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Obsidian in the Aegean

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 October 2013


Obsidian to the Greeks was no more than a semi-precious stone, black and shiny, suitable for mirrors or exotic ornaments. But to their predecessors in the Aegean through five millenia it was an important raw material for the manufacture of tools and weapons. Sharper and more abundant than flint, more easily worked and cheaper than copper, it was not displaced entirely even by the use of bronze, which was always an expensive material, there being no source of tin in the Aegean. Only when knowledge of iron-working was brought to the Aegean coasts did obsidian fall from its position as an important raw material to that of a curiosity.

Huge quantities of obsidian are to be found lying about the surface of most prehistoric sites in south Greece—any farmer or shepherd will tell of the ‘little razors’ to be found on his land. But its occurrence in nature is very unusual since it is found exclusively in regions of recent volcanic activity, and then only when certain conditions exist, such as a high silica content in the lava of the volcano. Every single piece found in mainland Greece had to be imported from overseas, a process implying competent geological knowledge, skill in sailing and navigation, and perhaps social organization, to a considerable degree. It is the earliest trade in the world for which we have concrete evidence.

Research Article
Copyright © The Council, British School at Athens 1965

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1 We are indebted to Dr. S. R. Nockolds of the Department of Mineralogy and Petrology, Cambridge, for permission to use the Department's spectroscope, to Mr. R. Allen for much assistance in its use, and to the Council of St. John's College for a grant towards our work.

2 He is indebted to the British School at Athens for the Studentship which made it possible for him to work in Greece in 1963, and to the Ministry of Education of the Greek Government for a Scholarship during 1964.

3 This work, and the securing of specimens, was greatly facilitated by the Greek Archaeological Service and its Director, the late Dr. J. Papadimitriou, as well as the Ephors Dr. S. Alexiou, Dr. Ph. Petsas, Dr. D. Theocares, Dr. N. Zapheiropoulos, and also by Professor S. Marinatos, Miss K. Romiopoulou and Mr. Ch. Doumas. We also gratefully acknowledge the receipt of specimens or of useful information from: Professor D. Berciu, Professor Bernabò Brea, Mrs. K. Bolton, Dr. G. Bushnell, Professor J. L. Caskey, Professor J. Cauvin, Miss M. Cra'ster, Mr. R. Deshayes, Professor J. D. Evans, Mr. D. H. French, Dr. I. M. Yeroulanos, Dr. G. Georgiev, Mr. D. Hardy, Dr. H. Hauptmann, Mr. M. S. F. Hood, Dr. R. Hope Simpson, Professor S. Kansu, Dr. E. Kunze, Professor D. Levi, Professor V. Milojčić, Dr. R. G. Newton, Dr. G. Pasquarè, Mr. A. Renfrew, Mr. R. J. Rodden, Mr. R. Saidah, Miss V. Seton-Williams, Dr. F. H. Stubbings, Dr. N. Taylor, Mr. P. Warren, the Revd. Dr. V. G. Kenna and those mentioned below. Without their help it would not have been possible to undertake this research.

4 One from Abydos in the Troad, two from Morali near Manisa, and seven from Boz Dagh near the site of ancient Myndos.

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73 But it may have been used for seals, of which three have been preserved: one in the Ashmolean Museum (K. 160), one in the collection of Dr. V. G. Kenna and one in a private collection in Basle.

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