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The Museum Conservation Institute


Tracing Trade: Old World Obsidian Studies

Globalization has become the watch word of the 21st century to describe human interactions across the cultural, social, economic, and political spectrum. Most think of it as a modern phenomenon brought about by the quantum advances in communication and transportation of recent times. The globalization of today is, however but one stage in a progression that had its origins in the neolithic more than 12,000 years ago, when humans first settled into communities supported by agriculture. With a settled lifestyle came the need to reach out to other communities to procure goods and raw materials not available locally. Tracing these developing exchange networks, understanding their organization, and their ultimate impact on the development of early states and economies of scale has long been integral to archaeological research.

Obsidian Blades

Obsidian, natural volcanic glass, has been prized by peoples of the ancient Near East for making tools and objects art and personal adornment since before the beginnings of settled communities. Widely distributed , but in a relatively limited number of localities, each with a unique chemical signature, obsidian has proven to be an ideal material for studying early trade in the ancient Near East.

Obsidian Plot

SCMRE's Nuclear Laboratory for Archaeological Research houses the most extensive data base of chemical analyses of geological sources of Near Eastern obsidian in the world. More than thirty five sources have been analyzed in the laboratory in conjunction with a series of targeted archaeological research projects involving multi- national collaboration. These projects, covering a broad time span from ca. 9500 to 2000 B.C., have each sought to examine a specific aspect of obsidian exchange within the context of the site/sites and time period studied. To date over 1100 artifacts have been analyzed with about 90% attributed to a specific geological obsidian source. The results of this obsidian characterization research have made substantial contributions to unraveling the complex interactions at play throughout the coarse of prehistory in the ancient Near East. This research, highlighted in selected projects shown on the map and time line, has illuminated the shifting nature of trade and cultural contact over a 7500 year period in the ancient Near East.

Obsidian Map

Obsidian banner