Obsidian from Teotihuacan

Obsidian was one of the most important materials distributed in Mesoamerica. Teotihuacan controlled the trade in this valuable commodity from the dawn of the common-era to 600 CE. In Mesoamerica, obsidian was considered a semiprecious stone because of its physical characteristics that produced a hard sharp edge used for cutting tools, rituals, and military weapons which were centralized and manufactured in Teotihuacan for mass production.

The large urban complex of Teotihuacan is located in the Basin of Mexico thirty miles outside Mexico City. Before 600 AD Teotihuacan had an estimate population of 200,000 people. The city was a religious and pilgrimage center with the Pyramid of the Sun, Pyramid of the Moon, and over 2,000 residential compounds in an area of 20 square kilometers. Teotihuacan controlled Central Mexico and the exploitation and centralization of Obsidian production because of its close proximity to two mines of Sierra de las Navajas and Otumba. Obsidian is formed when volcanic lava is cooled down at a fast paste and forms into a crystalline volcanic glass that turns into black, gray, green, blue, and other different colors depending on the location. In Teotihuacan, skilled stone workers had to go to their source and mined the blue and green obsidian from under the volcanic ash and rocks and selected the black and gray obsidian to then manufacture the production of sharp edged projectile points and knives. Obsidian artifacts were shaped with techniques used by skilled stone workers who developed the art of Lapidary in Mesoamerica.

Artifacts such as knives and green prismatic blades were crafted by chipping with a hammer stone to make a sharp edge or by flaking with softer material such as bones or wood. Hundreds of artifacts have been excavated containing obsidian west of the Pyramid of the Moon where most of the green prismatic blades and gray obsidian for cutting tools and military weapons were being manufactured in workshops. The black obsidian ritual objects were carved and symbolically identified with the underworld as well as the night in Mesoamerican cultures. According to Spence, redistributive networks were maintained and directly managed by the priesthood to promote their products in long-distance exchange. Precinct workshops near the Pyramid of the moon might have been under the direct control of the priest. Spence’s impression that the obsidian industry was “administered” and “highly centralized” may be explained by the fact that obsidian goods were the main by-product of the redistributive circuit during the Classic period (Spence, 1987). The trading routes from Teotihuacan may have established an alliance with the Zapotec, an elevated military society from Monte Alban in Oaxaca. Including the Maya from Tikal in the Jungles of Peten in Guatemala 1,280 kilometers away because of the small amounts of green obsidian that reached Tikal which may have been traded with upper class elite groups.