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Obsidian in the Aegean

  • Colin Renfrew, J. R. Cann and J. E. Dixon


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.



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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.

5 French, D. H., ‘Late Chalcolithic Pottery in North-West Turkey and the Aegean’, Anatolian Studies xi (1961).

6 Lamb, W., Excavations at Thermi in Lesbos (1936) 181.

7 Karo, G., ‘Archologische Funde’, AA xlvii (1932) 171 and xlviii (1933) 247.

8 Yeroulanos, I. M., “Οἱ ὀψιανοὶ τῆς Συλλογῆς ΤραχώνωνAE (1956).

9 We are most grateful to Professor Georgiades for his encouragement, courtesy, and help in the identification of samples on many occasions, as also to Professor Paraskevopoulos.

10 Georgiades, A. N., ‘Recherches sur les obsidiennes de la Grèce’, Πρακτικὰ τῆς Ἀκαδημίας Ἀθηνῶν xxxi (1956).

11 Ross, L., Reisen auf den griechischen Inseln des ägäischen Meeres (1840) 180.

12 Fiedler, K. G., Reise durch … Griechenland ii (1841) 359.

13 Dugas, C., La cèramique des Cyclades (1925).

14 Ktenas, C. A., La groupe d'îles de Santorin. Contribution à l'ètude des laves tertiaires et quaternaires de la mer ègèe, Πραγματεῐαι τῆς Ἀκαδημίας Ἀθηνῶν 1 (1935) 4.

15 Op. cit., 258.

16 Bursian, C., Geographie von Griechenland (1872) 497.

17 Blinkenberg, C., ‘Antiquités Prémycéniennes’, Mem. Soc. Royale des Antiquaires du Nord (1896) 51.

18 Ehrenburg, K., Die Inselgruppe von Milos (1889) 1.

19 Paraskevopoulos, G. M., ‘Über den Chemismus … des ägäischen Raumes …’, Tschermaks mineralogische und petrographische Mitteilungen, vi. 12 (1956) 13.

20 Cann, J. R. and Renfrew, C., ‘The Characterisation of Obsidian and its Application to the Mediterranean Region’, Proc. Prehistoric Society xxx (1964), Table II, No. 55.

21 Petrie, W. M. F., Wainwright, G., and Mackay, E., The Labyrinth of Gerzeh and Mazhguneh (1912) 24.

22 Scharff, A., ‘Das prähistorische Gräberfeld von Abusir el Melek’, Wissenschaftliche Veröffentlichungen der deutschen Orientgesellschaft, xlix (1926) 47.

23 Karageorgiou, E. D., “Οἱ ἠθαιστῐται τῆς περιοχῆς Πλατάνου τῆς νήσου Σάμου”, Ἀρχεῐον Σάμου, 1946, 19.

24 Cann and Renfrew, op. cit., no. 75.

25 Schliemann, H., Ilios, The Country and City of the Trojans (1880) 247.

26 Mellaart, J., ‘Anatolian Chronology in the Early and Middle Bronze Age’, Anatolian Studies vii (1957) 79.

27 Phillipson, A., ‘Reisen und Forschungen in westlichen Kleinasien,’ Petermann's Ergänzungsheft (19111914) 3.

28 Chaput, E., La Phrygie, exploration archèologique i (1941) 39.

29 Nor is there any evidence for sources in Bulgaria or Jugoslavia.

30 I am most grateful for the hospitality and assistance which I received in Melos from Mr. Z. Vaos, the writer of several articles on the history of the island.

31 Mackenzie, D., ‘Ancient Sites in Melos’, BSA iii (18961897) 77.

32 Edgar, C. C., ‘The Pottery’, Excavations at Phylakopi in Melos (1904) 236.

33 Ehrenburg, op. cit., n. 18 above.

34 Sonder, R. A., ‘Zur Geologie und Petrographie der Inselgruppe von Milos’, Zeitschrift für Mineralogie viii (19241925).

35 Fuller, , ‘The Mode of Origin of the Colour of Certain Varicolorous Obsidians’, Journal of Geology xxxv (1927).

36 Bent, J. T., ‘Researches among the Cyclades’, JHS (1884) 52.

37 Dümmler, F., ‘Mitteilungen von den griechischen Inseln’, AM (1896) 43.

38 Anastopoulos, J., Geological Study of Antiparos Island Group, Institute for Geology and Subsurface Research vii, no. 5 (1963).

39 Levi, D., ‘La Grotta di Aspripetra a Coo’, Ann. viii (19251926) 279.

40 Marinos, G., Πρόδρομος γεωλογικῆς ἐκθέσεως περὶ τῆς ὑπάρξεως περλίτον εἰς τὴν νησίδα Γιαλί. Unpublished, Library of the Institute for Geology and Subsurface Research, Athens (1956).

41 The striated specimens found by Levi in Nisyros may well be of Melian origin. Certainly some of the specimens collected from the site of Palaikastro in Nisyros by Simpson, Hope and Lazenby, , BSA lvii (1962) 169, are of typically Melian appearance. The same probably holds for striated obsidian found by Levi in Tenos, , Ann. viii (19251926) 270, and thought by him to derive from Giali.

42 Cann and Renfrew, op. cit.

44 See note 10 above. Op. cit. n. 5, 154.

45 Milojčić, V., Die deutschen Ausgrabungen auf der Argissa-Magula, I (1962) 9.

46 Theocares, D., “Σέσκλον”, Ergon (1962) 78.

47 Theocares, D., “Ἐκ τῆς προκεραμεικῆς ⊖εσσαλίας”, Thessalika (1958) 78.

48 Of the 71 pieces of worked stone from the preceramic layers, obsidian forms about 60 per cent. In a sample of 400 pieces from the later Neolithic layers it forms 87 per cent. of the total. I am most grateful to Dr. Theocares for permission to study this material.

49 NN Square A2, Level 1; NN Square A2, Level 3. Cf. Rodden, R. J. in Proc. Prehistoric Society xxviii (1962).

50 Theocares, D., “Εκ τῆς προϊστορίας τῆς Εὐβοίας καὶ τῆς Σκύρου” Ἀρχειον Εὐβοϊκῶν Μελετῶν, СΤ′ (1959).

51 Heurtley, W. A., Prehistoric Macedonia (1939) 155.

52 An idea of the scale of the trade is given by the quantities found at Saliagos near Antiparos. From a single 4-metre square (N3) 2,400 fragments weighing almost 5 kilogrammes were recovered.

53 Heurtley, op. cit. 22 and 200.

54 Several pieces of obsidian were found at Boz Dagh (Bean, G. E. and Cook, J. M., ‘The Halicarnassus Peninsula’, BSA 1 (1955) 108), and it was reported at Kiliktepe near Miletus (Hogarth, D. G., ‘Hellenic Settlement in Asia Minor’, CAH ii (1926) 55). It is rare at Troy (Blegen, C. W., Caskey, J. L., Rawson, M., and Sperling, J., Troy, i (1950) 46 and 211; ii (1951) 8, 108, and 227; iii (1953) 25), and only one other piece is known in the Troad from a mound east of Abydos. At Pendik on the Sea of Marmara a blade of non-Melian appearance was found which may be of Carpathian origin (Kansu, S. A., ‘Marmara bölgesi ve Trakya de prehistoriki iskân tarihi bakimadan arastirmalar’, Türk Tarih Kurumu, Belleten (1963) 674 and 691, fig. 27).

55 Lamb, W., ‘Excavations at Kusura near Afyon Karahisar’, Archaeologia lxxxvi (1936) 43.

56 Pieces from Chios are in the collection of llie British School, and others have been found in the excavations of Sinclair Hood at Emborio. One was found in Lesbos (Lamb op. cit. (note 6, above), 181). For Nisyros, Karpathos and Kalimnos see Hope Simpson and Lazenby (op. cit. 169, 160, and 172) and for Kos the report of Levi, op. cit. 279.

57 Benton, S., ‘The Ionian Islands’, BSA xxxii (19311932) 222.

58 Marinatos, S., “Λίθινα Ἐργαλεῖα ἐκ ΚεφαλληνίαςADelt xvi (1956) 43 and pl. 18.

59 Bent, J. T., The Cyclades (1885) 407.

60 Tsountas, C., “Κυκλαδικά”, AE 1898, 140.

61 Xanthoudides, S., The Vaulted Tombs of the Mesara (1924) 105.

62 PM II. 14.

63 The large block containing some prominent phenocrysts figured in PM I. 170 may also be of this material.

64 Mosso, A., The Dawn of Mediterranean Civilisation (1910) 364, fig. 199.

65 Heraklion Museum No. 1008. Information kindly supplied by Peter Warren together with the photograph for Plate 63d.

66 Platon, N., ‘Excavations at Kato Zakro, Part II’, ILN March 7 1964, 352, fig. 11.

67 PM I. 87 and 412.

68 BSA viii. 22.

69 Taylour, W. D., The Mycenaeans (1964), 149.

70 Castiglioni, O. Cornaggia, Fussi, F., and D'Agnolo, M., ‘Indagini sulla provenienza dell'ossidiana in uso nelle industrie preistoriche italiane’, I and II, Atti della Società Italiana di Scienze Naturali e del Museo Civico di Storia Naturale in Milano (1962 and 1963). The idea was first put forward by Peet, T. E. (The Stone and Bronze Ages in Italy (1909) 150) and repeated by Evans, (PM I. 155).

71 Other finds are: a M.M. bowl fragment from Knossos, (PM I. 86, fig. 5c and 178, fig. 127e); a fragment of a ewer of M.M. III date with relief spirals (PM I. 412 and II. 56); a lump of the raw material from the NW. Quarter of the Palace at Knossos, found under a M.M. II floor (PM I. 87 and II. 56); a lump of L.M. date from Tylissos (Hatzidakis, , AE 1912, 219, no. 19 and fig. 25, 2); several lumps from Hood's Royal Road excavations at Knossos; a small piece from Pseira (Analysis no. 68); and a seal from Mochlos (Warren, P., ‘Two Sealstones from Mochlos’, Kretika Khronika, 1964).

72 PM I. 87 and 178, fig. 127f.

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.

74 Hatzidakis, I., “Τύλισος ΜινωϊκήAE 1912, 217, fig. 27.

75 Bosanquet, R. C., ‘The Obsidian Trade’, Excavations at Phylakopi in Melos (1904) 223.

76 Kenna, V. G., Cretan Seals (1960) 71; and Walters, H. B., BMC Engraved Gems and Cameos, Greek Etruscan and Roman (1926) xix.

77 But he quotes Xenocrates as saying that it is found in India, in Italy, and in west Iberia which is certainly incorrect.

78 Some commentators, such as Schramm, A., s.v. ‘Obsidian’, RE xviii. 2, 1745, have claimed ἀνθράκιον (De Lapidibus 33) as obsidian, but Theophrastus states firmly that it is found in Arcadian Orchomenos and in Chios, so that another stone must be meant.

79 Wainwright, G. A., ‘Obsidian’, Ancient Egypt (1927) 88.

80 Kunze, E., ‘Die Ausgrabungen in Olympia 1952–8’, AD 1960, 131.

81 Walters, op. cit., nos. 450, 759, and 2625.

82 Bosanquet, op. cit. 218.

83 Hutchinson, R. W., Prehistoric Crete (1962) 91.

Obsidian in the Aegean

  • Colin Renfrew, J. R. Cann and J. E. Dixon


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