More than 40 years ago during one of our first visits to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, while browsing through a small souvenir shop, we noticed a handful of small black objects high on a back corner shelf. They were covered with dust and obviously hadn’t been touched for years. We asked the owner of the tienda what they were and he indicated that they were obsidian artifacts; insinuating that they were very old and that obsidian was quite rare and virtually approaching extinction. Since this was the first time we had ever seen obsidian and being quite naïve, we thought they might be a good investment as well as nice conversation pieces, so we bought all he had; probably at his asking price!
Before we learn about obsidian, we ask exactly what are artifacts? Archaeologists define artifacts as objects such as pottery, jewelry, weapons, projectile points, tools, ritual items, etc. that were made or modified by humans of prior cultures. In our minds, that meant that the small figurines that we bought were hundreds, if not thousands of years old and made of a very rare and unusual glimmering black glass-like material. Wow, what a find!
Okay, let’s determine what obsidian is and how it’s formed. On the other hand, let’s first define what it’s not; it’s not a mineral because all minerals are crystalline and obsidian is not crystalline! Obsidian is sometimes classified as a mineraloid, however its composition is too complex to be a single mineral. Obsidian is actually a naturally occurring translucent glass formed as rapidly cooled rhyolite lava is extruded from an active volcano. The flowing lava is usually quenched in the presence of water, causing it to freeze so fast that the time required for crystal growth is lacking. These obsidian flows consist of glass usually containing more than 70% silicon dioxide. Very seldom is the obsidian colorless; most often it’s very dark or black due to impurities such as magnetite and hematite, both being iron oxide variations. Other impurities such as magnesium and titanium oxides may give it colors ranging from brown to green, while very fine gas bubbles or other inclusions create a myriad of beautiful colors and sheens.
Next, where do we find obsidian? Obsidian is located in a number of regions throughout the world; basically anywhere there is a volcano in the vicinity of water. In Mexico, the Trans Mexican Volcanic Belt extends from Puerto Vallarta on Banderas Bay in the state of Jalisco all the way across the country to the Gulf of Mexico. Deposits of obsidian are present throughout this entire region with some of the most significant being in the state of Jalisco, within a hundred miles of Vallarta. A region referred to as the Tequila Valley, located in the Magdalena and La Vega lake basins near the city of Teuchitlan, Jalisco, is the location of the 9,600 feet above sea level Tequila Volcano, which last erupted about 200,000 years ago. Now we know that our friendly tienda owner wasn’t completely wrong when he told us that our prized souvenirs were old; at least the obsidian they were made of was old!
Obsidian, called itztli in the Nahuatl language, has been found at nearly every Mesoamerican archaeological site and can easily be dated and traced back to its place of origin. One such site in Jalisco is located in the Teuchitlan (in the Nahuatl language means the place of the first God) area which was the home of a pre-Hispanic civilization with approximately 25,000 to 50,000 inhabitants more than 2,000 years ago. This mysterious civilization which lasted until about 1,000 years ago was neither Aztec, Toltec, nor Maya. In fact, to this day, no one knows for sure who they were. The economy of this ancient metropolis, referred to as the Guachimontes site, was built on mining, working, and trading in obsidian, one of the most precious materials in early Mesoamerica. Obsidian was revered by ancient cultures and was one of the major barter materials, prized for its ability to be worked to razor-sharp edges for arrows and spears. Due to the low bulk of obsidian in transport and the resulting large quantity of useful items that could be produced from a small amount of material, it required less effort in trade which in turn contributed to obsidian’s widespread use. For many centuries, Teuchitlan was the cultural center of western Mexico with a trade network along a coastal route extending from Guatemala to Arizona.
The ancient Guachimontes site consists of a number of unusual circular shaped pyramids, each with a shaft tomb. Since discovering the site in 1970 and starting formal exploration in 1999, archaeologists excavating the shaft tombs have recovered a tremendous number of obsidian artifacts including tools, weapons, jewelry, ritualistic pieces, figurines, masks, and even mirrors. This newly discovered site is of such significance that on July 12, 2006, it was added to the World Heritage List by the World Heritage Committee of Unesco. It is in a region rich in mineral wealth and obsidian and is well worth the 10 hour day tour from Vallarta. Obviously, the items that we bought 30 years ago were not from this site since excavation had not yet begun at that time!
Obsidian is said to have healing properties, protecting the very sensitive from depression and blocking negativity of any kind. Some also claim that it is the stone of the soft and gentle hearted people of the world. More importantly, it is currently being used in cardiac surgery, as well-crafted obsidian blades have a cutting edge many times sharper than high-quality steel surgical scalpels, with the edge of the blade being only about 3 nanometers wide. Fabrication of these instruments is possible due to the fact that obsidian has no crystalline structure and can therefore be honed down to its molecular size.
Today, you can find beautiful, highly polished copies of the ancient masks, ritual items, animal figurines, jewelry, etc. in every dark color imaginable and in just about every store in Vallarta. They make wonderful gifts and display pieces as reminders of your visit to PV; just don’t represent them as being rare Mexican artifacts! Perhaps we didn’t obtain the last of the obsidian artifacts 40 years ago, but at $3.00 each, one could say that we got what we paid for!