus), discovered in Ethiopia by Obsidius, a Roman explorer.
Obsidian is the rock formed as a result of quickly cooled lava, which is the parent material. Tektites were once thought by many to be obsidian produced by lunar volcanic eruptions, though few scientists now adhere to this hypothesis.
Obsidian is mineral-like, but not a true mineral because as a glass it is not crystalline; in addition, its composition is too variable to be classified as a mineral. It is sometimes classified as a mineraloid. Though obsidian is usually dark in color similar to mafic rocks such as basalt, obsidian's composition is extremely felsic. Obsidian consists mainly of SiO2 (silicon dioxide), usually 70% or more. Crystalline rocks with obsidian's composition include granite and rhyolite. Because obsidian is metastable at the Earth's surface (over time the glass becomes fine-grained mineral crystals), no obsidian has been found that is older than Cretaceous age. This breakdown of obsidian is accelerated by the presence of water. Having a low water content when newly formed, typically less than 1% water by weight, obsidian becomes progressively hydrated when exposed to groundwater, forming perlite.
Pure obsidian is usually dark in appearance, though the color varies depending on the presence of impurities. Iron and other transition elements may give the obsidian a dark brown to black color. Very few samples are nearly colorless. In some stones, the inclusion of small, white, radially clustered crystals of cristobalite in the black glass produce a blotchy or snowflake pattern (snowflake obsidian). Obsidian may contain patterns of gas bubbles remaining from the lava flow, aligned along layers created as the molten rock was flowing before being cooled. These bubbles can produce interesting effects such as a golden sheen (sheen obsidian). An iridescent, rainbow-like sheen (rainbow obsidian) is caused by inclusions of magnetite nanoparticles.
Obsidian can be found in locations which have experienced rhyolitic eruptions. It can be found in Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Australia, Canada, Chile, Georgia, Greece, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Scotland, Turkey and the United States. Obsidian flows which may be hiked on are found within the calderas of Newberry Volcano and Medicine Lake Volcano in the Cascade Range of western North America, and at Inyo Craters east of the Sierra Nevada in California. Yellowstone National Park has a mountainside containing obsidian located between Mammoth Hot Springs and the Norris Geyser Basin, and deposits can be found in many other western U.S. states including Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Obsidian can also be found in the eastern U.S. states of Virginia, as well as Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
The first known archaeological evidence of usage was in Kariandusi and other sites of the Acheulian age (beginning 1.5 million years BP) dated 700,000 BC, although the number of objects found at these sites were very low relative to the Neolithic. Use of obsidian in pottery of the Neolithic in the area around Lipari was found to be significantly less at a distance representing two weeks journeying. Anatolian sources of obsidian are known to have been the material used in the Levant and modern-day Iraqi Kurdistan from a time beginning sometime about 12,500 BC. The first attested civilized use is dated to the late fifth millennium BC, known from excavations at Tell Brak. 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.
In the Ubaid in the 5th millennium BC, blades were manufactured from obsidian extracted from outcrops located in modern-day 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.
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.
Lithic analysis can be instrumental in understanding prehispanic groups in Mesoamerica. A careful analysis of obsidian in a culture or place can be of considerable use to reconstruct commerce, production, distribution and thereby understand economic, social and political aspects of a civilization. This is the case in Yaxchilán, a Maya city where even warfare implications have been studied linked with obsidian use and its debris. Another example is the archeological recovery at coastal Chumash sites in California indicating considerable trade with the distant site of Casa Diablo, California in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans' use of obsidian was extensive and sophisticated; including carved and worked obsidian for tools and decorative objects. Mesoamericans also made a type of sword with obsidian blades mounted in a wooden body. Called a macuahuitl, the weapon was capable of inflicting terrible injuries, combining the sharp cutting edge of an obsidian blade with the ragged cut of a serrated weapon. The pole arm version of this weapon was called tepoztopilli.
Native American people traded obsidian throughout the Americas. Each volcano and in some cases each volcanic eruption produces a distinguishable type of obsidian, making it possible for archaeologists to trace the origins of a particular artifact. Similar tracing techniques have allowed obsidian to be identified in Greece also as coming from Milos, Nisyros or Gyali, islands in the Aegean Sea. Obsidian cores and blades were traded great distances inland from the coast.
Obsidian was also used on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) for edged tools such as Mataia and the pupils of the eyes of their Moai (statues), which were encircled by rings of bird bone. Obsidian was used to inscribe the Rongorongo glyphs.
Obsidian can be used to make extremely sharp knives, and obsidian blades are a type of glass knife made using naturally occurring obsidian instead of manufactured glass. Obsidian is used by some surgeons for scalpel blades, although this is not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use on humans. Well-crafted obsidian blades, as with any glass knife, can have a cutting edge many times sharper than high-quality steel surgical scalpels, the cutting edge of the blade being only about 3 nanometers thick. Even the sharpest metal knife has a jagged, irregular blade when viewed under a strong enough microscope; when examined even under an electron microscope an obsidian blade is still smooth and even. One study found that obsidian incisions produced fewer inflammatory cells and less granulation tissue at seven days, in a group of rats, although no differences were found after 21 days. Don Crabtree produced obsidian blades for surgery and other purposes, and has written articles on the subject. Obsidian scalpels may currently be purchased for surgical use on research animals.
Obsidian is also used for ornamental purposes and as a gemstone. It presents a different appearance depending on how it is cut: in one direction it is jet black, while in another it is glistening gray. "Apache tears" are small rounded obsidian nuggets often embedded within a grayish-white perlite matrix.
- Apache tears
- Hyaloclastite and tachylite – volcanic glasses with basaltic composition
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- Mayor Island / Tuhua - a source of Māori obsidian tools
- Obsidian hydration dating
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- Yaxchilan Lintel 24 – Ancient carving showing a Maya bloodlet ritual involving a rope with obsidian shards.
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